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Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez - Jesuit Saint
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We have so far been reflecting mainly on priests. We should have at least one lay brother. He is the outstanding lay brother among the Jesuits by the name of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. His feast day is October 31st. He was born in Spain in 1533 and died in 1617. That's a good long life. His father died when he was 15, the father had been a wool merchant so he together with his mother took over the business. Some years later his mother left him to handle the business alone. Three years later, he married. The business went bad, his young daughter died, then his wife died in giving birth to their son. Two years later his mother died. So he was left with his little boy and began seriously thinking much more than ever before about his spiritual life. He made a general confession and shortly after, his son died. He had known about the Jesuits, by this time he was not a young man by 16th century standards but they turned him down. He was almost forty, his health was bad and he did not have enough education to enter the Seminary. That was in Sigolia, but he figured if they won't take me in Sigolia maybe the will take me in Valencia. So he went to this other large city and provincial center and there his Jesuit priest friend suggested going to school and like Ignatius starting all over again. He had given away all his money so to support himself in his education he did various menial tasks. The salary was not enough so he went begging. While at school he met a man who told him to forget about the Jesuits and become a hermit. He went in search of a hermit, found him and shortly after arriving at the hermitage, he discovered it was a temptation. He went back to Valentia to his Jesuit priest friend by the name of Santandair; confessed giving into this temptation and told him, 'I will never again follow my own will for the rest of my life. Tell me what to do and I'll do it." His friend told him, he went to the Jesuits but not for the priesthood. You become a lay brother or as we call them temporal coadjutors. After six months in Spain, he went to the Island of Majorca to a Jesuit college and while he was still just a novice, (see we have no postulancy in the Jesuit order except eight days to try out the food and get used to the company). (laughter). I liked the food and I enjoyed their company so I stayed. But on the eighth day he entered the novitiate. From having been made porter at the college, he remained porter till his dying day. It didn't take long for the people to discover his extraordinary holiness. He remarked at his biographers quote: Visitors, even chance visitors will remark that brother is not a man, he's an angel. His hours were long but whatever free time he had, he would spend in prayer. It may be surprising because he entered in 1571 at the age of 38 and did not take his final vows until 1585 at the age of 54. He waited 16 years for his final vows. Well, I waited 17. I hope I have more in common with St. Alphonsus than the marathon wait for my last vows. At his process for his beatification after his death, thousands knew him, many were interviewed and none could testify that he could remember anything ever that they could criticize. That's a record. Unlike the North American Martyrs, his life was very uneventful, no Indians, no wigwams, no tomahawks, just a porter for a college of boys and if you know boys, in every age in every country, he might just as well have been among the Iroquois in New France. They could be very demanding, pesky and hard to deal with. Complaints, he handles with patience. Mind you that was before the telephone, and he had to go in search of everyone, business people, merchants wanted to do business, priests and bishops wanted attention, beggars wanted a hand-out. As virtue was recognized by all who crossed his path. Understandably many people sought his counsel. His outstanding pupil, whom we may call such, was a young Jesuit scholastic by the name of Peter Claver. Peter Claver was studying at the college around 1605 and for three years Alphonsus Rodriquez gave spiritual direction to this young student of theology. Alphonsus predicted Claver's work told him to volunteer for the South American mission. Claver was accepted and before the month is over I would like to spend one conference on the man who has been declared the Heavenly patron as the apostle of the Negroes. Alphonsus Rodriguez a very gentle person suffered for years from violent temptation including visitation from the evil spirits. He suffered a great deal of aridity and desolation. His health was poor already in his early days. It became steadily worse, he was never without much physical pain. Yet he persevered not only in doing his duty but in adding mortification and austerity. And all the while we are told that the Lord visited him with extraordinary gifts of grace. These desolations and consolations went on for forty years, but it seems more aridity than consolation. As he was dying, Masses being offered for him and he died after having commended his soul to God. Know his spirituality.
The first thing that strikes us about St. Alphonsus Rodriguez is the fact that he had an extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and specifically under the title of her Immaculate Conception, mind you, this was over 250 years before the Immaculate was defined. He did everything in his power to urge his fellow Jesuits, everyone that he met, to invoke Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and that, by the way, not only more than two centuries before the definition, as you may know, not a few very learned writers not only did not accept Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, but wrote theological treatises denying it, including you know who, St. Thomas Aquinas. You can be embarrassed, Aquinas would be embarrassed now.
Second feature: Alphonsus Rodreguez was so eager, not only in promoting the promotion to Our Lady and to her Immaculate Conception, but he advocated the recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. Do you sometimes have it? At any rate, I think it's beautiful, and if I cannot recommend to you, I would recommend that you recommend it to others. All I know is that four years of high school and four years of college belonging to the sodality, as I did, I'm sure Our Lady gave me my vocation. I would recite the Little Office regularly. In fact, until recently people thought he was the one who first composed the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. We now know, he did not, but he stockpiled the porters lodge with so many copies of the Little Office, and mind you, print was just recently discovered. As a Jesuit print, in his lifetime, perhaps thousands of copies.
Third feature: Although he was not, as by now we have seen, a learned man, had no pretensions of academic training, nevertheless, he did not hesitate giving advice to bishops and priests.
All I can tell you, if it is done prudently and wisely and of course gently, sometimes the highly placed the person, the more welcome will be, not criticism, but gentle recommendation and advice. We should all, no matter how infrequent the opportunities may be, give spiritual counsel. A note here, a word there, a letter to someone else, one sentence, may be just what the person needs. I call up a woman in Michigan to whose husband I gave the last rights shortly before he died, called her up on August the fifteen and she was in deep discouragement. You can't imagine what that few minute telephone call did.
