by Fr. Ben Nebres, SJ | Photos courtesy of Fr. Jose Quilongquilong, SJ
Aloysius, Luigi to his family, was the eldest son of a wealthy and illustrious noble family, the Gonzagas of Northern Italy. He was destined to follow his father as Marquis of Castiglione. At the age of four, his father prepared him for a military career by giving him a set of miniature guns and bringing him along on expeditions. At age five, Aloysius was sent to a military camp to get his training. His father was pleased to see his son marching around camp at the head of a platoon of soldiers. But Aloysius also picked up the rough language of the soldiers which horrified his mother.
But then he read about Jesuit missionaries and he decided that he wanted to be a missionary. He had a Jesuit confessor and decided to join the Jesuits. His mother agreed, but his father did everything to prevent him. However, Aloysius prevailed. He gave up his rights of inheritance and was accepted into the Society of Jesus in 1585. He followed Jesuit formation and was already studying theology and preparing for ordination in 1588.
“And then the pandemic struck.
Not Covid 19, but the 1590 plague that struck Rome. The plague ravaged thousands of people, bringing horrible fevers that induced deliriums,” killing, some say, 60 thousand. “Aloysius walked the streets of Rome, begging for alms on behalf of plague victims. He carried dying, abandoned persons into a hospital founded by the Jesuits.”
“When many younger Jesuits became infected with the plague, Aloysius’ superiors prohibited him from continuing. But Aloysius was stubborn and persistent – and so finally superiors relented and allowed him to work in a hospital not admitting infected patients. Aloysius tended to patients, washing and feeding them.
One day he lifted a man out of his bed and cared for him, then put him back to his hospital bed. Unfortunately, the man was infected with the plague and Aloysius fell ill too. For three months he struggled with the disease, but then passed away on June 21, the Feast of Corpus Christi, a few days before his 23rd birthday.” (1)
The statues of Aloysius that most of us know have him with his left hand across his chest and his right hand holding a crucifix – a very devout saint, patron of youth. But there are two statues that show him as very much a saint for our time – a courageous frontliner in the time of the plague who gave his life caring for plague victims.
The first one I saw is at St. Louis University in Baguio. Aloysius is the Latinized version of Luigi, Aloysius’ actual name, Louis in English. He is the patron saint of St. Louis University. Fr. Von Parijs, the President of St. Louis University, who commissioned the statue told me that he told the sculptor in Baguio to capture Aloysius “as a nobleman who gave his life caring for plague victims.” The sculptor shows him kneeling, like our statue of St. Ignatius offering his sword, but instead of a sword, he carries the body of an old man, a plague victim.
The other one is at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington State. There Aloysius is standing and is carrying the old man with the plague.
An alumna of Gonzaga University writes: “A statue of Aloysius on the edge of the Gonzaga University campus captures my heart these pandemic-weary days. Gazing at this image, I weep. Aloysius’ strong hands carry a thin, weary, dying man. Their garments flow together, indistinguishable, as though the two men are one. Aloysius looks forward, focused and strong.”
“In his face, I see legions of undeclared saints: caregivers and families who lost their lives during COVID-19. People who voluntarily enter the pandemic battle, working until exhaustion overtakes them. Nurses and doctors and loved ones and emergency workers carry bodies and burdens.” (1)
This year 2021 we celebrate 500 years since the conversion of St. Ignatius. This memory of St. Aloysius Gonzaga reminds us that feeding the hungry and caring for the sick was a central ministry for St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits. We recall in the movie “Ignacio” how Ignatius went around begging bread for the sick and caring for them in the hospitals. The early Jesuits saw themselves as the Compania de Jesus, imitating Jesus and the apostles, who fed the hungry and brought healing to the sick.
Fr. John O’Malley is his book “The First Jesuits” writes “Wherever the Jesuits went, they eventually found their way to the hospitals. They washed and fed the patients and otherwise tried to make them physically comfortable. They preached to them and, if they were priests, heard the patients’ confessions. This became almost routine for members of a Jesuit community of any size.” (2) When the first Jesuits arrived in Rome in 1537, people were starving from a famine and we are told that our first fathers spent their days begging for food and bringing them to the hungry. Aloysius’ ministry to the sick in the hospitals was part of the usual Jesuit ministry of his time. Our Province priority of “feeding the hungry” thus brings us back to our origins.
Pope Francis reminds us in his book “Let us Dream”: “The basic rule of a crisis is that you don’t come out the same. If you get through it, you come out better or worse, but never the same.” And where do we go so we may find the resources to come out better? He says: “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is. I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery, but in these last seven years as Pope, it has really hit home. You have to make for the margins to find a new future. When God wanted to regenerate creation, He chose to go to the margins – to places of sin and misery, of exclusion and suffering, of illness and solitude – because they were also places full of possibility: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more . (Romans 5:20)”
St. Ignatius and St. Aloysius went to the edges of existence, to the hungry and the sick, the most needy of their time, because that is what Jesus did when he came to renew and save the world. Pope Francis tells us that if we are to help our society come out better from this crisis, we must go to the margins, to the hungry, the sick and the needy of our time. It is from there that we will work with God to renew our country and our time.
In this mission we can look to St. Aloysius as our patron and as a saint for our frontliners who risk their lives to care for the sick, a saint for those who feed the hungry and care for the jobless, a saint who invites us to go down with love and courage to care for those most in need and thus labor to build a more caring and better world. NOTES:
Catherine Johnston, “ Gonzaga’s patron saint died yong as he cared for pandemic victims”, The Spokesman Review, April 2, 2021
John O’Malley, “The First Jesuits”, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 171.