Alphonsus Maria de Liguori was born in 1696 near Naples, Italy, the son of a captain in the Royal Navy and a very devoted mother from a noble family in the city. His parents provided him with an exceptional education in philosophy, literature, and the arts. He was 16 when he was awarded doctorates of civil and canon law. When he was 18, like many nobles, he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy with whom he cared for the sick at the hospital for “incurables,” washing afflicted bodies, feeding the helpless, changing bedclothes and devoting himself to works of mercy and compassion.
Following his father’s will he became a lawyer and before he was 20, he was regarded as one of the most gifted lawyers working in the kingdom of Naples. This work, however, despite its success, did not satisfy him at the deepest levels of his heart and soul. After losing what was the most important court case he had ever taken on, Alphonsus left the legal profession to enter the priesthood, much to the disappointment of his father. He was ordained in 1726.
Christ’s claim on the heart of Alphonsus was absolute and irresistible. As a young priest he worked himself to the point of exhaustion. Caring for the poor, wherever his journey took him, was the hallmark of his calling.
In 1732, Alphonsus realized he could no longer be comfortable in his role of popular preacher living apart from the poor. So, leaving his family and his dearest friends, he set out to dedicate himself completely to the service of the poor and most abandoned. He sought others who were called as he was, and adopted a style of ministry to “mission among the people” — and so began the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists.
During a mission, a band of Redemptorist priests and brothers would come to an area to preach and conduct religious activities. They saturated the people with the sense of God. They lived in community in houses in the countryside so that the mission revivals could be repeated regularly, which gave the poor the assurance they would not be abandoned by Alphonsus and his brothers.
REACHING THE PEOPLE
St. Alphonsus was a brilliant, articulate, pragmatic preacher. He knew how to reach ordinary people who had limited education and very real needs. They followed this gifted preacher from church to church and town to town to hear him preach the message of hope in Christ for all people.
Three great images, basic to the Christian faith, formed the heart of Alphonsus’ preaching and teaching — Jesus an infant in the crib, Jesus crucified on the Cross, and Jesus vibrantly alive and filled with love for all in the Eucharist. To this he added the image of Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer. When other theologians were opposed to devotion to Mary, Alphonsus invoked her: “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.”
Alphonsus appreciated how the poor and working class people expressed their realities through song. A gifted musician and composer, he wrote many popular hymns and taught them to the people in parish missions. His compositions continue to be sung around the world and have never lost their charm and popularity. Redemptorists today still follow the cue of their founder. Their message, announcing the abundance of God’s love, is enriched by the spiritual songs they sing in their community and with the people of God. (Click on the links in the box to the right to listen to samples of some of Alphonsus’ music.)
Alphonsus wrote for the people. Many turned to his spiritual writing, for he wrote in a way that was understandable to anyone with a basic education. On winter evenings in his time, the people in the villages often gathered around a fire in someone’s home. Someone read stories about the Gospels or the lives of the saints, things that nourished their faith and helped them to pray. Alphonsus’ works were frequent choices.
THE ARTIST AND THINKER
Alphonsus’ art was influenced by what he saw around him. When he was 23, he painted his own “Christ on the Cross.” His painting depicted the death of Love itself. Around that same time he also painted a picture of the Madonna as a woman of peaceful, gentle features — a woman who won his heart. Surrounded by 12 stars she is the portrait of divine beauty in human form. His art, like his music, was a way to lead the men and women of his day, rich and poor, to know the surpassing riches of the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary.
In his writings for other religious, Alphonsus emphasized practical approaches to reach those who were neglected or alienated from the Church. On a scientific level, he gave new life and direction to moral theology. He found many prominent moral theologians of his time either too rigid or too lax. It was Alphonsus who preached the redeeming love of God.
He believed that law and the threat of punishment were not foremost in God’s plan. In God the Creator, love and freedom coincide. The individual was called to love God out of an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what God had done for him in Christ. It was not fear but love that was to characterize the Christian way of life. Ultimately, he wrote his most influential work, Moral Theology, to correct what he saw as errors that could hurt people struggling to live good and moral lives.
In the course of his long life, Alphonsus authored more than 100 books, including his most beloved: Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, and The Glories of Mary.
Alphonsus would eventually be given the title “Doctor of Prayer” by the Catholic Church. His book, Prayer, the Great Means of Salvation, sets out his teaching on the subject.
“Having observed,” Alphonsus writes, “that so many passages of both the Old and New Testaments assert the absolute necessity of prayer, I have made it a rule to introduce into all our missions … a sermon on prayer; and I say, and repeat, and will keep on saying as long as I live, that our whole salvation depends on prayer … For if you pray, your salvation will be secure.”
SON OF MARY
Like many of his countrymen, Alphonsus was a man of passion and volatility. He found his balance and security in his devotion to the Blessed Mother. His appeals to Mary were impassioned, like those of a distressed child calling for his or her mother.
He was confident Mary would hear his prayers, and she was a great spiritual wellspring of his life. He never wrote a single letter — and his personal correspondence ran into the tens of thousands — without beginning or ending it with the words, “Long live Jesus and Mary.” He strongly encouraged his fellow Redemptorists and others to pray the rosary daily, and to visit Marian shrines to foster their love for the mother of God. For him she was a constant helper and guide in all matters concerning his congregation.
Although he was sickly for much of his life, Alphonsus’ final years were marked by very serious and debilitating physical ailments, especially arthritis, which caused him great pain and confined him to a wheelchair.
He also was plagued with spiritual afflictions, scrupulously fearing he hadn’t done enough to serve the God he loved so much. To help him through these times, his confreres gathered with him to pray. They always included the Litany of Our Lady, usually followed by the rosary. They read to him from his own writings about the glory of Mary and how, as heaven’s queen, she welcomed all her true and faithful servants at the hour of their death.
Early in the evening on July 31, 1787, Alphonsus made one final request. “Give me my lady,” he whispered. They placed a picture of Mary in his hands. He spent the night in prayer with the Blessed Mother. The next day at the stroke of the noon Angelus, Alphonsus died at the age of 91.
St. Alphonsus was canonized in 1839 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1871. He was recognized as a patron of confessors and moral theologians in 1950. He is the only moral theologian whose opinion the Roman Catholic Church has said we can follow on moral issues.
Pope John Paul II described Alphonsus as “a close friend of the people … a missionary who went in search of the most abandoned souls … a founder who wanted a group which would make a radical option in favor of the lowly … a Bishop whose house was open to all … a writer who focused on what would be of benefit to people.”