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The Story of Aloysius Gonzaga

Giovanni Arledler, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Sep 15th 2023

Aloysius Gonzaga

Visiting the so-called “rooms” or “chapels” of St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Rome, to a certain extent one can measure the distance – about four and a half centuries – between our time and his. But he also seems very present, because some things belonging to him – the crucifix, objects for daily use, the letters written in a beautiful script – seem to indicate to the visitor (as if the statue which portrays him very naturally, located in the great hall, is about to come to life and continue one of his favorite talks) the primacy of God over all of reality and, consequently, how little weight we must give to all the rest.

Up until a few years ago it was not necessary to insist upon the importance of Aloysius Gonzaga within the Church, because the statistics of his popularity showed him to be about the 10th-most-well-known saint, after Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Rita of Cascia, Padre Pio, Pope John XXIII, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Don Bosco, John Paul II, and Thérèse of Lisieux. However, not many were aware that he was Italian (the surname sounds Spanish to some) and a religious of the Society of Jesus.

His belonging to the Society of Jesus suggests a distinctive note, which probably helps to take in the witness of his life that we will try to treat in its essence: every good Jesuit, starting with the founder of the Order, Ignatius of Loyola, tends to identify himself through his own mission, which is at times specified practically by the pope himself. He does so continually asking: “What would Jesus do in this situation?”

This continual process of identification, step by step, ought to bring the member of the Society of Jesus to identify himself with the Lord, and thus, at the same time, his personality (a strong character like that of Francis Xavier, patron of the missions, also comes to mind) loses many of its characteristics. Thus, Aloysius the little marquis, Aloysius the court page, Aloysius the young ascetic[1] becomes quite rapidly the companion of Jesus who exhausts himself in a few years for his brothers, gives his life with abandonment, and wants always to be united to the Lord in eternal life.

Difficult birth

Aloysius was born in Castiglione delle Stiviere, March 9, 1568, to Don Ferrante Gonzaga, marquis of Castiglione and to Lady Marta, born Tana, of the counts of Sàntena da Chieri, near Turin, lady-in-waiting to the queen of Spain, Isabella de Valois. Ferrante was often present at the Spanish court as a military commander. The parents of Aloysius were well-prepared from the religious point of view for marriage and merited the consent of their parents and of the sovereigns that they were serving.



Aloysius was the first of eight children, some of whom died at an early age. His own birth presented difficulties, so much so that, fearing for the life of both the mother and child, before the baby was “completely born,”[2] as Fr. Virgilio Cepari writes (the most authoritative of his biographers whom we will have occasion to cite), the midwife baptized him, while his parents entrusted him to the most blessed Virgin, making a vow to go to Loreto. The baptismal ceremony was then celebrated on April 20, in the church of Sts. Nazarius and Celsus, by the archpriest of Castiglione, Giovanni Battista Pastorio.

From an early age, Aloysius showed himself to be rather intelligent, and his mother taught him his prayers and watched over him in a special way. His instruction was that fitting a nobleman of his rank, related to the houses of Este, the Medici and other great European families. Aloysius learned, step by step, Latin, the sciences, etiquette, enjoying the help of his own teachers and those of the courts of Florence and Spain, wherever he came to find himself, with or without his parents.

A cannon blast

His father, placing all his hope in him for the greatness of the family, chose to educate him from the age of four in the life of a military commander, even having armor made for him and little weapons as toys, and bringing him to Casalmaggiore (taking advantage of the estate which the Gonzaga had in Monferrato) in the period after the battle of Lepanto (October 7, 1571) when the Christian forces were preparing to launch a decisive blow against the Ottoman forces in the territory of modern-day Tunisia.

Aloysius spent time with his father at Casalmaggiore from the last months of 1572 to the beginning of June 1573. Once, shooting with a little arquebus, wanting to imitate the soldiers, he burned his entire face with gunpowder. On another occasion, about a year later, while everyone was resting, he loaded a little piece of artillery and fired it, causing a great explosion and risking being crushed by the kickback of the weapon. He escaped the punishment of his father only by the intercession of the soldiers, who delighted to see such an intrepid and vivacious child.

