Alphonsus Liguori earned a doctorate in both civil and canon law by the age of sixteen. This future Doctor of the Church was not, however, destined to remain in the secular legal profession. After the humiliating loss of a court case in his mid-twenties, he gave up law and dedicated his life to serving God and His Church.
Alphonsus was born in Naples, Italy, in 1696 to a noble and pious family. Against the wishes of his father, who had encouraged his legal career, Alphonsus was ordained a priest in 1726 and soon became known as a particularly articulate preacher. His gentleness, especially in the confessional, was controversial in the eyes of some. At this time, the Catholic Church was struggling with the heresy of Jansenism. This teaching, which was actually a form of Calvinism, was strongly condemned by the Pope in 1713, but vestiges of its austerity and scrupulosity were still being felt in the actions of various religious orders and also confessors.
In 1732, he founded a religious order dedicated to working among the rural poor. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, popularly known as Redemptorists, lived in community in imitation of Christ and preached missions throughout the country-side of Italy. Liguori himself worked at this calling for over twenty-six years. Ironically, he was expelled from his own order for a time due to internal strife and the desertion of some of the original members of the community.
His contributions to the life of the Church did not end with the Redemptorists, however. As a moral theologian, Liguori stressed, not the condemnation of God, but His mercy and readdness to forgive sins. His two-volume work, “Moral Theology”, has become a classic of Catholic teaching, and has subsequently been translated into more than sixty languages. In addition to his theological writing, he also authored several devotionals, many of which are still followed today.
He was particularly devoted to the Blessed Mother. It was she who gave him comfort and strength in times of his greatest struggles. Although not in the best of health throughout his life, Liguori was especially debilitated during his last years, suffering from arthritis and rheumatism so painful that it deformed his body. Confined to a wheelchair and nearly blind, his head was permanently bent forward onto his chest. For years he drank from tubes to receive nourishment.
It was during this time that his enemies in the government, in an attempt to revise the Rule of the Redemptorists to better suit themselves, tricked him into signing a document that effectively removed him as head of his own order. This led Liguori to spiral into a “dark night” of fear, uncertainty and scrupulosity, which took years to overcome and was ultimately relieved by his devotion to Mary.
St. Alphonsus Liguori died peacefully on August 1, 1787 at the age of ninety-one. Canonized in 1839, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1871. The patron of theologians and vocations, his feast day is celebrated on August 1st. Almighty God, who constantly raise up in your Church new exam-ples of virtue, grant that we may follow so closely in the footsteps of the Bishop Saint Alphonsus in his zeal for souls so to attain the same rewards as his in heaven.