Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop of Saint Agatha, Doctor of the Church, and Founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer

detail of a devotional print of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, c.1880, artist unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 1787.

Alphonsus Liguori, whose name is one of the most illustrious in the history of the Church and in the annals of Christian science and literature, was born at the country-seat of his family, near Naples, on the 27th of September, 1696.

His father, Count Joseph Liguori, was a most worthy gentleman and a good Catholic, while his mother, Lady Catherine Cavalieri, was a model of discreet virtue. Alphonsus was their first-born, and was immediately placed under the protection of the Most Blessed Virgin.

When Saint Francis Jerome visited the happy countess, she presented her beautiful babe to receive his benediction. “This little one,” said the holy Jesuit, “will not die before he is ninety years of age. He will be a bishop, and will do great things for Jesus Christ.”

The first teacher of Alphonsus was his noble mother. In the morning she blessed her dear little son and taught him to recite his prayers. The earliest truths impressed on his mind were the sublime truths of religion. Thus was the precious seed wisely sown: nor did it fall on sterile ground.

At nine years of age he was placed in the schools of the Oratorian Fathers, and the boy’s progress in learning and virtue excited much admiration. It was at this period that he made his First Communion and began to exhibit marked traits of a noble Christian character.

One day, during play-time, Alphonsus was invited to take a hand at what the scholars called “the game of oranges.” At first he refused, saying that he did not know the game; but as his young companions insisted, he finally yielded. He soon proved skilful, and won thirty times in succession. Jealousy led to anger.

“What! so you did not know the game?” shouted one of the older boys in a rage, adding some very profane language to this exclamation.

When Alphonsus heard the words he blushed. “How is this?” he said, turning towards the other boys. “Shall God be offended in this way for a few miserable cents? Take back your money! “And he threw down the few coins he had won, and left the grounds, his boyish face glowing with Christian indignation.

Years after some of his playmates would recount this admirable incident with emotion.

His parents were delighted at the brightness of intellect exhibited by their eldest son. He had a most happy memory and a vigorous understanding, which easily grasped and retained the facts and principles of science, art, and literature. The services of the most distinguished masters were secured to aid the youth in his studies, which embraced Latin, Greek, French, mathematics, the natural sciences, drawing, music, 4 painting, architecture, and canon and civil law.

Count Liguori intended him for the legal profession, and Alphonsus was so desirous of seconding the wishes of his father that his great genius, backed by unceasing industry, enabled him to obtain the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1713, by a special dispensation, as he was then but seventeen years of age.

The young lawyer was scarcely twenty when he was already famous as a leading advocate. From 1715 to 1723 it is said that he gained all the cases entrusted to him

In 1723 the tribunals of Naples were occupied with a suit of great importance. It was a contest between the Grand Duke of Tuscany and a powerful nobleman, in which six hundred thousand ducats were involved. The nobleman placed his case in the hands of Alphonsus, who, after long and careful study, said that he believed it could easily be gained. But he had, somehow or other, overlooked one document, and that oversight proved disastrous to himself and his client in the courts. The trial came on. The young advocate pleaded with more than usual keenness and brilliancy; but when the adverse party presented the document referred to, Alphonsus was extremely pained and confused. His opponents were right. He himself had been deceived/ “World, I know you now,” he exclaimed “Courts of law, never more shall you hear my voice!”

“Law is a dangerous profession, and exposes one to an unprovided death,” he afterwards said to a friend. “I renounced it because I wished, above all things, to save my soul, and must, under all circumstances, follow the dictates of my conscience.”

After many internal trials and external troubles and annoyances, Alphonsus decided to renounce the world and to study for the holy ministry. He had a remarkably firm character, and of course to decide was to execute.

His father’s grief and vexation, however, were boundless. Nor did he try to hide his feelings. When Alphonsus first appeared at home clothed in a cassock, the old count “uttered a piercing shriek, and for a year after never addressed a word to his once idolized son.”

The Saint now turned his attention to the things of heaven, and bent his rich, well-trained mind to the study of the sacred sciences. He was ordained priest on the 21st of December, 1726, at the age of thirty-one.

“I am a priest,” he wrote in his rule of life. “My dignity is above that of the angels. I should then lead a life of angelic purity, and I am obliged to strive for this by all possible means. . . . The Holy Church has honored me. I must therefore honor myself by sanctity of life and by zeal and labors.”

As a preacher his success was immediate. All hearts were touched by his sermons. Among those who went regularly to hear his words of holy eloquence was Capasso, a man whose great powers of satire and vast knowledge had made him celebrated. One day the Saint and the satirist met.

“You always come to hear me,” said Father Liguori, adding with a smile, “Should you not like to make me the subject of some new satire?”

“No, no,” replied Capasso. “I listen to you with pleasure, because I see that you forget yourself to preach Christ crucified.”

But it was especially as a confessor that the ruling passion of his life became manifest – his passion for great sinners. The holy priest put himself in their way. He met them everywhere. He followed the most hardened and wretched. He attracted them He heard their tales of sin and sorrow, and gave them absolution.

