Before you read, think about mercy and the margins:
Today I would like to present to you the figure of a holy Doctor of the Church to whom we are deeply indebted because he was an outstanding moral theologian and a teacher of spiritual life for all, especially simple people. He is the author of the words and music of one of the most popular Christmas carols in Italy and not only Italy: Tu scendi dalle stelle [You come down from the stars].
Belonging to a rich noble family of Naples, Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori [known in English as Alphonsus Liguori] was born in 1696. Endowed with outstanding intellectual qualities, when he was only 16 years old he obtained a degree in civil and canon law. He was the most brilliant lawyer in the tribunal of Naples: for eight years he won all the cases he defended. However, in his soul thirsting for God and desirous of perfection, the Lord led Alphonsus to understand that he was calling him to a different vocation. In fact, in 1723, indignant at the corruption and injustice that was ruining the legal milieu, he abandoned his profession — and with it riches and success — and decided to become a priest despite the opposition of his father.
He had excellent teachers who introduced him to the study of Sacred Scripture, of the Church history and of mysticism. He acquired a vast theological culture which he put to good use when, after a few years, he embarked on his work as a writer.
He was ordained a priest in 1726 and, for the exercise of his ministry entered the diocesan Congregation of Apostolic Missions. Alphonsus began an activity of evangelization and catechesis among the humblest classes of Neapolitan society, to whom he liked preaching, and whom he instructed in the basic truths of the faith. Many of these people, poor and modest, to whom he addressed himself, were very often prone to vice and involved in crime. He patiently taught them to pray, encouraging them to improve their way of life.
Alphonsus obtained excellent results: in the most wretched districts of the city there were an increasing number of groups that would meet in the evenings in private houses and workshops to pray and meditate on the word of God, under the guidance of several catechists trained by Alphonsus and by other priests, who regularly visited these groups of the faithful. When at the wish of the Archbishop of Naples, these meetings were held in the chapels of the city, they came to be known as “evening chapels”. They were a true and proper source of moral education, of social improvement and of reciprocal help among the poor: thefts, duels, prostitution ended by almost disappearing.
Even though the social and religious context of the time of St Alphonsus was very different from our own, the “evening chapels” appear as a model of missionary action from which we may draw inspiration today too, for a “new evangelization”, particularly of the poorest people, and for building a more just, fraternal and supportive coexistence. Priests were entrusted with a task of spiritual ministry, while well-trained lay people could be effective Christian animators, an authentic Gospel leaven in the midst of society.
St Alphonsus Maria Liguori is an example of a zealous Pastor who conquered souls by preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments combined with behaviour impressed with gentle and merciful goodness that was born from his intense relationship with God, who is infinite Goodness. He had a realistically optimistic vision of the resources of good that the Lord gives to every person and gave importance to the affections and sentiments of the heart, as well as to the mind, to be able to love God and neighbour.
To conclude, I would like to recall that our Saint, like St Francis de Sales — of whom I spoke a few weeks ago — insists that holiness is accessible to every Christian: “the religious as a religious; the secular as a secular; the priest as a priest; the married as married; the man of business as a man of business; the soldier as a soldier; and so of every other state of life” (Practica di amare Gesù Cristo. Opere ascetiche [The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ] Ascetic Works 1, Rome 1933, p. 79).
Let us thank the Lord who, with his Providence inspired saints and doctors in different times and places, who speak the same language to invite us to grow in faith and to live with love and with joy our being Christians in the simple everyday actions, to walk on the path of holiness, on the path towards God and towards true joy. Thank you.
Dear friends, this is the main question: what is really necessary in my life? I answer with St Alphonsus: “Health and all the graces that we need” (ibid.). He means of course not only the health of the body, but first of all that of the soul, which Jesus gives us. More than anything else we need his liberating presence which makes us truly fully human and hence fills our existence with joy. And it is only through prayer that we can receive him and his grace, which, by enlightening us in every situation, helps us to discern true good and by strengthening us also makes our will effective, that is, renders it capable of doing what we know is good. We often recognize what is good but are unable to do it. With prayer we succeed in doing it. The disciple of the Lord knows he is always exposed to temptation and does not fail to ask God’s help in prayer in order to resist it.
St Alphonsus very interestingly cites the example of St Philip Neri who “the very moment when he awoke in the morning, said to God: ‘Lord, keep Thy hands over Philip this day; for if not, Philip will betray Thee’” (III, 3). What a great realist! He asks God to keep his hands upon him. We too, aware of our weakness, must humbly seek God’s help, relying on his boundless mercy. St Alphonsus says in another passage: “We are so poor that we have nothing; but if we pray we are no longer poor. If we are poor, God is rich” (II, 4). And, following in St Augustine’s wake, he invites all Christians not to be afraid to obtain from God, through prayer, the power they do not possess that is necessary in order to do good, in the certainty that the Lord will not refuse his help to whoever prays to him with humility (cf. III, 3).
Dear friends, St Alphonsus reminds us that the relationship with God is essential in our life. Without the relationship with God, the fundamental relationship is absent. The relationship with God is brought into being in conversation with God, in daily personal prayer and with participation in the sacraments. This relationship is thus able to grow within us, as can the divine presence that directs us on our way, illuminates it and makes it safe and peaceful even amidst difficulties and perils. Many thanks.
I really hate to be this directive, but I would like to re-read these excerpts, go to the links to the entire audiences, and consider them carefully.
One of my main issues with the current paradigm of conversation about evangelization and mercy are the unstated assumptions that up until very recently, for most of its history, the Church has really not been about mercy, charity and love, but go us, we’re all about that now. You see this manifested in a couple of ways:
- The dearth, in so much of public Catholic discourse – to the way that Catholics – saints, theologians, missionaries, pastoral workers, writers, artists, the Church has a whole – have lived out the Gospel in the complexities of the past. Times are different, challenges are new, but the point of Incarnation/Redemption/Church is that we don’t start from scratch at every turn. We learn from mistakes, we understand when older modes of expression perhaps fall short of expressing the fullness of the Gospel in a contemporary context, we understand the dynamic, continual development of our understanding of all of this (this saint’s writings, deeply immersed in controversial moral questions and disputes of the day, show this so clearly) but we come at all of that in true humility, not the arrogance of presentism which ignores the depth and breadth of tradition and assumes that it is of no use.
- And even more directly, the assumption that much of the Church’s teachings, particularly its fundamental human anthropology, stand counter to mercy and charity. Spin that out to its logical conclusion, honestly, as see where you wind up in relation to thinking about revelation, ecclesiology and, well, the mercy and trustworthiness of God.