The following story appeared in the June 11 Idaho Catholic Register.
by Emily Woodham
The first biographers of Aloysius Gonzaga painted him as a quiet, mild-mannered man who was fearful of sin. Modern biographers, however, point out that for generations the noble Gonzaga family was known for their willfulness and hot temper, and Aloysius was not an exception. He carried out severe penances to steer his will toward good and to control his temper, but those traits did not disappear. Instead, they proved
essential in surrendering to God’s will.
Aloysius was born into this world with great difficulty on March 9, 1568. His mother, Marta, made promises to God in hopes that He would spare their lives from a very difficult delivery. They survived, and she prayed he would become a priest. But his father, Ferrante, had other ideas.
The Gonzaga family was among the most prominent noble families of Europe. They had remained faithful to Rome throughout the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, and they owned lands that reached beyond their family estate in northern Italy. At that time and until the 19th century, Italy was divided into city-states and dukedoms, far from the unified country of modern times. The Gonzagas were in a part of Italy under the rule of King Philip II of Spain (1556-1598). Ferrante had aspirations for Aloysius to become a great military leader.
While Ferrante was often gone for his duties, Marta would dote on Aloysius and taught him to practice prayers and devotions as soon as he was able. By the time Aloysius was 4, his recitation of prayers and acts of piety became the talk of the court. Ferrante feared his wife’s heavy piety was making Aloysius effeminate and unfit for military life. So, he took Aloysius with him when he went to prepare his army for battle on behalf of King Philip.
Aloysius loved the military camp. His father had armor and weapons sized and made just for him. Aloysius learned how to joke and swear like the soldiers. He found firearms fascinating. After a minor accident with gunpowder, Aloysius was forbidden to use firearms again. However, this did not stop Aloysius’ curiosity.
One day, while the soldiers were enjoying their afternoon siesta, Aloysius sneaked into a tent and took gunpowder. He had been watching carefully how to load and fire an ordinance from a canon. His observance paid off. Everyone in the camp received a rude awakening when he successfully fired off a canon. The recoil nearly killed him. He would tell the story throughout his life as evidence of God’s providential protection.
Aloysius was returned to his home when he was 5 because Ferrante had to take his army to Tunisia to fight against Muslim warlords. Aloysisus enjoyed being back in the care of his mother, who quickly corrected the foul language he had learned. He became devoted again to practicing prayers and devotions. Within months, however, he became sick with a mysterious fever that kept him bedridden for 18 months. Although he was only 6, the illness deepened his faith. He dedicated himself to God. Although he recovered, he suffered from chronic pain and stomach and kidney issues for the rest of his life.
Despite Aloysius’ growing devotion to God, his father’s wishes for him to be a leader were not swayed. When Aloysius was 9, Ferrante took him and his younger brother to Florence to be educated and prepared for courtly life. Aloysius and his brother were given a tutor, and they studied several languages and classical literature. They were obliged to attend dances and parties, but Aloysius found them tedious. He preferred to spend his time reading or in prayer.
When Aloysius was 11, Ferrante sent the boys to Mantua to continue their education, with more activities in courtly life. However, to his father’s consternation, Aloysius’ piety continued to grow. He often refused to attend dances or other social activities that he considered frivolous.
St. Charles Borromeo, who was a cardinal at the time and Archbishop of Milan, was close to the Gonzagas through his sister’s marriage to a relative of Aloysius. When he visited the Gonzaga family in 1580 when Aloysius was 12, he learned that Aloysius had not received Communion. Borromeo spent hours instructing him and preparing him to receive the Eucharist. On the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, Aloysius received his First Holy Communion from the saint.
Aloysius’ devotion to the Blessed Sacrament grew, along with his devotion to the Blessed Mother. His father tried everything to dissuade him from religious life, but Aloysius was more stubborn than his father. Aloysius began practicing meditative prayer.
Ferrante took his sons to the Spanish court, but Aloysius found the excesses and debauchery of court repugnant. However, it was in Spain that he met a Jesuit confessor and discerned his call to the Society of Jesus.
The battle between him and his father continued until he was 17. At last, his father capitulated. He sent Aloysius to the novitiate in Rome with a note that said, “I am giving into your Reverence’s hands the most precious thing I possess in all the world.”
Immediately, Aloysius was directed to lighten his penances. He was told to eat more, sleep more, socialize more, and pray less. Aloysius obeyed. He found the novitiate to be easy and joyful. His spiritual director was another saint, St. Robert Bellarmine.
A plague descended on Rome in 1591. Aloysius was dedicated to caring for the plague victims and became sick with the plague himself. Just before his ordination to the priesthood, he died at 23. He was canonized in 1723.
St. Aloysius Gonzaga is the patron saint of youth, the blind, and HIV/AIDS victims and their caregivers. His feast day is June 21.
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