I first read about Aluigi Gonzaga when I was about 9 years old. Leafing through an old St. Joseph’s Daily Missal that I had found in my grandmother’s cedar chest, I saw page after page of saints’ names and the prayers assigned to various days of the year. When I turned to June 21, I came across an image of a Renaissance prince (wearing a ruffled collar, breeches, and hose) kneeling before a statue of Mary. Although the short bio that preceded the prayers of the Mass assigned for the day didn’t provide much information, something resonated within me. That was the moment when I began a relationship with the young man who is now honored as Saint Aloysius Gonzaga.
Today, when most people hear the name “Gonzaga” they think of the Jesuit University in Spokane, Washington. But, for Reformation-era Europeans, the name of Gonzaga meant something very different. They were distant relatives of the Holy Roman Emperors and counted among the greatest families of Italy, Spain, and all of Europe. The Gonzaga commanded respect. Military leaders, Marquises, Empresses, Queens, and no fewer than 14 bishops and 12 cardinals were counted among the members this great family. Aloysius, who was the eldest son of the Marquis of Castiglione (in Northern Italy) in 1568, received a birthright that would have been practically unrivaled in his day: he was set to inherit both his father’s vast holdings along with the titles, lands, and wealth of two other distant relatives, as well.
There was something special about this bright, talented, and, by all accounts, charming boy. Endowed with his family’s fiery temper, he channeled his energy into his studies and, most especially, into his faith. In time, however, his life began to spiral out of control as he faced a future that was not of his choosing—preparation to serve as the next Marquis of Castiglione and to take his place among the crowned princes of the Holy Roman Empire. People knew who he was and they sought his favor.
While illness took away some of his youthful vitality, it didn’t curb his spirit and, as a teenager, he began to focus on one reality: the God who was calling him to become more than he or his family ever imagined he might become.
All of this led him down a path that forced him to stand up to the conventions and norms of his day. After all, if he insisted on pursuing a religious vocation, he could very easily have taken his place among the prince-bishops and cardinals who were his relatives. But the young man discerned a different path. He wanted to become a member of a relatively new religious family within the Church—the Society of Jesus, which had been founded by Ignatius Loyola only a few generations before. This step, which his father opposed to the point of literally striking out at his son, would mean that he would have to leave behind his titles and inheritance to commit himself to poverty, strict obedience, and celibate chastity. He was willing to risk everything with no security but the promise of grace and the assurance that comes with faith.
He never looked back.
Although there is lots more that could be said, Aloysius never became the great teacher he promised to become and he never realized his dream of becoming a missionary in Asia. In fact, he never made his final vows as a Jesuit, nor was he ordained a priest. Aloysius Gonzaga died in the night between June 20 and 21, 1591, at the age of twenty-four. Many of his fellow Jesuits suspected that he contracted the illness that took his life when he picked up a dying man in the street and carried him to a Roman hospital, disregarding any danger to himself. After months of painful illness, he died surrounded by his brother Jesuits. This young man counted the royalty of Italy and Spain among his childhood companions, received his first Communion from Saint Charles Borromeo, the cardinal-archbishop of Milan, and had Saint Robert Bellarmine—now now honored as a Doctor of the Church—as his spiritual director. But, I believe that if you had asked Aloysius who he was, he would have told you that he was nothing more than a poor son of the Church and of his Holy Father Ignatius, the founder of the Society that Aloysius fought so desperately to join.
Unfortunately, history has not been kind to Aloysius. Once one of the most revered saints of the Church, he has fallen into obscurity in the years since the Second Vatican Council. And yet, he remains among us. His image is still found in countless churches (most often depicted as a young cleric holding a crucifix with lilies [a sign of purity], a crown [representing his abandoned legacy], or even a skull [symbolizing his penitence] lying nearby) and his liturgical memorial is celebrated in churches all over the world on June 21, the anniversary of his death. But, I have to admit that the images and his memorial both inspire and sadden me. While, I am happy to see the man I consider to be both a brother and a friend honored in so many places, remembering how many lives he inspired, I’m also disappointed that the real Aloysius, taken off his pedestal and without his lace surplice, has all but disappeared.
In an essay written in 1991, to honor of the 400th anniversary of Aloysius’ death, the theologian and political activist Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., wrote these words which I believe capture something of the power of Saint Aloysius:
All too easy to make of this youngster, fighting for his soul’s ransom against enormous odds, an icon just short of bizarre, carefully and studiously remote, nose in the air, rapt gaze, crucifix, lilies delicately in hand, cleaving his way to heaven with scant interest or attention to mere earthlings.
He was tougher than his would-be admirers would have him, both tougher and more tender, enormously more complex, his heaven won by way of many a detour—through hell…
Let us not attempt to democratize Aloysius! No leveling this one; elegance to the fingertips, nobility of spirit, a relentless fiery courage, a choice to go it alone. Then the price he paid, declining the myth of the world as to its claim on such as he. Breaking the mythological clutch (a family affair as well).
The price of all this. (The price we [I] renege on).
As though the great things can be cheaply won; and not turn paltry in the winning.
Saint Aloysius recognized that God calls every one of us into a special relationship, entrusting each of us with a unique vocation. To give ourselves wholeheartedly to this vocation is essential. As he reflected, "The pillars of heaven have fallen; who can promise me that I will persevere? The world is now full of iniquity; who shall appease the wrath of the Almighty? Very many priests and religious think but little of their vocation… Such thoughts ought to rouse our lethargy and renew our resolution to do penance and serve God with constancy and sincerity."
And so, as June 21 approaches, I especially remember this young man, the patron saint of youth and of those with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers, whose name I received at my Confirmation and whose image I carry with me on a medal I received from my grandmother and have worn around my neck for nearly 20 years.
These days, I remember the man I have come to consider my friend and my brother and I continue ask God that I can have some hint of his courage and conviction and, more than these, his charity.
I ask that for all of you, as well.
Silas Henderson is a catechist, retreat director, and writer whose reflections and articles have appeared in numerous Catholic publications. He is also the author of From Season to Season: A Book of Saintly Wisdom and Moving Beyond Doubt, as well as the upcoming books Lights for a Waiting World: Celebrating Advent with the Saints (Abbey Press) and With An Undivided Heart: A Life of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. He currently serves as the managing editor of Abbey Press Publications and Deacon Digest Magazine. You can find him at www.fromseason2season.blogspot.comandwww.facebook.com/SilasSHenderson.