June 20, 2019 — Patron of youth who died taking care of the plague-stricken, Saint Aloysius of Gonzaga is celebrated on June 21. His life depicts that of a rebellious young man who, in spite of everything, renounced a rich court life to travel to the outskirts and serve the marginalized people of his time.
From a Powerful Heir to a Humble Jesuit
Born on March 9, 1568 in Italy, Louis’ life already seemed to be mapped out for him as the son and heir of Ferdinand the Ist of Gonzaga, Lord (then marquis) of Castiglione. Indeed, he was schooled to become a lord himself. Accompanying his father to military exercises at the young age of 5, he was then a page at the age of 8 in Florence before being sent to the Duke of Mantua to perfect his understanding as future heir. However, despite the splendor of a lord’s life, or perhaps because of all the political intrigue and violence, young Louis was uncomfortable and began to discern a possible religious life.
Already, he was imposing penances upon himself (fasts, refusing to have a fire in his room, praying on a stone floor) to prevent the indolence of court life, all of this despite experiencing health issues. Also, at the age of 10, he promised himself not to do anything that would offend God. In addition, he decided never to let himself be seen naked nor to look at women straight in the eyes. One must say that besides learning leadership skills and the arts, his mother Marta Tana de Santena provided him with a religious education. However, as Fr. James Martin, SJ, states, these practices were inspired by the Catholic piety of the time and were not moderated, as they should have been, by the young man’s entourage. Consequently, he had no religious model to follow during his travels.
In 1580, back at his family’s castle, Louis received his first communion from Charles Borromée. He spent his time reading about Jesuit missionaries in India, visiting religious communities and giving catechism lessons to the children of Castiglione. While he was sick, his mother supposedly asked him to soften his penances, to which he replied:
“Better be God’s servant, Madam, than king of the world!”
In 1581, his family went to serve Mary of Austria and Aloysius became the page and friend of young prince Diego Felix, who died shortly afterwards. Drawn to religious life for several years, it was in Spain, having a Jesuit confessor, that Aloysius decided to enter the Society of Jesus. However, his father was opposed to this project, since Aloysius was his eldest and heir whom he had schooled to inherit the family title. Still, the young man needed his father’s permission to pursue his project. Back from Italy, faced with his son’s determination, Ferdinand the Ist of Gonzaga, finally gave him his consent. Aloysius then officially renounced his legacy for the benefit of his brother and became a novice in 1585 in Rome. “I am a piece of twisted iron. I have entered religious life to straighten out,” he is said to have stated, recognizing that he had surpassed his limits during his previous penances. His life as a novice was easier than his life at court since he did not have to oppose his father’s will anymore and he softened his penances to obey his superiors.
Two years later, in 1587, at the age of 19, Aloysius made his first vows. The following year, he received his minor orders and started his theological studies at the Roman College under the spiritual direction of Robert Bellarmin. He left Rome for some time in 1589 for Mantua in order to settle a family dispute, demonstrating his qualities as a negotiator and resided in Milan before being recalled to Rome.
In 1590, it is said that Aloysius had a vision of Archangel Gabriel revealing that he was going to die before the year was up. In fact, the plague ravaged Rome the following year. The Jesuits then opened a hospital for the sick. After having convinced his superiors, Aloysius volunteered there despite, as he confessed to Fr. Bellarmin, his distaste for the odors and appearance of the plague-stricken. He brought the sick to the hospital and prepared them to receive the sacraments. One day, while taking care of a patient in another hospital where the sick were not supposed to be contagious, he himself contracted the plague. After three months of illness, he died on June 21, on the day that was supposedly announced to him.
Already considered a saint right after his death, Aloysius of Gonzaga was beatified in 1605 and canonized in 1726. He is the Patron saint of Catholic youth. In 1991, Pope John Paul II also declared him the Patron saint of persons stricken with HIV/AIDS.
A painting by Goya
Today, Saint Aloysius of Gonzaga’s life can inspire the implementation of the Universal Apostolic Preferences. He reminds us that despite the occupations and rhythm of life of young people, they might wish to connect to their spirituality, as recently shown by the success of the spiritual retreat for young professionals directed by Fr. O’Brien, SJ. The saint’s life also shows that being with marginalized persons is not always easy and requires a conscious and voluntary effort. Finally, one can admire the young man’s determination to enter the Society of Jesus and the fact that he literally renounced glory and riches to follow Christ.
Contrary to other saints such as Jean de Brébeuf, SJ, who were the subject of multiple studies, Aloysius of Gonzaga was never the subject of any hagiography. James Martin, SJ, reviews him in an article in America. Let us hope that this saint and his historical context will be highlighted in other essays of this type.