It has always pleased Almighty God to raise up saints for some special purpose – either to be our example of holiness in the world or in the cloister, sometimes models of penance or of prayer; but each one has had a distinct and clear vocation, which is to be the means of usefulness to others, for whose good their virtues are made fully known, when they have passed from this life to the life of heaven.
In this way, it seems as if Louis Gonzaga, afterwards called Aloysius, was to be a special example of holiness to children and youths, for his short life of twenty-three years was full of piety and sweetness from his birth. His good mother greatly desired to have a son, and sheprayed earnestlythat it might be God’sWill that, this happiness should be given her, promising that her first child should be put, in a special way, under the protection ofthe Blessed Virgin, and on the 9th March, 1568, the little Louis came into the world to her very great joy. On the day of his baptism the whole town was arrayed for a feast, guns fired in honour of the baby prince, who came of such a noble family, and bright flowers strewn along the road from the castle to the church, where he was to be made a child of God. Money was thrown freely amongst the crowd, who shouted “Long life to the Prince! May he be happy above all!” and there was merriment and grandeur in the Italian city, whilst the angels in heaven were filled with joy because a soul had been created to bring God such glory. Even during the first few weeks of his life, this little infant was observed to have so unusually sweet an expression on his face, that the person who nursed him, often said she felt as if she was holding a little angel from heaven in her arms, rather than an earthly child. Every day his mother made the sacred sign of the cross with his own little hand, repeating to him the Names of Jesus and Mary, and therefore she had the joy of hearing them lisped as his first words. He quickly learned the Our Father and Hail Mary with his baby tongue, and as soon as he could toddle about, would hide himself behind some curtains or pieces of furniture, where he was found with his hands folded in prayer. Marta, his mother, rejoiced to see this promise of holiness in her little son, but the Marquis would gladly have had him more spirited and boisterous; so before Louis was four years old, he took him out of the hands of his nurses, and put him under a tutor who he thought would better train the child to keep up the honour and diggity of his noble family. Just at this time the Christian countries of Europe had been gaining great victories over the infidels, and a fresh body of men had been gathered together under the command of the Marquis, who were to be given a month’s training in Casal, to prepare them for war.
It seemed to the father such a good opportunity for giving little Louis a military taste, that he determined, in spite of his mother’s fear, to take him there. So the boy of four years was clothed in the dress of a soldier, with helmet and plume, sword, belt, and powder-flask, and then led to bid his mother farewell.
Louis was a great favourite in the camp, and showed so much skill and sense that even his father was satisfied; once, however, when discharging his firearm, the powder exploded in his face, so, although his skin only was slightly injured, he was not allowed to have it about him any more. But it would seem that the baby-soldier had a little desire to exhibit his courage to the rest, for, after this, he crept awayunnoticed one dayto the camp, and loaded and discharged a little cannon which he found there. The soldiers, who had been taking their rest, started in alarm to their feet. Even the Marquis was anxious as to the cause of the explosion, and sent to discover what had happened, declaring that he would punish the offender, little supposing it to be his own Louis. When his messenger informed the Marquis what the child had done, he tried to look very severe and still threatened punishment for the offence, but when every voice called out, “Pardon, pardon, for the little prince!” he was quickly forgiven and more admired for his courage than before. In after years, the Saint said he felt sure that but for the special protection of God, he must have been instantly killed then, and he reproached himself keenly for having stolen the powder from one of the men so as to accomplish his scheme unknown to them.
But the end of the month came, the Marquis set forth with his troops, and Louis was sent home to his mother under the charge of his tutor and servants. As they journeyed, it was noticed that he- had learned some bad words from the soldiers which he made use of without understanding, and the tutor reproved him for doing so, telling him what pain and sorrow it would be to his mother if she heard him. Louis cried bitterly, promising never to speak so again, and he faithfully kept his word, nor could he ever hear an improper expression fall from the lips of others without showing the greatest distress.
This sin, done so childishly and ignorantly, was the great offence of his life in the confessions of later years, and so pure was his heart that four different priests, who were aware of all that had passed in his soul from his earliest days, have felt sure that he never lost the grace of his baptism.
