Ever since childhood, I’ve been drawn to the saints’s lives. Back in May 1976, for my First Communion, I was given a book titled Our Friends the Saints, a collection of short biographies by Jesuit author Daniel A. Lord. This little book, without exaggeration, got me started on the road to being a Catholic historian. I still dig it out from time to time, but not for nostalgia. It seems to me that we can, and we should, take both consolation and strength from the examples of the saints.
Recently, in light of current events, I’ve felt drawn toward a figure in Father Lord’s book, a sixteenth century Italian Jesuit, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. Like many Catholics lately, I’ve been praying to Aloysius on behalf of both the sick and those ministering to them. At the same time, I’m rereading Brother Silas Henderson’s recent biography, a good example of what modern hagiography should look like.
An Italian nobleman from a distinguished family, Aloysius renounced a prestigious title and no small inheritance to join a recently founded religious order, the Society of Jesus. In 1591, at age twenty-three, while studying for the priesthood in Rome, he died ministering to the city’s sick and dying. Canonized a saint in 1726, Aloysius is the patron saint of those suffering from plagues and epidemics. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, he became a special object of devotion both to those suffering, as well as to those serving them.
Still, Brother Henderson notes, some have found Aloysius less “relevant” than some other canonized figures. Perhaps he was overly pietistic and saccharine. One prominent American theologian considered Aloysius neurotic, masochistic, even misogynistic. What possible relevance could he have for people, particularly young people, today?
Is this fair? Is this accurate?
So what, Brother Henderson asks, is Aloysius’s message for people today? Does he have anything to say to modern spiritual seekers? Yes, he does, Henderson writes:
Aloysius was born with everything but walked away from wealth and prestige to embrace a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience that bespeaks an absolute trust in and abandonment to Divine Providence. It is this trust and abandonment, manifest from his earliest days, which make him a worthy patron and guide of old and young alike.
That same trust and abandonment led Aloysius, as the Jesuits’ Father General Arturo Sosa has recently reflected, to die while “serving people who were not only sick from the plague but also abandoned without hope in the streets of the city and regarded with fear.”
OK, but what about us now, today, stuck at home, waiting for an end to the current pandemic? What can we take from the above?
Well, while we take all sensible precautions, we can also make a choice: to live by fear or by faith. Here, I think, the example and lives of the saints can be an important asset in these uncertain times. If their lives teach us anything, it’s that faith and love are stronger than fear. Now that’s definitely something we can take some consolation and strength from today.
Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, pray for us!