Aloysius grows up and becomes serious

This period with his father would not have had great repercussions in his life if Aloysius had not learned, through contact with the soldiers, inappropriate and perhaps even blasphemous expressions. When he became aware of the fact, thanks to the observations shared with him by the one who became his tutor in the Florentine period, Pier Francesco Del Turco, he at first limited himself to doing something about it, but later he would not let it rest, as if he had committed the gravest of crimes. To the improper speech, he added taking gunpowder from the soldiers in order to load the cannon. The great importance which he attributed to these presumed crimes explains his fainting at the moment of his first confession in Florence. According to the testimony of many, including Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, his spiritual father and confessor in his last years, these were probably the only discernible sins committed by Aloysius in his entire, brief life.

On returning to Castiglione, Aloysius showed ever more zeal in all that he did. He displayed such maturity as to express himself, between ages six and seven, in these words: “Mother, you have said that you would like a child to become a religious: I believe that God will give you this grace […] and I believe that I will be that religious.”[3] Some servants and family members in the inquiry for the process of beatification swore that Aloysius expressed himself to everyone with such words as to leave them amazed. Especially if it had to do with observations or reproofs, he did it with an attitude and in language so fitting that there could be no doubt but that the Holy Spirit was speaking through him.

 At the Medici court

Don Ferrante, after the expedition in Tunisia, which followed upon the military preparations in Casalmaggiore, was engaged in other voyages and a stay of many months at the Spanish court, from October 1575 to July 1576. Having returned finally to Castiglione, he found his first born very different from how he had left him, already inclined to fulfill the desire of his mother – almost a vow – to have one of her children become a religious.

Among the less notable occurrences of Aloysius’ life, we cannot fail to mention that, at about age six, he contracted malaria, which carried away his little brother Carlo. In the course of 1576, due to fear of the plague that was striking Italy from the north, the whole family moved to Monferrato. After some time Don Ferrante, to have his gout treated, moved to Bagni di Lucca, bringing Aloysius and his second born, Rudolf. He then left them in Florence at the court of the Medici, hoping that this would be favorable to their cultural formation and their role as future leaders.

Perhaps Ferrante was not entirely aware of the problems of a moral nature which afflicted the Medici (to whom he was related), especially under the Grand Duke Francesco I, who had a relationship with the Venetian widow Bianca Cappello. Aloysius, however, derived continual benefit from the experiences he had. He played many times with his brother and with the daughters, almost his own age, of the Grand Duke, Anna, Eleonora and Maria.

It was in Florence that, at age nine, in the church of the Most Holy Annunciation, remembering how the Virgin Mary gave all of herself to the Lord, Aloysius privately made the vow of consecrating himself completely to God, a vow to which he would remain entirely faithful.

 First confession

During his stay in Florence, Aloysius enriched his spiritual life with his first confession, which he made to Fr. Francesco de la Torre of the Society of Jesus, rector of the Jesuit College in the city, in the church of St. John the Evangelist. This church was in front of the Medici Palace, and in that period was also frequented by the future St. Maria Magdalene de’ Pazzi. We have already mentioned this episode. As Cepari again recounts, Aloysius prepared himself at home with “great diligence and precision and then he presented himself before the confessor with such reverence and respect and with such confusion and so ashamed of himself, as if he had been the greatest sinner in the world: and immediately, at the feet of the confessor, he fainted and it was necessary for his tutor Pier Francesco Del Turco to come to his aid and carry him home.”[4]

On returning to Castiglione, after having spent about six months in Mantua, in 1577 Aloysius read a brief extract in Latin of the Summa Doctrinae Christianae of the German Jesuit St. Peter Canisius, which in some editions, in the beginning, beyond the prayers for students, contains the Meditationes quotidianae, each of which treats a virtue of Jesus and ends with a prayer. Canisius, moreover, had prefaced the book with a brief introduction that explains mental prayer. From that source the young Aloysius learned this kind of prayer which he had not practiced before, dedicating himself above all to the liturgy of the hours, some psalms and the rosary.

The reading of the Letters from the Indies, printed in Spain, and in Italian in Venice, brought him close in his sentiments to the Society of Jesus. In the past, he had considered whether to ask admittance to the religious life of the Carmelites, insofar as he very much appreciated the experiences of Teresa of Ávila. He was moved by her death, which occurred October 15, 1582. He also thought about entering the Franciscans, because of a cousin, Hannibal, who took the habit of St. Francis and would become the bishop of Mantua.

First Communion

In 1580, Cardinal Charles Borromeo – nominated by Gregory XIII apostolic visitor of the bishoprics of the province of Lombardy – entered the diocese of Brescia, and reached Castiglione, where on July 22 he preached to the people in the church of Sts. Nazarius and Celsus. He advised Aloysius, who went to visit him, to receive communion, and he himself conferred First Communion in the same church and on the same day. This detail was testified to in 1608 – when the process into the life of Aloysius had already begun – by Clemente Ghisoni, who was one of the servants of the boy from age seven until his entrance into the Society of Jesus.