At seven years old, when it was explained to him that he had reached the age of reason, he set himself to begin afresh to please God, and to practise in trifling ways that love of penance which grew up with him. He would repeat the Penitential Psalms and other devotions every day upon his knees, refusing to use the cushions which, like the rest of the family, he had always knelt upon before. Two years later, he was left in the city of Florence until he was eleven years old, and during that time he was most diligent in his studies, most obedient in performing every duty as a work done for God. On festival days, he was taken to pay a visit to the Grand-Duke, but then he would try to get quietly away from the noisy party of children to amuse himself in making little altars or in speaking of heavenly things. Yet, by doing so, he did not make himself unattractive to his companions, indeed, they all loved him for his great gentleness and patience, and many tried to turn from evil habits in imitation of Louis Gonzaga.
At this time, the little boy began to think a great deal about the roots of those faults he perceived in himself; he had always been very sorry for the least offence, confessing it with tears forhaving grieved the good God, but now that he was older, he set to work to find and destroy the very beginning of every imperfect feeling in his soul, and thus his meekness and humility became wonderful. Many lads of his age forget the kindness and respect due to those who serve and attend them, but Louis would ask for what he needed as humbly and sweetly as if he had been begging a favour from a superior. He was equally careful that no want of charity should be in his heart or upon his lips, and finding it so difficult to avoid seeing the mistakes and failings of other people, he tried to retire from them as much as was possible to do unobserved, so that he might avoid the slightest temptation to fall even into trifling faults of this kind.
There was a church in the city of Florence where this saintly boy loved especially to pray, and here his great reverence for the Blessed Virgin increased daily, until he felt as if heknewnot how to prove his devotion to her. In this church there was a miraculous picture of the Blessed Virgin, and one day it struck Louis, as he knelt before it, that his dear Mother Mary would be pleased if he gave her the promise never to love any human creature, or bind himself by any tie to this life, keeping all his affection for her and for God. So at the feet of his favourite picture, the boy of ten years made this offering to Mary Immaculate, who obtained for him the grace of perfect purity in thought and action until his death, as a reward for his generous love.
It was not long after, that Louis fell into a state of ill-health which could only be cured by abstinence from many agreeable kinds of food, and this so accustomed him to deny his appetite that after he was well, he kept the strictest rule over himself with regard to what he ate and drank, scarcely taking sufficient to support his life. In this respect, Louis certainly obeyed a special inspiration of God such as is rarely given to children; but though it would be wrong for those who are very young to decide for themselves too fast as this Saint did, his abstinence may teach a lesson to those who are fanciful about their food, and indulge themselves in so many things which are not needed for their health and strength.
This life of regular study, prayer, and solitude, in the city of Florence, gave Louis so strong a desire to keep himself from the society of the world as he grew older, that he resolved to give up all the wealth and grandeur which, as the eldest son of a noble family, were his own, and let his younger brother Eidolfo take his place, but being still so young he did not talk of these plans, keeping them secretly in his heart until the proper time should come for making them known.
When the Marquis sent for his boys to return home, Marta clasped her first-born child in her arms with the greatest joy, but she saw that the bloom of health had left his face, and he looked slight and delicate, yet she could not grieve, because the mark of his purity of soul seemed to appear upon his face, and that was more precious in her eyes than the round fresh cheek and sturdy form which he had three years before.
On reaching home Louis did not lessen his time for prayer, on the contrary, ho was more and more given to it, kneeling for a length of time motionless before his crucifix, with tears flowing fast, because he felt so unworthy of God’s great mercy and love. On festivals he would go and teach poor children the Christian doctrine, but with such modesty and sweetness, that even older persons liked to listen to the instructions and advice he gave. Thus Louis’s daily life passed on until the time approached for his First Communion, and we may partly imagine with what burning teve and deep humility he desired the day when he should receive his Lord within his breast.
The great Saint Charles Borromeo came to stay near the house of the Gonzagas just then, and amongst the crowd of people who listened to his preaching, he noticed this little boy, with the light of a lovely soul shining upon his face, and spent a good deal of time in talking with him, and it was from his hands that the young Saint received the Body and Blood of Jesus for the first time.