Fourth feature: Deep humility--Alphonsus teaches us something about humility that I think that we can all profit from. In general, as we know, humility means that I recognize who I am before God. That's the first meaning of humility. In other words that before God I am what I was before I came into the world-nothing. That's not much. Alphonsus had a profound realization of the greatness of God and in contrast, his own nothingness. Secondly, Alphonsus recognized that it is not enough for me to internally recognize that I am nothing before God, I must also show that I recognize the fact by acting as a person (watch this) whose will is completely subordinated to God's will, and for Alphonsus, God's will was God's providence. In the half hour or so that we have for these conferences, I'm usually taking a little more than a half an hour, we can't go into all the details, I gave you just a sampling. Of how at different stages God entered life, you might say, 'cut him down', but at every point Alphonsus in the death of one loved one after another, he saw in his frequent bouts with temptation, his frequent struggles with discouragement, sometimes bordering on despair, he saw God's hand I could spend the next hour elaborating on this view of humility. In other words, seeing God's grace has not only, though of course, also in God's telling us to do things that please us. We have no trouble recognizing God's grace when it is enjoyable and then we sing with all our hearts 'how great Thou art, O Lord, how great Thou art.'
But, how dare we say this. Let the Lord remove his hand, He doesn't remove his hand, He just has a different kind of touch. To see God in every event in our lives, that is authentic and profound humility. I'm afraid and I include myself, that as much as we either read or hear about humility or even ask for it, we think of it mainly as the virtue in our relationship with others, that I don't go around with raised eyebrows, looking down on those lesser mortals. All right, all right, not to be supercilious--you know what supercilious means?--it's an adjective, it comes, pardon me, I didn't have this in my notes--it comes from the Latin, super which means, raised; cilium, eyebrow--perfect description, the sin of raised eyebrows, form of vanity and pride. Our humility, in essence, is indeed to show itself in our, let's call it humble relationship with others, but the essence of humility in Alphonsus is the paragon of the practice of this virtue. The essence of our humility is not in our dealing with others but in our dealing with the other who is God. And this is mainly shown in our seeing His will in everything that enters our lives. The cold or the heat, the smile or the frown, the good meal and the bad meal, the sound sleep and the sleepness night, the health and the sickness, that's Alphonsus.
Fifth feature: His obedience became proverbial without praising his superiors for doing this, they would sometimes resort to the most unusual order they would give him and he would proceed to obey. At the age of seventy, he was told by the rector called in and said, 'I am sending you to the Indies, now go.' Alphonsus left the rectors room and proceeded to walk out the gate to the seashore to beg the next trip, on the next ship going to India. They had to run after him, to bring him back. The point is, Alphonsus was no fool. He was heroically obedient. I've had enough superiors not to know they can make some strange requests. They can make strange requests, but I'm not strange in obeying.
Sixth: With his profound spiritual wisdom, a man who in the course of his years as porter was consulted by several thousands, he sought direction regularly. Remember, this is the hey-day of the rise of Protestantism where as you know, the Protestant reformers, everyone of them, denied that you need the guidance of the Church, each one quite frankly has the spirit in himself and all you have to do is consult the spirit and he'll tell you, well, that is not Catholic spirituality.
Seventh: One thing which the life of Alphonsus shows us, is that God will never try us beyond our strength, but (and watch this) He may try us beyond the strength we would have unless we prayed. I don't think there is a more important lesson that this lowly lay brother can teach us. We dare not stop a sentence and say 'God will never try us beyond our strength' period, put that way the statement is not true. Do you know what I'm saying? God may try us beyond our present strength but then He tells us and Christ couldn't have been clearer, 'to pray to get the strength we still need.' In other words, what Alphonsus tells us is that his constant prayer, which he practiced, was no mere luxury of the spiritual life. He was being tried by the Lord in such a way that he had to call upon the help of the Lord to obtain the grace that he needed to cope with the trials and sometimes severe temptations that endured. Nothing I can tell you during my months stay, happy stay at Lake Villa is more practically important than this and I sure want to be clear. No one becomes holy without trial, we must be tried and we do not necessarily have either the light or the strength to cope with the trials God sends us unless we ask for the help.
Eighth: Whatever else St. Alphonsus reveals, it is the truth of Christ's saying, 'blessed is the man who perseveres to the end'. When we are young and the younger, I suppose, the less we think about perseverance. As I'm getting older, I tell people, I'm always happy to find somebody younger in Church and Chapel so I can give them some experienced advice. Life, no matter how long, is short. As I look back, my years seem to have been days. The secret is not to be overwhelmed by whatever difficulty or temptation we are now experiencing, 'sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.' God will give us the grace of final perseverance provided we dont try to cope with whatever future is still left us, here and now--doesn't this make sense? We've got enough to cope with today, let's not be silly. In other words, setting aside anxiety and worry about the future, that was Alphonsus, always at peace.
Ninth feature: It is unimportant what position we have in the eyes of men. In the eyes of God what matters is how faithfully we are doing His will. Except for his apt pupil, Peter Claver, who we can safely say became a saint because of this lay brother, the hundreds of, no doubt, outstanding ... noblemen, you name it, the grand ladies of the Spain those days, we don't even know their names. Talk about God raising the lowly. Eternity will give the verdict. We don't know who is truly great until after they have died. I've struggled with too many ambitious not to know that there is great wisdom in unaspiring to be thought well of or highly revered or publicized by people; the more hidden, the better. Let me repeat, the more hidden, the better. And I'm speaking of the person who is over-exposed to the public. The more hidden the better. Thank God, for Your hidden life.
And finally it is not the big things we do for God that really counts, it is the love with which we do them. We need saints like the little flower, like Alphonsus Rodriguez to remind us that as far as God is concerned, all He really wants is our heart. St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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