The Secret to Holiness that St. Aloysius Gonzaga Knew Well

Our saint truly loved and desired to honor his parents to the highest extent possible.

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

Family and ancestral ties are extremely important in the Bible. From the early chapters of Genesis we learned a lot about who was related to whom, and what their children did with their faith. Family ties in the Bible are always associated with tradition, prophecy and the law. An interesting thing I always note is that God placed the Commandment to “Honor thy father and mother” before the Commandments against murder, adultery and coveting. From Adam to Jesus, Eve to Mary, it’s clear that God has special expectations for how we treat our parents.

So, when I read the life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, one of the Counter-Reformers, I was delighted to read of his great love for—and obedience to—his parents. If you didn’t know, St. Aloysius was considered in his time to be one of the holiest people who ever lived. St. Robert Bellarmine, his confessor, and St. Charles Borromeo, his bishop and administer of his Confirmation and First Communion, both made significant remarks about the young boy.

Luigi, as they all knew him, died at the early age of 23 years old. So what exactly could he have accomplished? The answer is that, compared to the field of other Counter-Reformers, he didn’t accomplish much. But still, he accomplished everything required of a Christian: Sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

The students of the class of 1892 of the College of St. Ignatius in New York City, made a mighty introduction to the young saint in their 1891 classic:

Has a mighty general died? No! Has a learned philosopher or theologian passed away? No! Has a great orator or any of the lights of the world gone to eternal rest? No, none of these. Has a great hero died? Ah, yes! And that hero was but a young man.

No, St. Aloysius Gonzaga never wrote more than his eloquent and short essays for school, never gave grand speeches from the balconies of the universities, never counseled popes on policy or reform work, and did not die a martyr’s death. In their place, though, he accomplished these things by his holiness. His life was a testament to purity. The remarks of those who knew him are the glorious homilies that describe true piety. Popes and cardinals who knew him and have read of his life have been inspired beyond measure. He united himself in suffering with Christ every day, and in the end, he died by serving victims of a plague in Rome.

Heroic is the best word to describe the young saint, and with all the marvelous things he did in secret, a special charism leaps out to me as I read and contemplate his life: his love for and obedience to his parents. His father, a devout Catholic and Marquis in the Spanish Army, did not want his first-born to give up his imminent inheritance, influence, and authority for a religious life. But Luigi persisted. Though he persisted, when he was ordered to be in court or to otherwise delay his religious vocation, he obeyed. He didn’t just obey: he did his duties better than anyone else. He understood that if we cannot firstly understand the importance of obeying our parents, the ones who created and provide for us in visible ways, then we can never possibly hope to understand and obey God, who truly created us and provides for us in an unfathomable way.

Luigi loved his parents and eventually was encouraged by both his father and mother to pursue his religious vocation in Rome with the Jesuits. Many of Aloysius’s final letters were written to his family, especially to his mother, who was still grieving the death of his father and dealing with other stressful family issues resulting from Aloysius’s brother’s new status as the marquis.

One such letter was written to his mother on the final day of 1590, Dec. 31. He offered her a reminder of the identity of suffering available in reflecting on Jesus, and on Mary, too, which would have been of great comfort and solace to Isabel, who was going through so much. He writes:

She is our real queen, from whose example we should receive better comfort than that offered by the queen of Spain, in whose service you are, or from anyone like her, who found herself in such a condition. So if it is a comfort to the afflicted, to have companions in like troubles, what greater consolation can your ladyship have than the company of Mary the virgin, as she who shares them with you is so great, and is in troubles and cares like those of your ladyship?

Our saint truly loved and desired to honor his parents to the highest extent possible. A bittersweet moment completes this look at his obedient life and the deep love he had for his parents. Two months into his novitiate, he received word of the death of his father. Despite the news, he was happy to hear that before his death his father had performed works of penance and mercy, and died a happy death. Writing to his mother, “Now I may say—in a true and new sense—‘Our Father, Who art in Heaven.’”

Even after nearly a decade of disagreement, our young saint had nothing but love in his heart for his father, and did everything within his power to console and watch after his mother. Most would visualize holiness as resisting temptation, avoiding sin, and loving God. These are all true to holiness, but God’s standard for the saints is much higher: we are called to actively participate as ministers of love—of our neighbor, just as much as our parents. Only then—as St. Gonzaga realized—can we obtain our true inheritance (Acts 20:32; Eph. 1:18), influence, and authority (John 14:12-14).

To be saints, to be true reformers of the Church, we need to firstly reform ourselves. The founder of the Society of Jesuit that Gonzaga and his confessors St. Bellarmine held so dearly once said, “If you want to reform the Church, first reform yourself. Otherwise your efforts will be futile.” In the simplest but most important ways, it starts with how we honor our parents.

(I’ve written enthusiastically on this topic and others is my new book, Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now the Catholic Answers Press.)