Alphonsus Marie Liguori
(Bishop, founder of the Redemptorist Congregation, moral theologian, mystic and Doctor of the Church)
The life of Alphonsus Marie Liguori was fraught with strife and illness, but the saint nonetheless made prodigious accomplishments. He was born Alphonsus Marie Anthony John Cosmas Damian Michael Gaspard de’ Liguori on September 27, 1696, at Marianella near Naples, to a somewhat impoverished noble family. His father, Don Joseph de Liguori, was a naval officer and captain of the galleys. His mother was of Spanish descent.
Alphonsus was a precocious child and learned quickly in his home tutoring. He was a skilled musician. At age 16, he took his doctor of laws degree even though the law required an age of 20. By age 19 he was practicing law in court and by age 27 was one of the leading lawyers in Naples. He enjoyed worldly pursuits, but retained his innocence. In 1723, his legal career came to a crashing halt. He served as counsel in an important lawsuit involving the grand duke of Tuscany and prepared his case. After making his opening statement in court, the opposition informed him that he had overlooked a crucial document that undermined his entire case.
Alphonsus was forced to agree. Devastated and humiliated, he refused to eat for three days and vowed never to return to court. He spent days in prayer seeking God’s will. On a charitable visit to a hospital, he had a mystical experience in which he found himself surrounded by light, and an interior voice said, “Leave the world and give thyself to Me.” This occurred twice. Alphonsus went to the church of the Redemption of Captives, where he laid his sword before a statue of Mary and vowed to offer himself as a novice to the Fathers of the Oratory. His father was not pleased, but consented, provided Alphonsus lived at home.
On October 23, 1723, Alphonsus joined the Oratorians. He received his tonsure the following year, and joined the Neapolitan Propaganda, an association of missionary secular priests. For six years he traveled in and around Naples, preaching, and enrolled thousands in a sort of confraternity called the Association of the Chapels. In 1729, Alphonsus left home and went to live with Matthew Ripa, the “Apostle of China,” who had founded a missionary college in Naples. There he met Father Thomas Falcoia of the Congregation of the Pious Workers. The two became close friends despite a 33-year difference in their ages. Falcoia had a vision to found a new order of men and women dedicated to the imitation of Christ’s virtues. Meanwhile, Sister Maria Celeste, a nun at the convent of Scala, which Falcoia had helped to refound, was having visions of a new order, complete with a Rule.
Thus in 1732 was born the new order, the Congregation of the Most Holy Savior (17 years later “Savior” was replaced with “Redeemer”). In accordance with another of Sister Maria’s visions, Alphonsus became its director. In 1743 he was formally elected superior general. Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740–58) approved the Rule and Institute of men in 1749, and the Rule and Institute of women in 1750. The new order suffered from dissension within the ranks, and political opposition from without. Alphonsus’s health suffered, but he maintained his duties.
He continued his missionary work until 1752. Even though the order had papal approval, it did not have state approval there was a law forbidding new religious orders and Alphonsus spent the rest of his life in a futile effort to gain state approval. In 1762, King Charles of Naples forced Alphonsus to accept the bishopric of St. Agatha of Goths against his wishes. The tiny diocese near Naples had a lax clergy and largely uninstructed people. There Alphonsus labored until 1775. Not everyone was happy with his reforms, and he was repeatedly threatened with assassination. He often was seriously illeight times in his life he was given last rites.
From May 1768 to June 1769, he suffered a terrible attack of rheumatic fever that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. His neck was permanently bent, at first so badly that his head rested on his chest. He had to drink from a tube at meals and required assistance at mass to drink from the chalice. After he was permitted to resign in 1775, Alphonsus returned to his order’s monastery at Nocera di Pagani, hoping for a speedy death. He would live 12 more years. In 1780, a crisis arose that split the order. The Rule was drastically altered and presented to the deaf and nearly blind saint for signing to present for royal approval. Unsuspecting, Alphonsus did so.
The order seemed destroyed. In 1781 the Papal States assumed control of the order and appointed a new superior general. Alphonsus was cut out of his own order. This state of affairs remained until after the saint’s death. In 1793, the Neapolitan government recognized the original Rule, and the order was reunited under one head. During the last three years of his life, Alphonsus weathered a dark night of the soul, in which he was besieged by temptations, dreadful apparitions and despair. Nonetheless, he died peacefully on August 1, 1787, at Nocera di Pagani near Naples, just as the midday Angelus was ringing. He was buried there and a shrine was erected. Another shrine was built at St. Agatha of the Goths.
Though gifted with words as a lawyer, Alphonsus did not become a writer until late in life. His first work was a small volume, Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, published at age 49. Annotations to Busenbaum, a work on moral theology, appeared in 1748. His great work, Moral Theology, appeared in two volumes in 1753 and 1755. He also published numerous treatises, and compiled stories of the early martyrs in Victories of the Martyrs. His writings and sermons remain popular today. Altogether, he wrote 110 books and pamphlets.
Alphonsus was a visionary and mystic, and miracles were attested to him. There are numerous cases of bilocation, in which he simultaneously heard confessions and in a distant location preached sermons. The most significant bilocation took place in 1774. After saying mass in Arienzo, he sank into a chair and remained unmoved until the next day. During that time, he had been at the bedside of the dying pope Clement XIV (r. 1769–74) in Rome. Alphonsus also was seen to levitate on numerous occasions, even while preaching.
In 1745 he was preaching in Foggia at a church where 14 years earlier he had beheld a vision of Mary. During his sermon a ray of light from a picture of Mary struck him, and he fell into an ecstasy and was raised several inches off the floor. Alphonsus knew people’s secret and hidden thoughts, and knew of events in distant locations. He controlled nature and the elements. In 1779 Mount Vesuvius was spewing flames and people feared an eruption. Alphonsus looked at the mountain, uttered the name “Jesus” and made the sign of the cross. According to witnesses, the flames disappeared. He was buried wearing his scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Forty years later, he was exhumed. His body and clothing had turned to dust, but the scapular was incorrupt. In art he is shown as a young priest, or as an older man bent double with rheumatism.