In the chest of drawers where I keep small family heirlooms is a white rectangular box that contains the lapel pin my great-grandfather wore at meetings of his parish’s Sodality of St. Aloysius. Dangling from a green ribbon, framed in a tin disk, is a small black-and-white engraving of the saint, clutching a largish crucifix to his chest. It is the standard representation of St. Aloysius Gonzaga I have seen all my life—cloying, mawkish, insufferable. Hadn’t the artist ever seen a real-life teenage boy?
Devotion to St. Aloysius reached its zenith in the nineteenth century when it was fashionable to take a sentimental view of saints who had died young. Collections of saints’ lives from this period emphasized Aloysius’ intense piety, his self-mortifications, his dread of anything pleasurable. I don’t doubt the good intentions of the authors, but such descriptions of Aloysius’ character, like the standard depiction of him, are a gross distortion of the real man. Thanks to this misrepresentation of St. Aloysius, devotion to him has virtually died out in the Church today. And that is a shame. Aloysius Gonzaga wanted to be holy, but initially hadn’t the first idea how to become so. He loved God fervently, but for the longest time he didn’t care much for most people. Saintliness did not come easily to Aloysius, and in that respect he was very much as we are now—striving to be good, hoping someday to be holy, and worried that we aren’t making much progress.
I first encountered the real Aloysius Gonzaga a few years back when I was doing research in the library of the Maryknoll order of priests in Westchester County, New York. One day in the stacks I came upon a biography of St. Aloysius written by C.C. Martindale, S.J., and published in 1927. On impulse I flipped the book; the first sentence I read described St. Aloysius as “a hard man; uncompromising; going through life with his teeth clenched.” I was at a loss. Father Martindale was not talking about the doe-eyed boy of the holy cards. I put off my research for the day and took the book home.
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The young man Father Martindale described was devout but never insufferably pious. He was chaste but not priggish. He knew his faults and believed he could master them by following an excessively strict routine of prayer and penance. When Aloysius joined the Jesuits it fell to his spiritual director, the great St. Robert Bellarmine, to tone down the boy’s boot camp approach to the religious life and teach him the value of the gentler virtues, such as patience, humility, obedience, and compassion.
The Gonzagas were one of the great families of Renaissance Italy—rich, proud, influential, and often caught up in bloody feuds with one or another of the other famous Renaissance clans. During Aloysius’ lifetime his uncle and two of his brothers would be murdered in these vendettas, and his own mother, Marta, was wounded almost to death by a knife-wielding assassin. True to the Gonzaga type, Aloysius grew up headstrong, inflexible, and combative. But unlike his father, Ferrante, who looked to foreign wars as an outlet for his aggression, Aloysius resolved to conquer himself. He promised Our Lady to do all he could to keep himself free from vice, and as tends to happen among intense adolescents, he took his resolution to an extreme.
Culling bits and pieces from stories he had heard about ascetic saints, Aloysius cobbled together for himself a harsh program of religious exercises. He beat himself with a leather dog leash. He rose at midnight to pray on the bare, cold stone floor of his room. Poor St. Robert would contend with this relentless streak years later when Aloysius entered the Jesuit novitiate.
By 1583 Aloysius was convinced he had a religious vocation; he asked his mother to break the news to Ferrante. When Marta told her husband that his heir wanted to become a Jesuit, the old soldier exploded in rage. He turned on Marta, saying she had coerced the boy to enter the religious life so her favorite son, Aloysius’ younger brother Rodolfo, could inherit. He accused Aloysius’ confessor of abusing his authority by filling a 15-year-old boy’s head with pious nonsense. Turning on his son, Ferrante threatened to beat sense into him. But even in the face of such a squall, Aloysius would not back down; the family squabble ended in a stand-off between father and son that lasted for two years. Finally, when Aloysius was 17, Ferrante indulged in one last magnificent tantrum, then relented and gave his consent. Aloysius was free to join the Society of Jesus.
On advice from Claudio Acquaviva, the General of the Jesuits, Ferrante arranged for his son to begin his novitiate at Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale in Rome where Bellarmine was appointed the boy’s spiritual director. In their first meeting, Aloysius described his rigorous approach to the religious life. Bellarmine listened patiently, then he ordered Aloysius to give up his extreme mortifications, stop spending hours in private prayer, and restrict himself to the self-discipline and schedule of prayer appointed by the Jesuit rule. As the man responsible for bringing Aloysius to a mature spirituality, Bellarmine had to be strict. Privately, however, he recognized the beginnings of holiness in this young recruit. In his pride, Aloysius chafed under Bellarmine’s direction, but eventually he conceded that St. Robert was only doing him good. “I am a piece of twisted iron,” Aloysius wrote to his brother. “I entered the religious life to get twisted straight.”
If Aloysius had expected his life as a novice to be easy and blissful, he was soon disappointed. Every afternoon he and a fellow novice were sent to work either at a prison or a hospital. Aloysius especially hated the hospital work. He was squeamish, and sixteenth-century hospitals were anything but tidy and antiseptic. He had to force himself to clean repulsive sores, and change fouled sheets and bloody bandages. To overcome his natural feelings of revulsion, he drew upon those reserves of ferocious will power that had enabled him to face down his own father.
In January 1591 an epidemic struck Rome and the surrounding countryside. Overnight the city’s hospitals were flooded with the sick and the dying. In the crisis Aloysius found that where once the sick had disgusted him, now he felt only compassion. He went into the streets of Rome and carried the ill and the dying to the hospital on his back. He undressed them, washed them, put fresh clothes on them, found them a bed or at least a pallet, and fed them. One Jesuit novice, a young man named Tiberio Bondi, testified later that after working with Aloysius he felt ashamed for holding back from the sick when his friend was giving his all. The years of low-key direction from St. Robert Bellarmine, the desire at last to cooperate with God’s grace, had wrought a great change in Aloysius: he no longer acted out of stubborn pride, now his actions were motivated by love.
On March 3, 1591, Aloysius was diagnosed as suffering from the plague. No medical treatment could cure him. He lingered for three months, dying on June 21, 1591. Aloysius Gonzaga was 23 years old.
St. Aloysius’ response to the epidemic is the finest period of his life. In the sick, the helpless, the dying, he saw the crucified Christ. The man of the iron will who thought he could take Heaven by sheer determination surrendered at last to divine grace.
There is a sense, even today, that saints are saintly from the moment of their conception, that for them holiness is natural and practicing the virtues is easy. It isn’t true, of course. All the saints struggled with the same temptations, doubts, and distractions that afflict all of us. Think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who admitted that for many years she could not feel the presence of God, and that this loss had shaken her faith. What is important to remember in Mother Teresa’s case is her faith was shaken, not shattered; she went on loving God and serving the poorest of the poor. If anything, understanding that saints had flaws but persevered in faith and charity nonetheless makes them more approachable. That is why I would like to see a revival of devotion to St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the bull-headed, imperfect, but ultimately lovable young Jesuit who learned to love God well and also to love suffering humanity.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Vocation of St. Aloysius” painted by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), ca. 1650.