Today is the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, SJ. The following post about the saint was adapted from an article by Fr. Peter Schineller, SJ, archivist of the New York Province.
Throughout human history, plagues and sicknesses devastated cities, indeed entire nations. Perhaps the most famous is the Bubonic plague, which swept through Europe in the 14th century. Some estimate that one half of the population of Europe died because of this plague!
Aloysius Gonzaga died at the age of 23 while he was trying to help and assist the people of Rome when plague was racing through the city. The fact that he died helping the poor and the sick is all the more remarkable when we look at his background. He was born in northern Italy in 1568 into the noble and powerful Gonzaga family. His future was assured because of the wealth and influence of his father. Aloysius was the first-born and would be trained to inherit the power and wealth of his father.
But God had different plans. Even as a young man, Aloysius saw the dangers and temptations in the life of a prince, enjoying magnificent banquets, and surrounded by beautiful and wealthy women. He rebelled against this decadent culture. Instead of a life of power and influence, and often one of immorality, he decided that he wanted to give his life to God. He felt called to become a Jesuit priest, a member of the Society of Jesus. One reason for this choice is that as a Jesuit he would not become a bishop (and this was quite likely if he became a diocesan priest, because of his talent and family background).
When Aloysius told his family he wanted to be a Jesuit priest, his father was angry and enraged. How could the boy turn his back on the family heritage? Yet Aloysius remained clear and firm, in spite of protests from his father and a bishop. Before he could enter the seminary, he had to sign a complex legal agreement stating that he would give up his right to inherit the family wealth.
In 1585 at the age of 17 Aloysius began his training for the priesthood in Rome. After two years of spiritual training in the novitiate, he pronounced perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in his case a very large sacrifice. He then continued his studies in Rome.
In 1591, a serious plague broke out. Hospitals were filled. People were dying in the streets. Thousands died of fever. In addition to obtaining funds from his mother to help the sick, he volunteered to nurse them in hospitals. He sought out the sick on the streets, and then carried them on his shoulders to hospitals to get them medical help; he also prepared them for the reception of the sacraments. After several weeks of intense work, he fell ill himself. Whether he had caught some disease or was simply exhausted, we do not know. On June 20, 1591, he received Holy Communion while the prayers for the dying were recited. Later that evening he died peacefully with a candle in his hand, symbol of the faith he had received in baptism. He died with the Holy Name of Jesus on his lips.
Because Aloysius attained holiness so young and under such difficult circumstances, he was named by the Church a patron of youth and a patron of students. He was not willing to join the corrupt world of power seeking and lust. He was like the wealthy young man in the Gospel who had kept all the commandments from his youth. But unlike the young man, Aloysius was ready to sell all he had, give to the poor, and follow Jesus.
He is patron of students because he studied hard, and his studies were to enable him to better serve God and His people. He had a clear vision and resolution to be the best student, the best seminarian he could be. These attributes make him a model for youth and a model for students.
His example in life and death shows us what our response should be to those who may be suffering. Our response should be nothing less than that of Jesus who reached out in love and charity to minister to those suffering from any illness.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga, pray for us.