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.