St Alphonsus Liguori, our tutor in perseverance
4 August 2021
By Maria Madise
One could easily imagine that, with sufficient effort at a decisive moment, one could imitate a certain heroic act of a saint. But meditating on perseverance in virtue over many years, and on a life in the constant presence of Jesus and Mary, puts one’s quest for sainthood in true perspective. Perseverance is a challenge in all ages, but it is particularly important for us today if we wish to keep growing in our faith while virtually everything and everyone around us contradicts it. Clearly, we need the support of good examples.
St Alphonsus Liguori stood out as a beacon of perseverance in the eighteenth century, an era that was not marked by a deep Catholic spirit and eventually produced the French Revolution. On a recent visit to the Redemptorist foundation in Pagani, however, I was reminded of how brightly his example shines in our day.
St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori was born in 1696 in Naples – the city that has given the Church more saints than any other in Italy. He had already become a doctor of civil and canon law at the age of sixteen and he embarked on a highly successful legal career. Losing an important case, at the age of twenty-seven, led him to abandon the practice of law and become an advocate in the great cause of the salvation of souls instead. Following his ordination to the priesthood, he dedicated himself to the service of the most neglected souls in the area. In 1732 he founded the Missionary order of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). The new order had a turbulent history during the lifetime of St Alphonsus, even to the extent that he was excluded from the houses of his own order in the Kingdom of Naples. Nevertheless, after his death, the order spread to many parts of the world and its founder was raised to the altars.
St Alphonsus was truly a spiritual giant of his time. Much could be (and has been) said of his long and fruitful life. He was at once a missionary, preacher, confessor, bishop, theologian, writer, poet, composer, musician, artist, and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX. By itself, his Moral Theology (1748) – teaching a middle way between the extremes of being lax or over-rigorous, and born of St Alphonsus’s vast pastoral experience – would be enough to consider him an extraordinary figure. However, in this small sketch, we will consider three important lessons this illustrious saint teaches us with the example of his life.
1. Do not waste time
St Alphonsus made a vow not to lose a single moment of time. And he kept this vow. The intensity with which he worked, as well as the remarkable amount of work he did, gives witness to his enormous tenacity of purpose and unyielding perseverance.
Within an intense life of apostolic work, he produced an impressive 111 books with original illustrations and he composed hymns. Having practised the harpsichord several hours a day as a boy, he had become an accomplished player.
His spiritual work was no less impressive. After his arduous missionary years, St Alphonsus was made a bishop of the small diocese of Agatha dei Goti. He laboured relentlessly to feed the poor, instruct the ignorant, reform his seminary and convents, renew the spirit in his clergy, bring honour to the study of theology, discipline scandalous noblemen and women leading immoral lives, while, reportedly, begging pope after pope to let him resign his office because he was doing nothing for his diocese.
To all this work we must add his many hours of daily prayer and great austerities despite his ill health.
While making the most of the days and hours given to him in this life, St Alphonsus considered his time most profitably spent in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament:
“Be assured that the time you will thus spend with devotion before this most divine Sacrament will be the most profitable to you in life and the source of your greatest consolation in death and in eternity.”
Indeed, St Alphonsus kept death constantly in mind. His gentle nature, animated with burning love for souls, recognised the importance of using our time on earth well – the only time we have to gain our eternal home, heaven. According to his first biographer, Tannoia, he had “a tender charity towards all who were in trouble; he would go to any length to try to save a vocation; and he would expose himself to death to prevent sin”.
A graphic depiction of a skeleton decorated the wall of his little chapel in Pagani. The line below the bones, devoured by mice and worms, reads “Oh, you who read this, see what you will be one day”.
2. Persevere on the right course with death before your eyes
Death is a certainty. And according to St Alphonsus, virtually the only thing we can be sure of in this life. Yet, he said, “all know that they must die; but many are deceived by picturing to themselves death at such a distance as if it could never come near them.”
In his excellent book Preparation for death, St Alphonsus reminds us of the admonition of St Jerome, that many begin well, but few persevere. Saul, Judas, Tertullian, began well but ended badly because they did not persevere in grace.
St Matthew tells us, “He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved” (Mt 24:13) and St Alphonsus urges us to pray for perseverance: “Dear Jesus, give me the gift of love for you. Let me never again feel complacent over the trials you endured for me. I want to love you always. Give me perseverance in loving you.”
