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St. Aloysius Gonzaga is a valuable role model, inspiration

Luigi Gonzaga, the future St. Aloysius Gonzaga, was born in 1568 to an influential family in Lombardy, Italy.

His father expected his first-born son to pursue a career in the military and politics, but from a young age Luigi showed little interest in his father’s plans. Two years spent with the notorious d’Medici family in Florence, and three years serving as a page to the future Spanish king, only reinforced young Gonzaga’s conviction that he wanted nothing to do with politics or the military.

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In 1585, at the age of 17, with his father’s grudging approval, Gonzaga renounced his inheritance and entered a Jesuit novitiate in Rome. According to Father James Martin’s account, he proved to be an ideal novice. He professed vows in 1587 at the age of 19; a year later he received minor orders and began theological studies.

When a deadly plague broke out in Rome in 1591, Gonzaga worked to comfort the sick and dying. Within months he contracted the disease himself and died on the feast of Corpus Christi; he was only 23.

Writing in “My Life with the Saints,” Martin says there are few saints who exemplified St. Ignatius’ imitation of Christ better than Aloysius Gonzaga, who chose “poverty as opposed to riches … contempt as opposed to honor … humility as opposed to pride.”

However, I think there is another reason why St. Aloysius Gonzaga is a valuable role model and an inspiration for those of us living in the world today.

From the age of 10 on, Gonzaga imposed upon himself a severe regimen of fasting, prayer and self-denial; this was so severe that when he entered the novitiate his superiors ordered him to eat more regularly, pray less often and moderate his penance.

I don’t think we see too many examples of extreme asceticism among Catholic Christians today, but I think it’s fair to say that we do notice an attraction to traditional Catholic devotions and piety, especially among some younger Catholics.

As helpful as these pious devotions are, there is always the danger that they become a badge of honor (what sociologists call identity markers) for “good Catholics,” and in some cases substitutes for Catholic action.

I think this is what St. Aloysius learned from the Jesuits, that devotional practices are not more important than active participation in God’s mission to the world, and they are not necessarily the things that make us holy — or Catholic.

As we read about the early Christian communities during this Easter season, let’s notice that what they were recognized for was how they loved – a pattern for Christian living which emerged long before any of our devotional practices, save the Eucharist itself.

What do you think?

Pray and Reflect

Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group discussion or private journaling:

  • On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate how important devotional practices are to your spiritual life. How would you have rated yourself five years ago?
  • Do you (or have you) experienced a tension between acts of devotion and following the example of Jesus in daily life? How do you resolve that tension? In your own experience, which do you think are most important? Which model Jesus’ example best? How and what should we be teaching our children, grandchildren and students about acts of devotion and piety?
  • I think acts of devotion and piety are …

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Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. It is designed to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their role as disciples of Jesus Christ.


Fundamental Features of Ignatian Spirituality

  • God is encountered above all in the practices of everyday life.
  • The life and death of Jesus Christ is … the fundamental pattern for the Christian life.
  • The God revealed in Christ offers healing, liberation and hope.
  • Spirituality is not so much a matter of asceticism as a matter of a deepening desire for God.
  • Following the pattern of Jesus Christ focuses on an active sharing in God’s mission to the world – not least in serving people in need.
  • At the heart of everything is the gift of spiritual discernment – an increasing ability to judge wisely and to choose well in ways that are congruent with a person’s deepest truth.
  • From Philip Sheldrake, “A Mysticism of Practice.”