St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Pray For Us!

SAINTS & ART: St. Aloysius measured his success by different and more eternal standards.

Guercino (1591-1666), “The Vocation of St. Aloysius Gonzaga,” ca. 1650
Guercino (1591-1666), “The Vocation of St. Aloysius Gonzaga,” ca. 1650 (photo: Public Domain)

Some Americans, particularly in the Washingtons, might associate St. Aloysius Gonzaga with the Spokane university or the DC high school named after him. But the Jesuit saint who died at 23 deserves to be better remembered in our day, particularly because of certain elements of his biography that are exceedingly relevant to our day.

Aloysius Gonzaga was born in Castiglione delle Stiviere, in northeast Italy near the southern shore of Lake Garda, east of Verona. (I want to clarify this, because he is not from the more famous Castiglione in Tuscany, on the Italian shore opposite Corsica.) He was born into a noble family — his father was a marquis, his mother related to a baron, and they eventually sent Aloysius off to spend time at the court of the Grand Duke de Medici in Florence. Aloysius was clearly on a path of worldly success, even without taking a single SAT, AP class or international baccalaureate course. 

His father wanted him to be a soldier (in 16th-century northern Italy, political alliances were fluid and it always helped to have an armed guard to put at the disposal of one’s allies du jour). But, during his time at the Medici court where he also came down with kidney problems, he started reading the lives of the saints and thinking about more spiritual pursuits. It’s said he made a private vow of chastity at age 9. 

Gonzaga’s interest in religion was growing but apparently his parents may have been nominal Catholics, because Aloysius was 12 before he received his first Holy Communion, from the hands of (then-Cardinal) St. Robert Bellarmine, who took an interest in the young man. He began thinking even more seriously about the religious life and had contact with a variety of orders (Capuchins, Barnabites).

His parents were called to Spain to the service of the Holy Roman Empress and, at 13, Aloysius became a page in court. In Spain, he made greater contact with the Jesuits and grew more convinced he wanted to be a priest. His mother was willing to allow it; his father not. And since Aloysius was firstborn (and thus heir to the Marquis’ title) he needed not only his father’s but his father’s lord’s (the Holy Roman Emperor’s) consent. By 1585, he had it and went to Rome to join the Jesuits. (His family had unsuccessfully tried to convince him to become a diocesan priest so he could be quickly made a bishop.) He took first vows in 1587.

In 1591, the plague struck Rome, and Aloysius volunteered to work at a hospital the Jesuits established for the sick. Though the Jesuits took what precautions they could, Aloysius eventually fell ill, then recovered, then relapsed. It’s said he had two visions: one in 1590 from the Archangel Gabriel that he would die within a year, and another that he would die on the octave of Corpus Christi, which he did.

Aloysius was buried in Rome, though his skull has been preserved as a relic in hometown Castiglione delle Stiviere. His cult spread quickly, especially by standards of the time: Aloysius was beatified in 1621, 30 years after his death, and canonized in 1726, together with another youthful Jesuit novice, 17-year-old St. Stanisław Kostka. 

So, why is Aloysius Gonzaga relevant to our times? Like in our day, his parents wanted him to succeed and advance by temporal standards, doing everything in their considerable power to ensure an elite status for their oldest boy. Aloysius Gonzaga decided to measure success by different and more eternal standards. Religion was real to him. Consider it: you’re reading about this man who died more than 400 years ago. Would you be — would you pay any attention to him — if he was just “another” northern Italian marquis from four centuries ago?

He was renowned throughout his life for sexual purity. Again, that’s a virtue today’s young people need to hear about.  This month we celebrate Aloysius Gonzaga; next month, we honor Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old Italian girl who gave her life rather than submit to rape. Do the lives of people — because they were flesh-and-blood people before they were saints — like Aloysius Gonzaga and Maria Goretti make sense to their peers today? What was it that Gonzaga and Goretti prized so much that seems so devalued today?

Aloysius lived in plague times. Our antiseptic and antibiotic age has fallen out of practice with the experience of pandemics wiping out swaths of the population. Aloysius didn’t run. He didn’t lock himself in his cloister. He didn’t close but worked in the “field hospital.” That example is germane to our day, where every variant of COVID-19 produces some calls for lockdowns and quarantines.

Our saint is depicted in an oil painting from about 1650 by Guercino (Giovanni Barbieri), a Baroque painter from central Italy who came into the world the year Aloysius left it. “Guercino” is a nickname, a “squinter,” because he was apparently cross-eyed. In the painting, Aloysius Gonzaga stands in cassock and surplice in front of an altar. (Gonzaga never made it to ordination.) His youth is evident. An angel points to what matters: the cross. At Aloysius’ feet is a bouquet of lilies, an attribute of his purity.  Behind him, on the floor, lies a headdress that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art  (where you can see the painting) says symbolizes the rank and territory of marquis that Aloysius gave up; the angels above him hold a less perishable, more lasting crown (a clear allusion to 1 Corinthians 9:25).