After these events Aloysius and his parents went to Spain, following Mary of Austria, daughter of Charles V and sister of Philip II. For a while he was the page of Don Diego, son of Philip II and heir to the throne. It is remembered that once the very young prince, disturbed by the bad weather, ordered the wind to stop, receiving the calm reply of Aloysius that things of this kind were only possible for almighty God. Having learned of it, the king was content with this teaching that his son had received.

Aloysius was at court, although refusing to participate in worldly life. He studied, with much profit, languages and sciences, mathematics, philosophy and theology; he walked about with great composure and recollection; wore used clothes; avoided looking people in the face, and was taken up with spiritual thoughts and prayers until he reached the decision to become a priest, although he was still undecided on which Order to enter.

After prayer and meditation, inspired by the Madonna in the chapel of the Annunciation of the Imperial College of the Society in Madrid (the image, for just this reason, then had the title “Mother of Good Counsel”), on August 15, 1583, he decided to enter the Society of Jesus for four reasons: first, being a new Order, it maintained its primitive vigor without too many changes; second, their vow not to obtain ecclesiastical dignities and not to accept them unless ordered by the pope; third, the Order had schools and congregations to help the youth; and fourth, the Order proposed the end of combatting heresies and instead, set itself the task of converting the Indies, Japan and the Americas.[5]

 Fierce resistance of his father

Aloysius began to share his decision with his parents. But his father, although convinced that he was called by God, did not give his permission and in various ways held him back. He turned to high prelates, begging them to convince Aloysius that he could serve God while still remaining in secular life. Under various pretexts, he charged him to conduct affairs in his name, to visit relatives and nobles, but Aloysius remained firm in his decision, undertaking his duties with zeal and excellent ability, but always dressed poorly – so much as to receive criticisms and reproofs – and retiring, as soon as he was able, to pray in the most remote corners of his various lodgings.

Having returned to Castiglione, first Guglielmo, himself the duke of Mantua, then his uncle Alphonsus Gonzaga, whom he was supposed to follow as marquis of Castel Goffredo, tried to induce him at least to become a secular priest, and not join an Order like that of the Jesuits in which he would have to give up everything. They, after having spoken affectionately with the young man, remained amazed by his virtues and edified by such great love for God. Finally Don Ferrante himself also became convinced by the firm will of his son, partially following a decisive episode: Aloysius, bitterly rebuked because he had distanced himself from the palace by taking refuge in a convent of Franciscan Friars Minor, was forced to return and locked himself in his room, crying and praying God to give him strength and constancy, while his father, struggling with the desire not to offend God and the desire not to deprive himself of such a beloved son, asked the governor to see what was happening. He made a little hole in Aloysius’ door and saw him naked and on his knees before a crucifix, inflicting penitential pain on himself while crying. His father, rushing in, was so moved at such a sight, gave in and wrote to Cardinal Scipione Gonzaga to offer his son to the Father General of the Society of Jesus, Claudio Acquaviva. He described his son as “the dearest thing and greatest hope which I have in this world,”[6] a sentiment which he repeated also in the letter of presentation to the novitiate.

 Aloysius signs the renunciation of goods

The request, naturally, was accepted, and Aloysius was sent to the novitiate in Rome. He prepared the declaration of the renunciation of all rights as marquis in favor of his brother Rudolph, as well as any other titles or properties that might come to him. The declaration was placed under the examination of various doctors of the law and the Senate of Milan in order that there not remain any doubtful points and it could be sent, also with the aid of Eleonora of Austria, duchess of Mantua, to the Holy Roman Emperor, without whose consent such rights could not be transferred.

After some delay, due to the carrying out of other duties and a final profound examination of his vocation by the famous Jesuit Achille Gagliardi, who was in Milan at San Fedele, having obtained the consent of the Emperor, finally on November 2, 1585, in the St. Sebastian Palace, home of the marquis in Mantua, he declared his renunciation. After having prayed in his room, and having dressed himself in the garb of a Jesuit novice, Aloysius presented himself in the hall, provoking great commotion; then, having taken his leave of all those present, he set off.

