Saint Aloysius Gonzaga: Patron of Youth
by William Hart McNichols
"The Lord nurtured and taught him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye...the Lord alone was his leader."
Eight years ago I was visiting my parents' home in Colorado when I decided to look through a drawer of Jesuit Bulletins my mother keeps faithfully in a living room table. I was actually looking for a picture of my then-favorite Jesuit saint, the English poet/martyr St. Robert Southwell. Instead I stumbled across an issue with a photograph of a work by the sculptor Pierre Legros (1666-1719) of St. Aloysius Gonzaga.
Images have always had a great power over me, but for a long, long time I didn't understand why. Practically everything I first knew of my faith was mediated through music and art. At times these creations also gave me hope because the art attested to a spiritual world so vivid, confrontational, and glorious that it partially healed the great sense of separation and longing I felt.
I think many children begin their relationships with those friends in heaven this way. And though there might be suspicion and misunderstanding concerning this attitude towards images in western Christianity, there has always been a deep reverence for icons in the eastern churches. The painting of an icon is a painstakingly prayerful labor of love. Those who do this work, as well as those who receive it, believe the icon "holds" the presence of the one it portrays. In this tradition, the presence is restricted to icons, but I imagine countless numbers of people have encountered the spiritual world in classical works, primitive and folk works, and even the most simple and critically condemned "kitsch" art.
My relationship with Aloysius began the day I saw the Legros sculpture. I brought the magazine back to New York and had the photograph enlarged for the wall of my room. For many months I just kept visiting the picture. Gradually something of Aloysius began to come to me.
Because of Pope Benedict XIII's appointment of him as the patron of youth in 1729, Aloysius is the most visible and well-known Jesuit saint. He is also the most apologized for and defended one. He has been called the "saint's saint," an "impossible prig," a "child prodigy," and in his own time, as a page at the court of Philip II of Spain, "not of flesh and blood" ... an angel in human form.
Legros' sculpture has none of the familiar poses and symbols which may have contributed to his loss of friends over the years. There are no crowns, lilies, books, crosses or altar boy's attire. Perhaps it was actually the absence of all these accumulated props which let me finally meet the boy of radiant inner strength and infinite tenderness sculpted by Legros.
Even now, after some time with the image, it almost hurts me to see Aloysius trying to lift a man who seems twice his age and weight. The boy's expression is focused and careful. The man he carries looks both sick and rested-the gesture of his head and the expression on his face "speak" a trust and safety of a child at home in the arms of a parent. This image echoes the Biblical prophecy of the "leading child" and the reversal of roles Jesus promised in the Sermon on the Mount and in parables about the kingdom of Cod.
Facts about Aloysius' life came to me slowly. Some of them surprised me, some shocked me; some made me laugh, and some made me want to kneel down like St. Peter before the Lord-awed by the great ocean of mercy present in such a being of holiness.
Aloysius was born March 9, 1568, into the old and powerful Gonzaga dynasty, in the family castle near Mantua, in the town of Castiglione delle Stiviere. The more one learns about the Gonzaga, the more extraordinary Aloysius seems. Though the Gonzaga had no corner on high-renaissance ruthlessness and evil, they make the characters on daytime television seem like cardboard villains and put the sagas of "Dallas" and "Dynasty" to shame. Soon after the death of Aloysius, his brother Ridolfo was murdered; later his mother was nearly stabbed to death.
In the recent bestseller, A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga of Mantua, author Kate Simon fleshes out a family portrait rich in scholarship and detail. It was quite common according to Simon for women to abuse little boys at the great banquets and dances. Virtually every biographer of Aloysius has tried in vain to explain his extreme anti-social behavior at these events, and especially his legendary "modesty of the eyes." If he wasn't actually abused himself, he was certainly aware of it. Sometimes the only power a child may have, given this kind of an assault from an adult, is to flee or to avert his or her eyes. Having been given the grace of chastity at the age of nine, Aloysius was aggressively conscious of guarding this miraculous gift.
These tales of his vigilant self-protection, and Simon's accounts of regular child abuse led me to "add a wing" onto Aloysius title of patron of youth, and to place all abused children in his arms. Incidents of abuse are so widespread now that we need an intercessor who understands the complications of this wounding, who holds in his arms the soothing balm, and offers to us this Light of Healing.
Aloysius had to fight a long and bloody battle with his father, Ferrante, to get his permission to renounce the Marquisate, as rightful heir, and let it fall to his younger brother Ridolfo, in order for him to enter the Society of Jesus. Ferrante was a formidable opponent, nearly a match for Aloysius' own strength. He was given to frightening fits of rage and was a compulsive gambler. On the other side, he truly loved and admired Aloysius for his ambassadorial sophistication and solid "business-like" skills. (Later on in the novitiate, the other novices picked this up quickly, and nickname him "generalino"-sure that as an adult, he would be general of the order). Ferrante knew that none of the other children were capable of carrying on the family business and "reputation."
Ironically, Aloysius actually cleansed and glorified the Gonzaga name beyond anyone's imagining. It seems amazing now that Ferrante did not see what everyone else saw so clearly in his son-a full-grown saint in a child's body, much the way Mozart showed a full-grown musical genius as a child.
Finally, Ferrante could no longer fight the concentrated single-mindedness of a boy visited like the young King David with the power of God. Aloysius won the contest for his own life through a flood of prayer and penances which included taking upon himself the resistance and anger of his father and scourging his own body until he drew blood.
In these disciplines of prayer and sustained asceticism he often reminds me of the Buddha, another holy young prince who left the splendid life and palace of his family, and poured himself into meditation and severe asceticism after encountering the vast suffering of people in the "outside" world. There is something pale and opalescent, like the light of the moon, in these two souls; both reflect another light, and both have a shining serenity which seems to rise and light the night of suffering.
If it can be said that each of us has a mission, which can be detected in seed form from our earliest years, and then, like the refrain of a song, is played over and over again, no matter the length of our lives-then it can be said that Aloysius was much the same in the Jesuits as he had been all through his childhood. Within the Society of Jesus he astonished people with his spiritual maturity, as if an aged desert father had come to inhabit a teen-aged boy. The paradox is that both were present in him.
He was graced beyond his years, yet he was attractive to the young. Students gathered around Aloysius quite naturally and were led by him into an enduring relationship with God. He was loved and revered too by older Jesuits. His spiritual director, St. Robert Bellarmine, was constantly quoting Aloysius' insights into the contemplative life to the young Jesuits. Bellarmine marveled at his holiness and was privileged to anoint Aloysius on his death bed. He also begged to be buried at the feet of his "spiritual child" and was placed near the body of Aloysius, in the church of St. Ignatius in Rome.
In 1591 a vicious plague ravaged Rome. The Jesuits opened a hospital in the city; even the provincial and the general worked with the dying. Many Jesuits caught the plague themselves and died. Aloysius threw himself into this work of mercy with typical single-mindedness. He caught the plague from one last dying man he just had to carry in off the streets: this is the glorious moment depicted by Legros.
This final work of Aloysius leads me to add yet another wing to his patronage of youth, this time asking him to embrace all the men, women, youth and children who are suffering from AIDS. For six years I have been privileged to work with people with AIDS and have seen him at work. He brings a gentle brotherhood to the young who find him so comforting, and he brings his love of the Blessed Mother and her way of mercy and her way of prayer.
It would take another whole article to recount the miraculous blessings and great healings Aloysius has brought to people with AIDS, so let me sum them up with a prayer written for the sick and suffering:
Jesuit Bulletin. Summer 1989. p. 3-5
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Page Last Updated: October 6, 2001