After that day his love for the Blessed Sacrament became more and more intense; he advanced rapidly in holiness, and with all he preserved the same humble sorrow for sins which were so slight that his confessors were astonished at the immense grace God poured out upon him, in keeping him so pure and spotless. The purpose which had once sprung up in the heart of Louis to renounce the world; and his noble position in it, was growing stronger now, and as he prayed, God showed him clearly that his place must be in religion, so although he was too young to carry out this desire, he felt that he must begin to lead some such life at home as he hoped to follow in later years. Every comfort which he could give up without making much show of it, was put away from him now – there should be no more fires in his room, for religious had none in their cells, and though his bed could not be changed unobserved, he made it hard with pieces of wood and other things. At his meals he would choose the food he liked least, or which was the least rare, and in the middle of the cold nights of winter, he would rise to prayer, and become so full of love and devotion, that he scarcely knew his body was chilled and shivering from the exposure.
A change came in the outward life of the Saint then, for his parents went to join the court of Spain, by the King’s invitation, and Louis with his younger brother and sister accompanied them. During the voyage, they landed at some of the ports on the way, and at one of them Louis, who was wandering on the beach, picked up a stone of a blood-red tint, which^ appeared to him to represent the five wounds of Jesus, and which he considered God had put in his way on purpose to give him a greater devotion to the Passion of our Lord. After that, he was more than ever resolved upon giving his life entirely to God in a religious house, and during his stay in the Spanish court, he saw a good deal of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus, which led him to desire to become one of them. His mother had long been told of his hopes and wishes, but both of them knew that the Marquis would be very angry even at the idea of his eldest son giving up his place in the world, and that it would be almost impossible to gain his consent.
Louis prayed and did penance, and at length he received such a clear knowledge ofGod’sWill, that he had no more doubt as to what he ought to do, and he at once spoke to his confessor, begging him to ask the Jesuit Fathers to receive him. Hard and difficult as his way would be in gaining his desire, the Saint was never one who would shrink back from what cost him any suffering, and the same day he told his mother all, and obtained her promise to mention the subject to his father. The Marquis was furious with anger, but deciding to treat it as a boyish folly, he did not speak to Louis for a few days, therefore the youth himself sought an interview, in which he told his father, humbly but firmly, of his resolution to obey the voice of God. His words were received with most violent reproaches; his father drove him from his presence, threatening to have him caned by his servants, but Louis only replied: “Would that God allowed me to suffer such treatment for the love of Him!” and went away with perfect meekness.
The Marquis could not long be angry with his son, so he turned his displeasure upon his confessor, and next he accused the Fathers of the Society of trying to rob him of Louis; then he arranged to return with his family to their own home in Italy. It was a great disappointment to the Saint, but he obeyed his father, and prepared for the journey, during which he was to visit several of the Italian courts, and be thrown amongst the world he had renounced. Once back at Castiglione, Louis found a cave upon his father’s estate, where he might enjoy the peace and retirement for which he longed, and to this place he had his bed and books removed, and gave himself up to prayer and penance, but the Marquis heard of this retreat, and ordered him to remain in his own room, with many harsh words and angry threats. Louis obeyed; and closing the door, knelt before the crucifix, shedding many tears, and begged God to appear for him, whilst his father’s conscience began to accuse him of his severity to so holy a son. So he sent an attendant to see what the lad was about, who beheld through a crack in the door his young master weeping before the image of his crucified Master, whilst he scourged himself severely. The man burst into tears, and returned to tell the Marquis what he had seen, and he insisted on being taken from his bed, where he was confined by illness, and placed in a large arm-chair, which was wheeled to the door of his son’s room. There he also heard the cruel blows which Louis was inflicting on himself – his heart melted, and causing the chair to be pushed into the room, he exclaimed: “My son, you have conquere d at last.” It was true that the Saint’s patience and suffering had won the victory, but there were still to be more trials and more difficulties before he could brave the world. The consent of the Emperor had to be gained to his giving up his property to Ridolfo; his father was to try his courage by appealing to his loving nature as a means of getting him to renounce the thought of a religious life, but Louis prayed on that God would remove all hindrances from his path, and at length, after long delay, the Marquis consented to part with him, and bid him go with his blessing, to the life to which God called him. The news soon spread through the castle and through the town; men, women, and children mourned to lose their young lord, and begged him not to forsake them, but Louis remained firm in his desire to give up the world for the service of God, and lost no time in taking leave of his home and friends, to present himself in Rome to the General of the Company of Jesus.