 In the Society of Jesus

After some wandering about in central Italy because of the danger of contracting the plague, Aloysius stopped in Loreto, to keep faith again with the vow made upon his birth by his parents. After the middle of November he arrived in Rome, and on the 28th of the same month he entered the novitiate of St. Andrew on the Quirinal, the 828th to do so. It is significant that they did not make him sign the list of his belongings, worthy of a prince but not excessive, all being sure of his vocation, and therefore certain that he would not have asked for his things back. The crucifix which he brought with him is conserved in the current sacristy attached to the rooms.

 Death of his father

A little more than two months later, Don Ferrante died. In his last days, he adopted a more devout and recollected style of life, which brought great consolation to Aloysius, who moreover wanted constantly to apply in his religious state what he had learned from his father, namely, when a person choses to do something, he ought to force himself to do it to the greatest degree of perfection possible.

Thus the period of his novitiate, like the following period as a scholastic, was characterized by absolute humility, obedience, sincerity, mortification and prayer, in the observance of all the rules, an absolute respect for silence and a perfect modesty in manners and speech, so as to inspire admiration in the novice master, in his confessor and in whoever was near to him.

They often sent him to the professed house to serve Mass. For six months he was in Naples, in the hope that a change of air might benefit his frequent migraines; finally, he was received at the Roman College, where he continued his study of metaphysics, logic and physics with great profit. He passed then to theology, while his Italian and Spanish teachers admired his intellect and diligence. He nurtured good relations with all his teachers, whom he often consulted even outside class time, always speaking in Latin and with a profoundly respectful attitude.

 First vows

Thus, two years later, after a few days on retreat on November 25, 1587, on the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria (the same day on which he had entered the novitiate), Aloysius pronounced his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a chapel called the “chapel of the vows” during Mass celebrated by the rector, Fr. Vincenzo Bruno.

On February 25, 1588, at St. John Lateran he received his first tonsure with many others of the Society, including the Maronite Abraham Giorgi who in 1595 suffered martyrdom in the region of the Horn of Africa.

His day was full and always characterized by profound charity. As is prescribed by St. Ignatius in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, he helped in the domestic chores, in the kitchen, for example. He taught catechism to children, accompanied the fathers visiting jails and hospitals in order to attain an interior and exterior formation, because “the interior gifts are those from which it is necessary for one to derive the efficacy of the exterior ones.”[7]

All this is very beautifully documented by Cardinal Bellarmine who, when he gave students some instruction on doing their meditations well, often said that he had learned it from “our Aloysius.” To his great intellectual gifts, Aloysius added a great diplomatic ability, as he showed when, on the request of family members, he was sent to Mantua to clear up a controversy over the Solferino estate between his brother Rudolph, to whom the title of marquis had passed, and the duke of Mantua. He very successfully resolved the question, giving, moreover, authoritative counsel to his brother even regarding his private life.

From there he went for a period to Milan, always leading an austere life, never failing, out of obedience, to preach in public and to engage in spiritual conversations. Here in Milan, just before leaving for Rome, he had a vision that made him understand that he would soon die and therefore he had to serve the Lord with all perfection and detachment from the world.

The return trip was a long one. After a stop in Siena, where he received communion in the room of St. Catherine and preached in the College to the young people of the Marian Congregation, he reached Rome and was affectionately welcomed by the fathers of the Roman College, desirous to enjoy his conversation.

The last days

In these last months of his life, the superior assigned him a single room, at the top of the stairs, low and narrow, with a little window over a roof, in which he could fit only a bed, a chair and a kneeler, which he also used as a desk to study on: there he could quietly retire and pray undisturbed.

In 1591, serious famine in the Roman countryside provoked a great influx of people into Rome, contributing to the spread of the plague and typhus. To the already existing hospitals, Father General Acquaviva wanted to add one of the Jesuits for the entire duration of the epidemic, and the scholastics were sent there to assist the sick and to gather the dying from the streets. Among them, Aloysius also dedicated himself to this service, choosing the most abandoned from whom the others stayed far away out of fear or disgust. In the end, a strong fever forced him to his bed, but it was not the plague which brought about his death: “He dies, after a period of rapid and increasing physical exhaustion; he dies because of his dedication, of the charity which pushed him to respond to the painful cries which reach him from the suffering, to the invitation, that is, of Christ himself who has need of relief and care in so many of the sick. ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40).”[8]

Aloysius wrote two beautiful letters to his mother – one of which is presented in the Office of Readings for his feast day – manifesting to her his joy in dying young, before he could “stain himself” in some way, and to meet the Lord. After having asked to be gently laid on the bare ground – which was not permitted him – and having received the viaticum, murmuring Laetantes imus, laetantes imus, he died within the octave of Corpus Domini, in the early hours of Friday, June 21, 1591.

