Saint Alphonsus Liguori: diocesan priest, founder of the Redemptorists, mission preacher, author, bishop, canonized saint, Doctor of the Church, and patron of moralists and of confessors! All this in ninety-one years!



      Alphonsus Liguori was born on September 27, 1696, in a suburb of Naples, Italy. He was the eldest of eight children, four boys and four girls. With a mother of Spanish descent and an Italian father, Alphonsus inherited an interesting combination of Latin genes. His father, Don Giuseppe, had entered the navy at the age of fifteen and had risen to the rank of commanding officer of a flag-ship of the Royal Navy. He was an authoritarian who ran his family in the same way that he commanded his flag-ship.


Alphonsus’ mother, Anna Cavalieri, was a gentle soul who was plagued by scruples and given to a highly ascetical piety. Alphonsus inherited both the authoritarianism of his father and the religious scrupulosity of his mother. As the eldest son, he was also burdened with the expectations and obligations that comprised the Italian concept of primogeniture. Economically and socially of the upper class, he received an excellent education in the humanities and in the study of civil and Church law, earning a double doctorate from the University of Naples. Since the physical conditions of myopia and chronic asthma prevented Alphonsus from following his father into the military, Giuseppe steered him to the legal profession, all the while planning an advantageous marriage for his son.


Alphonsus rejected both! After losing an important court case, Liguori walked out of the court in disgust, ex-claiming: “Ah, world, I know you now!” He likewise refused more than two paternally planned betrothals. His scrupulosity concerning sexual matters did not make him a prime candidate for courtship or marriage.


Under the guidance of his mother’s spiritual director, the Oratorian Thomas Pagano, who remained Alphonsus’ director for almost thirty years, he joined various Oratorian confraternities, such as the one for young noblemen and, later, one for university graduates. These confraternities not only provided spiritual services for their members but also introduced them to apostolic work at the Hospital for Incurables and at the local prisons.


Alphonsus and his father also attended annual retreats given by the Vincentians and the Jesuits. It was during a Vincentian retreat in 1722 that Liguori experienced a radical conversion. Although he was a lawyer at the time, he rejected his secular lifestyle for a more spiritual one, making a personal vow of celibacy.


Don Giuseppe was not at all pleased, and the growing tension between father and son – both equally stubborn and volatile – reached the explosion point when Alphonsus announced his decision to become a priest. He considered joining the Oratorians or the Theatines, but his father would not hear of it. Alphonsus compromised and agreed to enter the diocesan priesthood. His father hardly talked to him for the next two years, even though Alphonsus lived at home and did most of his clerical studies there via tutors. A large part of his apostolic formation was given by the Society for Apostolic Missions, also called the Propaganda.



      By August 1726, Alphonsus was on the verge of a psychosomatic breakdown and received the last rites. He slowly recovered, however, and by December 21, he was well enough to be ordained a priest.


He lived at home during the next three years and then moved to the Chinese College, an institute founded by Matthew Rip a, a missionary who had recently been expelled from China. Liguori lived there with a young friend, Gennaro Sarnelli, not as a candidate for the missions in China but simply as a boarder. At this time he introduced an innovative apostolic technique called the Evening Chapels. This was a program whereby Alphonsus and a few of his priest friends organized and trained lay catechists. These catechists would then work out of slums, catechizing the poor lazzaroni, the beggars and street people of Naples.


Despite his apostolic activism, Liguori was bothered by long bouts of introspection and scrupulosity over his new obligations and burdens as a priest. One can read about these trials of mental anguish in a “spiritual note-book” that he kept at the time. Nevertheless, his mission preaching with the Propaganda continued.


Obeying doctor’s orders, Alphonsus later departed from Naples for a bit of rest and recreation in the hills above the Amalfi coast. There, despite his work in the slums of Naples, he was shocked by the spiritual abandonment of the poor mountaineers and began catechizing them in the small chapel of Holy Mary of the Mountains. After returning to Naples, he continued to worry about these poor souls, wondering where were the priests who could help them.


      At this point, a woman entered his life! Sister Marie Celeste Crostarosa (1696-1755) was a Neapolitan just one month younger than Alphonsus. Their encounter brought about an-other radical change for Alphonsus. Celeste, a former Carmelite now living in a Visitation convent at Scala, began to claim divine revelations concerning the founding of a new institute for women, whose Rule she was to write under divine inspiration. Gossip about the Scala visionary was rife in Naples, and news of her growing conflicts with the convent’s spiritual director, Thomas Falcoia, spread. Falcoia was Alphonsus’ director as well as Celeste’s, and he asked Liguori to examine the troubled convent.


Alphonsus was impressed with Celeste and concluded that her project was indeed the work of God. What he did not know then was that within a year she would claim she had received divinely revealed plans for a new missionary institute of men, of whom Liguori was to be the founder. But his scrupulosity and his reluctance to make sudden decisions held him back, and Alphonsus spent almost a year consulting theologians in Naples before he finally accepted his role as founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which took its first shaky steps on November 9, 1732.


Immediately, Liguori found himself caught in the middle of a multi-pronged conflict involving Sister Celeste and Falcoia (now a bishop), who was revising Celeste’s Rules for the men and the women. An interfering lay theologian also added fire to the emotional conflagration!