On one occasion a young gentleman sought the Saint’s confessional. He accused himself of a number of enormous crimes in a tone of levity and indifference. He then paused. “Anything more?” asked Father Liguori. “No,” said the youth.

“What!” returned the priest, “is that all? Now, do you not see that the only thing required to make you a Turk is the turban? Tell me, my son,” continued the kind-hearted Saint in accents of touching tenderness, “what evil has Jesus Christ done you?”

The words fell like the rod of Moses on the parched rock. They touched the hard heart of the young sinner, and tears of repentance suddenly gushed from his eyes. His exemplary afterlife proved two things – the depth of his contrition, and the priceless blessing of having a Saint for confessor.

“He could not endure those confessors,” says Cardinal Wiseman, “who received their penitents with a discouraging, supercilious air, or who, having heard them, sent them off disdainfully as unworthy or incapable of the divine mercy. His whole life was a protest against proceedings of this nature, and towards the close of his career he could use these magnificent words, which are the confirmation of his glory, and which should be written in letters of diamond: do not remember that I ever sent away a sinner without absolution.

The life of this illustrious man was filled with incessant labors – sermons, retreats, confessions, missions. In fact, he went so far as to make a vow never to lose a moment of time. Even the fragments he used to advantage. “I never remember,” said one of his companions, “to have seen Alphonsus waste a moment when he lived with us. He was always preaching, or hearing confessions, or at prayer or study.”

It was while conducting missions in various parts of his native country that Father Liguori began to feel the want of fellow-laborers. He prayed for light. He took counsel of the wise and learned. And finally he came to the conclusion that it was the will of Heaven that he should found a new congregation of missionary priests for the spiritual aid of those souls which are the most destitute. Thus arose the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer , 6 which dates its origin from the year 1732.

The first house of the new congregation was founded at Scala. The Saint was joined by twelve companions – ten priests, two candidates for Holy Orders, and one serving lay brother. Most austere was the life of Alphonsus and his disciples. The house was small. The beds consisted of a little straw shaken on the floor. Hard, black bread formed about their only nourishment. One religious exercise followed another with the regularity of the clock. Not a moment was lost. From time to time they spread themselves over the country to gather in a precious harvest of souls.

But all good things have their time of trial, and the work of our Saint was soon tested in the crucible. The evil one created dissensions in the new society. The regulations drawn up by Alphonsus proved very offensive to some of the members. The murmurers grew in numbers, and to such a pitch did the discontentment reach that all his companions deserted the Saint except two – Dr. Sportelli, a layman, and the lay brother Curzius.

It was, in truth, a supreme moment. Friends and foes alike now laughed at the forsaken founder. Even pious and learned ecclesiastics treated him as a visionary. He was made the butt of ridicule. But the dauntless man of God, pursuing the even tenor of his way, continued to work alone; and at length the dark day of distress passed, and new laborers came to his assistance. The Pope approved the rules of his Congregation. Its life was no longer doubtful. When the members set about to elect a superior-general, their choice fell upon the holy founder, who was unanimously elected for life.

Several years passed away. One day a venerable old gentleman approached a house of the Congregation, and on entering he was penetrated with feelings of devotion. It was Count Joseph Liguori, who had come to visit his great son. He soon grew so delighted with the humble, peaceful life of the Fathers that he even begged to be admitted as a simple lay brother. But our Saint did not favor such a step.

“This vocation,” said he to his father, “does not come from God. You must live in the world and edify it by your example as father of a family, in which condition God has placed you.”

The old nobleman went home, kept up a regular correspondence with Alphonsus, and under his wise direction he labored to become a saint. Some time after he died, covered with years and merits.

While Father Liguori attended with unceasing care to all his countless duties as superior-general, he gave special attention to the training of his students for their missionary labors. It was his great aim to form priests of solid virtue and extensive knowledge. “A laborer without science,” he would remark to his students, “even though he be a man of prayer, is like a soldier without arms.”

He greatly disliked seeing the truths of the Gospel tricked out in the frippery of gaudy rhetoric. “Puffed-up orators,” he said, “give out but wind. They think more of displaying their own eloquence than of glorifying Jesus Christ. If they escape hell, they will at least have to get rid of their inflation in purgatory.”

Throughout all the well-filled years of his life the Saint continued to add to his labors and merits by the preparation of matchless works on piety, virtue, and the sacred sciences. His writings, learning, and sanctity had made him celebrated. Of course he was offered dignities. He refused the archbishopric of Palermo. But when the See of Saint Agatha became vacant he was appointed Bishop, and the Pope would not hear of a refusal. After his consecration he said: “I was terrified to think of the burden to be imposed on me and the account I was one day to give of it to God.”

The Saint reached his episcopal see on the 11th of July, 1762. He was then sixty-six years of age. But he immediately began to work like a young apostle. He opened his labors by giving a mission of eight days. In a short time many abuses were corrected, many sinners converted, and the diocese wore a new aspect.