 Blessed and saint

We leave aside the account of the long pilgrimage of the relics because of the many works which were necessary for the building of the majestic church of St. Ignatius. In 1699, his remains were placed in the great chapel of the right transept – designed by Andrea Pozzo – under the altar, a gift of the Lancellotti family. Under Paul V, in Castiglione, in the presence of his mother and the wife of his brother Francis, to whom the title of marquis had passed after the death of Rudolph, July 28, 1604, in the church of Sts. Nazarius and Celsus, Aloysius was officially venerated as blessed.

After a long process and numerous testimonials, in 1726, Benedict XIII, in a solemn ceremony in St. Peter’s, canonized him together with the young Stanislaus Kostska, proclaiming him, three years later, patron of youths and students. Pius XI, in 1926, confirmed this designation.

The miracles attributed to his intercession multiplied immediately after his death, while throughout Italy, and above all in Rome, veneration of this young man, now in the heavenly glory, just as St. Maria Magdalene de’ Pazzi had seen him in ecstasy and Cardinal Bellarmine had guaranteed in a written testimonial, spread widely.[9]

 The fame and legacy of Aloysius Gonzaga

It is fitting to conclude by highlighting other aspects of his holiness and what Aloysius Gonzaga has left us, both to know him better and to find other reasons which make him important in our time. After entering the Society, thanks also to the recommendations given by St. Ignatius himself to the brothers and those doing the Spiritual Exercises, Aloysius mitigated his penance, although he confessed that this moderation constituted for him a greater suffering.

There are many who confirm his great attentiveness in service to and the counseling of others, that he tried to improve not only the things he did or said, but also his manners, tact, gentleness, behavior – just as he did with his servants – not as a marquis, but as a member of the family. 

In Aloysius, the sense of the Mystical Body which is the Church was so strong that, from the time when he understood this, he lived with a uniquely intense zeal for mission in Rome, Europe and the whole world, to the point that many consider him next to Therese of Lisieux, who died at only 24 years of age, patron of the missions.

Another point of contact with little Therese is the search for a “little way” or – according to Aloysius – a “shortcut to perfection,” through profound prayer which allows us to see all things united to God from the perspective of salvation. The letters and the few devotional writings of his that have come down to us lead us to believe that he would have been a remarkable theologian.

The zeal of his brother Francis and other relatives like Cardinal Scipione Gonzaga brought about the beatification of Aloysius in less than 15 years after his death, and it would have led quickly to his canonization if the superiors of the Jesuits had not insisted upon the opportunity of first proclaiming as a saint the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola.

In the army of those who through the centuries have particularly venerated him, we find Don Bosco, St. Gabriele dell’Adolorata and, more recently, St. John Paul II and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who dedicated to him two praiseworthy prayers.[10] John Paul II himself in 1991 had proposed Aloysius as the protector of those sick with HIV/AIDS.

On the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the birth of St. Aloysius, Pope Francis has endorsed the Jubilee Year of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, which was inaugurated on March 9, with the accompanying plenary indulgence, according to usual conditions. It is necessary to visit the relics of the body of St. Aloysius in the church of St. Ignatius in Rome, or another church dedicated to him. For the sick, it is sufficient to pray before an image of the saint.

[1].There are three authentic portraits – the second by El Greco – presented together in the panels on the cover of the book by M. Paganella, San Luigi Gonzaga: Un ritratto in piedi, Milan, Ares, 2016.

[2].V. Cepari, Vita del Beato Luigi Gonzaga, Rome, Corbelletti, 1636, 6.

[3].V. Cepari, Vita del Beato Luigi Gonzaga, cit., 16.

[4].Ibid., 22f.

[5].These motivations, which we have taken from the sense and in summary form from Cepari, are found also in M. Paganella, San Luigi Gonzaga…, cit., 142.

[6].M. Paganella, San Luigi Gonzaga…, cit., 139f.

[7].Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Part X, 2 (No. 813).

[8].P. Molinari (ed.), In Cristo Gesù: Profili spirituali, Milan, Àncora, 1974, 86.

[9].Cf. V. Cepari, Vita del Beato Luigi Gonzaga, cit., 301.

[10].Cf. G. Arledler, San Luigi Gonzaga: Un regno per il Regno, Gorle (Bg), Velar, 2012, 42f.

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