A priggish saint

Sometimes I wonder about some of the saints. Today’s saint, the Jesuit Aloysius Gonzaga, who died at the age of twenty-two in 1591. Though I prayed at his tomb in Rome earlier this year, I have some reservations about his life.

I’m not the only one. Even his spiritual director, St. Robert Bellarmine, thought he was too extreme an example to follow. He is variously described as being priggish, scrupulous, almost masochistic in his mortifications of the body, afraid of women, and obsessed with the hope of an early death – though he seemed to grow out of the last in the last months of his short life and the Jesuits seem to have moderated his ascetic practices. A letter to his mother in the Benedictine Daily Prayer seems morbid in his desire to “escape” earthly existence.

But one writer suggests that this may be a reaction to his upbringing in great wealth. The oldest son of the Marquis of Castigilione, he grew up among guns and military parades. He even spent time at the Medici court in Florence. His father tried to prevent him from entering the Jesuits, giving him a tour of Europe. But he persisted in his dream.

Faced with exorbitant wealth, he wanted to turn away from this world. He could have lived in splendor and comfort, but it offered him no satisfaction.

In today’s first reading St. Paul boasts of his life – not of comfort but of suffering. The closing line (2 Corinthians 11:30)  might also be referred to St. Aloysius:

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

Aloysius took to heart today’s Gospel, Matthew 6: 20-21

…store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

And where was his heart? In heaven, but also with the suffering.

Shortly before he died he worked in a Jesuit-founded hospital with plague victims. He caught the plague, recuperated, but then after a relapse died.

Today’s prayer in Spanish speaks to me,

…though we may have failed to follow Aloysius in innocence, may we follow him in charity.

This appeals to me a bit more than the English version

though we have failed to follow him in innocence, may we imitate him in penitence

Though we need to be penitent, charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4: 8). Perhaps that’s what Aloysius learned in the last months of his short life. He put his heart with the suffering – and so opened himself to heaven.



2 responses to “A priggish saint

  1. There’s a nice article on St. Aloysius by Fr. James Martin, SJ, on America magazine’s blog: http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/feast-st-aloysius-gonzaga

  2. Thank you for this honest response to St. Aloysius’s extremes. Yep, he’s on my list of “You’ve GOT to be kidding me” saints. But you went the extra mile to garner some more understanding and context of his life. Very helpful when pondering scrupulosity and fear of human interactions, among other things.

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