Liguori survived the birth pangs of his new institute; Celeste was not as fortunate. By 1747 the Redemptorists numbered thirty-six members and were in great demand throughout the kingdom. They had a reputation of nearness to the people, a popular and solid preaching style, and a benign pastoral approach in the confessional. Fifteen years later the Congregation had grown to one hundred fifty members.


On Easter Monday, 1733, Celeste was dismissed from the convent at Scala as the result of a conscience stand against the changes that Falcoia had made in her Rule. She also objected to his formalistic style of spiritual direction and to what she considered unreasonable demands for total compliance with his authority. After a hegira (journey to a more congenial place) to convents at Amalfi, Roccapiemonte, and Pareti, she finally settled at Foggia and established her own convent according to her original, unadulterated Rule. She died in 1755.


During his stint as rector major and itinerant missionary, Liguori joined the struggle against moral rigorism. The battle had raged between two prevalent systems of morality, the Dominicans supporting the rigorist stance (probabilism) and the Jesuits defending laxism (probabilism). Liguori’s approach avoided the extremes of each theory, and he published his monumental Moral Theology, as well as the eminently pastoral Guide for Confessors. He also published a number of apologias, including The Moderate Use of the Probable Opinion. Although he had to walk a tightrope between the rigorists and the laxists, lest his own Congregation be suppressed, as were the Jesuits, Alphonsus’ moral teachings were vindicated by the Holy See during his lifetime. After his death, Rome gave its seal of approval, declaring him a Doctor of the Church and the patron of moralists and confessors.


His literary output, however, was not limited to moral theology. His pen was as apostolic as his preaching. His one hundred eleven published works were directed to every category of Christians: bishops, priests, religious, and laity. His themes were solidly pastoral and his topics diverse. A sample of titles includes The Eternal Truths; Reflections for Bishops; A Précis of Christian Doctrine; Prayer, the Great Means of Salvation; Visits to the Blessed Sacrament and Mary; Considerations on a Religious Vocation; Conformity to the Divine Will; The True Spouse of Christ; The Dignity and Duties of the Priest; Preparation for Death; and Against the Errors of the Deists and Materialists. Liguori’s writing spanned fifty productive years.



      In March 1762, Clement XIII appointed Alphonsus bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths. The diocese—which was near Naples, economically stable, and populated with clergy and religious—was considered a “plum.” Liguori was unhappy with the appointment, however, and respectfully asked to be spared the bishopric. But as with his role as founder, so too with the episcopacy; “holy obedience” won the day. The Pope gave his final decision in March, on the feast of Saint Joseph. Liguori viewed his appointment as a punishment for his sins!


The Redemptorists immediately petitioned the Holy See to allow Liguori to remain rector major of the Congregation, assisted by a vicar general. Though the request was granted, it later led to conflicts and dissension within the Congregation.


Alphonsus took possession of his diocese in July 1762. Despite his poor health, he threw himself into this new ministry with vigor. His first order of business was to reform the serious ecclesiastical abuses in the diocese, be-
ginning with the renewal of the seminary and a spiritual rehabilitation of the clergy and religious. Second, he at-tacked the practice of public concubinage, even soliciting the aid of civil authorities. He organized general missions for the diocese, utilizing his own Redemptorist missionaries and those of the Propaganda. He also established social welfare programs for the poor, even opening his episcopal palace to the needy.


Recurring attacks of ill health and a growing number of complaints against his reformist zeal, however, prompted Alphonsus to offer his resignation several times. Finally, in May 1775, Pius VI accepted his resignation.



      Alphonsus returned to Pagani “to prepare for death,” as he described it! Here he was to suffer the biggest disappointment of his life. The Congregation’s Rule, which Benedict XIV had approved in 1749, had never received royal approval, making the continued existence of the Congregation precarious at best. Thus, in 1779 two Redemptorists, Fathers Cimino and Caione, were sent to negotiate with the royal court for approval. The eighty-three-year-old Liguori, deaf, practically blind, and unable to read or write, put complete trust in his emissaries. Unfortunately, they made extraordinary concessions to the regalist authorities, watering down the original papal Rule to the point of unrecognizability. The almost senile rector major was duped into signing this governmental Regolamento. The vows of religion were changed to mere oaths, the vow of poverty disappeared altogether, the oath of perseverance was omitted, and the local bishops were given the power over the internal affairs of the Congregation. General Chapters were wiped out of the text completely.


This document was delivered to Liguori in March 1780. When the radical changes were explained to him, he went into a severe depression. The Pope was chagrined at the Congregation’s acceptance of the Regolamento, which so blatantly contradicted the papal Rule, and dismissed Alphonsus and his Neapolitan confreres from the Congregation. Only the Redemptorists within the Papal States continued as canonically approved Redemptorists.
Six years after this tragedy, on August 1, 1787, Liguori died at Pagani, still technically outside the Congregation he had founded.


The process for his canonization began a few months after his death. His virtues were declared “heroic” in 1807. Nine years later he was beatified, and in 1839 he was canonized. In March 1871, Pius IX declared him a Doctor of the Church, and in 1950, Pius XII declared Alphonsus the official patron of moralists and of confessors.


A Short Biography by Fr. Joseph W. Oppitz, C.Ss.R