“We have a holy bishop,” said the people. “We have a saint among us.”

“We prayed to God to send us a good bishop,” remarked a Church dignitary, “and He has heard us; but Monseigneur will kill himself.”

He won the love and confidence of the poor people during his visitations. They flocked to hear him “Let us go,” they would exclaim as he entered their villages, “let us go to hear the Saint that smooths the way to heaven.”

Though even great saints cannot reform everybody and everything in a day, still it is marvellous what one of them can do. One of our Saint’s canons had been a scandal-giver of old standing, and it was in vain that the illustrious Bishop had again and again besought him to lead a life of virtue.

“My son,” said Alphonsus at last, throwing himself at the culprit’s feet and presenting his crucifix, “my son, if you will not obey me as your Bishop, be converted for the sake of Jesus Christ, who died for you and for me!”

Even this touching appeal failed to produce any impression; but after a time the unhappy man became a sincere penitent.

Alphonsus was a Bishop of angelic meekness. On a certain occasion, being rudely insulted by a priest from the country, he treated the offender so gently that his archdeacon, who was present, expressed surprise at what he considered to be simply an encouragement of course wickedness.

“I have been laboring,” returned the Saint, “for forty years to gain a little patience, and you want me to lose it all in a moment.”

“There is nothing,” he remarked on another occasion, “more unseemly in a bishop than anger. A bishop who gives way to this passion is no longer the father of his flock. He is an intractable tyrant who draws universal hatred upon himself.”

He was the very soul of hospitality. He loved to converse with the poor, the rude, and the illiterate, whom he always kindly received at his episcopal residence. On finding amongst his letters one from a poor person, he exclaimed: “Ah! this pleases me. It is a request for charity.”

The holy Doctor was kind to all but himself. He “was as cruel to himself,” said one who knew him well, “as he was kind to others. I would make you shudder were I to relate all the particulars of his macerations, his abstinence from food, his daily scourgings to blood – of the hair-shirts and iron chains which kept his body in a continual mortification, his watchings, and in short everything that can afflict the flesh was made use of by Monsignor Liguori.”

The Church was passing through a sad period of gloom and storm during the last years of the holy Doctor’s life. Pope Clement XIV, pressed as he was on all sides, suppressed the Society of Jesus in 1773. No one bewailed this unhappy event more than Saint Alphonsus. “The loss of the Jesuits,” he had remarked some time before, “will place the Pope and the Church in a most disastrous situation; the Jansenists aim at them, because through them they will be the more certain of striking at Church and State.”

A year rolled by. On the 21st of September, 1774, after celebrating Mass, Bishop Liguori, then near the end of his seventy-eighth year, sat down on an arm-chair. He fell into a tranquil slumber. He remained in this motionless state all day and all the following night. He awoke about eight o’clock on the morning of the 22d, and immediately pulled the bell. With tears in their eyes his attendants gathered around. He asked what was the matter, and they replied that he had neither spoken nor eaten for two days.

“That is true,” said the Saint, “but do you not Know that I have been with the Pope, who has just died?”

News soon reached the town that Clement XIV had passed to a better world at eight o’clock on the morning of the 22d, the very hour in which Saint Alphonsus had come to himself!

Weighed down as he was by age and infirmities, Alphonsus had long sought to be relieved from the burden of the episcopate. When Pius VI. became Pope he again applied for permission to retire. The new pontiff, with much sorrow, accepted his resignation.

“Blessed be God!” he exclaimed, when he heard the welcome intelligence. “A mountain has been removed from my breast.”

It was in the summer of 1775 that he bade adieu to his diocese. The scene at the departure of his carriage was truly affecting. Multitudes surrounded him, and not a dry cheek was to be seen. The kind, paternal heart of the illustrious old Saint was touched, and big, round tears filled his eyes as he gave his flock the parting benediction.

The venerable man now retired to a house of his Congregation, where he lived the same as the other Fathers. He wrote and preached as of old. But his poor health soon completely broke down. For eight years before his death he was unable to say Mass. In 1786 he wrote to one of his old friends, a Carmelite: “Father Joseph, we shall not meet again next year.” It was only too true. The close was coming, and he bore his cross manfully to the last breath. Violent temptation assailed, but he prayed to Christ and His Blessed Mother. When any friend came to his dying-bed for words of advice, he simply said: “Save your soul.”

One of his last utterances was: “I believe all the Holy Catholic Church teaches, and thus I have hope.” And with this heavenly hope in his heart, and the crucifix and an image of Mary pressed to his bosom, the bright soul of the great Alphonsus Liguori – “the Saint who had smoothed the way to heaven” – passed calmly out of this life as the sound of the Angelus bell sweetly rolled along the air on the 1st of August, in the year 1787. He had reached the ripe age of ninety-two.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop of Saint Agatha, Doctor of the Church, and Founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 19 November 2018. <>