“You have begun a good life; thank the Lord for it: but St Bernard warns you that the reward, though promised to him who begins, is only given to him who perseveres… It is not enough to run for the prize; but we must run until we obtain it: ‘So run, that you may obtain,’ says the Apostle.”
We will win if we run and persevere on the course. Today when society, by and large, is not only against the faith but also against reason, perseverance gives us a complete programme for life: perseverance in lively faith when much around us is barren and arid; perseverance in hope when the world prompts us to despair; perseverance in charity, when there is much to provoke our anger; but also to persevere in discipline even if no-one else does; to persevere in continence, when chastity is ridiculed and innocence attacked; perseverance in modesty of dress when no-one seems to care; perseverance in dignity and manners, when coarseness and vulgarity have become the norm. Today when things in the world as well as in the Church seem to go from bad to worse, it is perseverance that is asked of us. Perseverance in all goodness for the love of God Who created all things perfect.
If we persevere, we may conclude our earthly exile with the words of St Paul: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim. 4:7)
St Alphonsus’s practical advice for living well was simply to “spend the remaining days of life with death before your eyes.” The state of life we wish to be in when we die, he urges us to choose now.
“Make haste, and amend in time; resolve to give yourself truly to God, and begin from this time at least a life which may not be an affliction, but a consolation to you at the hour of death. Give yourself up to prayer; frequent the Sacraments, quit dangerous occasions, and, if necessary, leave even the world; secure your eternal salvation; and be convinced that to secure this no precaution can be too great.”
Although St Alphonsus was sickly for much of his life, his final years were marked by very serious and trying ailments, especially arthritis, which caused him great pain and confined him to a wheelchair. But this wheelchair became his prie-dieu, in it, he was taken daily to the Via Crucis. He was also miraculously present in spirit at the death-bed of Pope Clement XIV in Rome. For three days he remained praying in his chair, only finishing when the Pope had died.
3. St Alphonsus took Mary for his own
According to St Alphonsus, Mary is our life for two reasons: 1) she obtains for us the pardon of our sins, and 2) she obtains for us perseverance. But she is also our life through her love for God, which is a fire so intense that “it would in a moment inflame heaven and earth” and that in comparison to it “all the flames of the burning love of the seraphim were as cool breezes”. However, St Alphonsus considers her love for us no less remarkable:
“… as there is none among the blessed spirits who loves God more than Mary, so there is, and can be none, except God, who loves us more than this our most loving mother. If the love of all mothers for their children, of all husbands for their wives, and of all saints and angels for their devoted servants, were united, it would not be so great as the love that Mary bears to one soul alone.”
It was reported on three different occasions that while preaching in his missions, a ray of light from a picture of Our Lady darted towards St Alphonsus and he fell into an ecstasy. The saint’s biographer confirms that his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady was extraordinary.
The intimate union with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, so beautifully taught in his little book “Visits to the Blessed Sacrament”, took truly the form of a real presence at the house of the foundation in Pagani. St Alphonsus’s room was next to the Blessed Sacrament and even arranged so that he could see the tabernacle at most times.
“If anything could shake my faith in the Eucharist, it would not be the doubt as to how bread and wine could become flesh… because I should answer that God can do everything; but if I ask myself how could He love us so much as to make Himself our food, I can only answer that this is a mystery of faith above my comprehension, and that the love of Jesus cannot be understood.”
Also in St Alphonsus’s rooms, even as they are preserved today, Our Lady remains strongly present, as the Mother of purity and the Mother of sorrows; and the image of Our Lady of Good Counsel was always on his table.
St Alphonsus, a faithful son of Mary, died in her bosom. Thus, his lifelong preparation for a good death was rewarded. In the evening of 31 July 1787, St Alphonsus weakened by approaching death, whispered: “Give me my lady.” An image of Our Lady was placed in his hands, which he held and prayed with during the night. He died the next day at the stroke of the noon Angelus. At the age of 91, his perpetual prayer on earth was answered: “Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me what You will.”
 Catholic Encyclopaedia, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01334a.htm
 St Alphonsus Liguori, “Visits to the Blessed Sacrament”, TAN Books, Charlotte 2016, p. xviii
 Catholic Encyclopaedia
 St Alphonsus Liguori, “Preparation for death”, TAN Books, Charlotte 2010, p.19
 St Alphonsus Liguori, “Preparation for death”.
 St Alphonsus Liguori, “The Glories of Mary”, Catholic Way Publishing, London 2014.
 St Alphonsus Liguori, “Meditations on the Way of the Cross”, Catholic Truth Society, London 2017.