It was on the Feast of the Presentation of our Lady, that Louis – now Brother Aloysius – offered his soul to the entire service of God, and was received as a son by the new Father he had chosen, and on the 25th of November he entered the house as a novice, when he renewed again the promise he- had so often made to God, asking for grace to live and die in the Society he had chosen. The Saint always kept that anniversary with great devotion, choosing S. Catherine as his special patron, on account of her festival being celebrated on that day. Now we see Aloysius in the state he had longed for, doing every duty with cheerful joy, obeying his master with never-failing sweetness and humility, practising the rules of his Order with great exactness, and thus he passed through his two years’ trial as a perfect novice, and was allowed to make his profession.
He had always loved humility, but now he sought humiliations with increasing eagerness, and delighted in being sent out to beg, with a sack on his shoulders, through the streets of Rome, to wash plates and dishes in the kitchen, and collect scraps to give to the poor who waited at the door. It was not unusual for the members of the Society to do such things, but they were striking in Aloysius, because of the delight which was seen upon his face when he performed them. But his health became more delicate, and God, Who had made him holy in his youth, was quickly preparing him for the glory of heaven. In the year 1591 a terrible fever raged throughout Italy, and in Borne the deaths were so many, that the Jesuits opened an hospital of their own, and the General himself attended upon the sick. Aloysius was one of the foremost in his charity to the fever-stricken poor, undressing and placing them in bed, washing them, and bringing them food with the greatest readiness. Several of his companions died, yet the infection did not seem to touch the Saint, but later he caught the terrible complaint through carrying a poor creature whom he found in the street to the hospital. On the seventh day of his illness his end seemed so near, that he received the last Sacraments, but he lived still a few weeks longer, to die not so much from the fever as the exhaustion which came after it. During his sickness his love of penance still appeared strong; he would sip his bitter medicine slowly, so as to mortify himself more, and by trifling sacrifices proved how great a perfection he had reached.
In spite of his weakness, he would ask for his clothes, and drag himself to a table on which a crucifix was standing, which he would take in his hands and kiss reverently, also the picture of Saint Catherine, which was hanging on the wall. Once in prayer it was made known to Aloysius the exact day upon which he should die, and he was full of joy, because he longed so much to be with God. “Have you heard the good news?” he said to one of the Fathers. “I am to die in a week’s time. Pray say the Te Deum with me in thanksgiving to God.”
During the few days which yet remained, he asked that a crucifix might be placed on a table near his bed, whilst the seven Penitential Psalms were read to him; or else he would beg to hear some passages from his favourite spiritual books. He spoke of his death as simply as people speak of going out of their dwelling, and often said softly to himself, “I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ,” whilst his only pain seemed to be lest the food he was ordered to take might delay the time he longed for so much.
On the last day of the Octave of Corpus Christi, when he had said he should die, the brotherswho nursedhim thought him betterand stronger than usual, but Aloysius replied smilingly, “I shall die to-day.” He begged to receive the Body and Blood of his Lord as Viaticum, but the Infirmarian could not believe it was necessary; however, as the afternoon passed, he begged so earnestly for this grace, that the Father Rector brought it to him in the presence of all the company. Then the saintly youth took leave of all in turn, whilst they wept bitterly at the thought of losing him. When the room was quiet again, Aloysius seemed to remain in continual prayer, the Fathers giving him from time to time holy water, or a crucifix to kiss, as he murmured the Name of Jesus. At last with his eyes fixed on the image of the dying Saviour, and a blessed candle in his hand, he yielded up his spirit into the hands of the God he had loved and served so faithfully, in the middle of the night between the 20th and 21st of June, thus gaining the favour he had long desired, of dying within the Octave of Corpus Christi, and upon a Friday. When the news spread, no one thought of the pure soul without the certainty that it was in heaven. Everything that could be obtained was taken for a precious relic, and after the body was removed to the church of the Annunziata, many of the students knelt praying every day around his tomb. Although Aloysius had striven to hide himself from the knowledge of the world, it was God’s Will that his wonderful sanctity should be made known to men, so that he may stand as a model of purity and perfection for every child of the Holy Catholic Church. We may not be asl^ed to take up the practices of Aloysius – such marvellous gifts of grace will probably never be ours – still each in our own path is called to aim high, to strive for the humility, purity, and charity which this young Saint put before himself as the virtues which shone so brightly in Jesus and Mary, so that we, too, may enjoy the possession of God in heaven, and receive an linfading crown.
– from , by Mary F Seymour