I was asked to preach the feast day Mass for St Aloysius Church in Cresson, PA:
After silencing the Sadduccees, (cf. Mt 22:34-39) the Pharisees step up to test our Lord. They ask about the greatest commandment, and he points out that the entirety of our lives must hinge upon two relationships: love for God and love for neighbor. Sometimes this can be difficult to see how we can put this into practice into our own lives, so thankfully the Church proposes men and women to us who have lived these commandments very well. The saints not only give us role models but they are also interceding to help us. God has created each person in a unique way so we should not try to copy the lives of the saints, but to learn from them and be challenged by them in our own state of life in the time and place God has planted us.
One of these saints is Aloysius Gonzaga who renounced his right to the riches and prestige of his family in order to join the Jesuits. He lived a life of intense prayer and service to his neighbor, even volunteering to care for plague victims. He carried them on his back from the streets to the hospital to try to find proper beds for them. He eventually contracted the plague and died at the age of 23 shortly after midnight between June 20 and 21 in 1591. He was 23 years old. There are many lessons we can learn from him, but we could look to 3 today:
I. The first and last words matter
I. The first word that Saint Aloysius uttered was “Jesus”. As he was dying he continued to say the holy name, and it was in struggling to say “Jesus” that he died. We can put this into practice in our daily lives: the daily morning offering, and to live the practice of daily examination of conscience/examine. This practice calls us to look over the day to see the presence of God and to see how we corresponded to His presence. We can see any falls or areas where we may be starting to slip. These practices help provide crucial bookends for the day. How easy it is to check the phone or the television first thing or right before bed, but we should rather make it a little mortification to make prayer the bookends of our day. Then throughout the day we are reminded of to whom the day really belongs, and then the examination gives a healthy vigilance to the day: in a small way we live our entire life each day, and we want it to begin and to end with God.
II. Saints form one another
I. Holiness begets holiness. Saint Aloysius met St Charles Borromeo when he went to hear him preach on an apostolic visit to Brescia. There the holy cardinal encouraged the 12 year old Aloysius to prepare to receive his first holy communion and to receive frequently. Then when Aloysius joined the Jesuits, his spiritual director was Saint Robert Bellarmine. Sanctity is infectious, and the support of others is crucial. In Proverbs we hear “iron is sharpened by iron; one person sharpens another” (Prob 27:17). We must keep good company who can help us get to heaven, and whom we can also help. What a contrast to today’s society which is rampant with loneliness and this sense of rugged individualism. It is a great help to have holy friends: we pick up one another’s habits, we join them and go where they go. If we need some good friends because we feel very alone, what better petition to give to St Aloysius. A friendship is not passive, of course: it involves active participation on both parts. So we should always be looking for ways to help those around us, to build up friendships, to love as God calls us to love.
III. Our family does not define us:
I. Saint Aloysius witnessed the murder of both of his brothers. His family was a warring clan which was full of intrigue and violence. By the time he was born, his family was known for wealth and power. Aloysius turned all this down when he entered the Jesuits. Our ability to become saints is not dependent upon our past situations, but how we are living right now, and our openness to God’s call for conversion. For this young Italian, the riches he sought were the riches we hear about in the Psalm: “You will show me the path to life,/ fullness of joys in your presence,/ the delights of your right hand forever” (Psalm 16:11). In this psalm we express our joy at being consecrated to God in baptism and being in communion with other baptized people. Saint Aloysius desired not material riches, but the riches of being with God. He told his brother, “I am a crooked piece of iron and came into religion to be made straight by the hammer of mortification and penance.” We too can be made straight if we allow God to put us through the purifying fire. Too often we focus on being twisted pieces of iron and forget that God wants to straighten out that piece of iron by our corresponding to the graces, both the joys and sufferings, that He sends us. We should struggle with the great intensity that Aloysius struggled. Coming from a warrior clan he was no stranger to battle. We battle those past sins and hurts with prayer and penance. In fact the collect/opening prayer for the Mass instructs us well: “though we have failed to follow him in innocence, we imitate him in penitence.”(Collect, June 22). Perhaps the wisdom of Saint Josemaria Escriva could also be helpful: “In the deep pit opened by your humility, let penance bury your negligences, offenses and sins. Just as the gardener buries rotten fruit, dried twigs and fallen leaves at the foot of the very trees which produced them. And so what was useless, what was even harmful, can make a real contribution to a new fruitfulness. From the falls learn to draw strength: from death, life” (The Way, 211). Saint Aloysius pray for us. Help us not to be good, but to be saints seeking the inheritance of the Lord. Amen.