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The Spirituality of St. Alphonsus Liguori

DM 101: Week 33

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 3, 2006)
We now move forward approximately one hundred years to consider the writings of a saint who had a powerful impact upon the whole Catholic world in the 18th century • reviving, sustaining, and summarizing the mainstream tradition of Catholic spirituality in the midst of a rationalistic age. St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) was a Neapolitan who founded the Redemptorist order of priests, a congregation dedicated to providing parish missions • especially to the poor in rural areas. His spirituality was both affective and active, centered above all on the passion of Jesus Christ as the principal sign of our Savior's love for us. St. Alphonsus encouraged an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ through frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, a book of meditations that he originally wrote for his Redemptorist seminarians entitled Visits to the Blessed Sacrament went through dozens of editions and was used all across Europe, remaining a popular guide to Eucharistic devotion to this very day. St. Alphonsus was also devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a sign and symbol of Christ's love, and in 1758 he sent a copy of his tract "Novena to the Sacred Heart" directly to the pope in support of an (ultimately successful) petition to obtain approval for the establishment of the liturgical feast of the Sacred Heart. In short, St. Alphonsus' spirituality was strongly Christocentric • centered on the Passion, the Eucharist, and the Heart of Jesus.

However, St. Alphonsus was a master of spirituality in other respects as well. For example, his book The Glories of Mary earned him the official ecclesiastical title of "The Marian Doctor of the Church," and he absolutely insisted that the Redemptorists defend and promote the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception long before that doctrine was infallibly defined as an article of Faith by the magisterium. In his famous book Moral Theology, St. Alphonsus instructed confessors to be gentle and compassionate with their penitents, to manifest the merciful love of Christ in their mildness of manner, and in their willingness to dispense absolution for sin, even in response to the "imperfect contrition" of many of their penitents. As a result of St. Alphonsus' influence, people began to make confessions more often, and to receive Holy Communion more often • another development that St. Alphonsus strongly encouraged. By experiencing the love of God in frequent confession and communion, St. Alphonsus believed, Catholics would come to love Jesus Christ more intimately, and follow Him more devotedly in the practice of the virtues. In one of his last books, entitled The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, the saint gives us detailed guidance on the Christian virtues, and the love of Christ that moves us to practice them.

Clearly, the whole of St. Alphonsus' spiritual teaching centers upon the compassionate love of the Redeemer for sinful humanity, whether that love is expressed in His merciful love for us expressed through His passion and death, through the Eucharist gift of Himself to us, through sacramental Absolution administered compassionately to us, or even through the prayers and example of the Mother that He gave to us. All of this love for us is summed up and symbolized in His Sacred Heart.

In 1775, St. Alphonsus published an essay as an appendix to a book on divine providence. That appendix was entitled "Motives for Confidence in Divine Mercy." This little known work now has been translated into English and published in the book Alphonsus Liguori, from the "Classics of Western Spirituality" series by Paulist Press. The essay seems to have been provoked by a letter from someone who was troubled by the teachings of the Jansenist heretics, a group that promoted an extreme Augustinian version of the doctrine of predestination. St. Alphonsus responds to the anxieties of his correspondent by listing all the reasons he can think of as to why we can trust in God for our sanctification and salvation, and how we can receive all the spiritual mercies that He wants to pour out upon us.

St. Alphonsus begins by reminding his anxious friend that the New Testament does not teach that God arbitrarily or inscrutably predestines some people to everlasting damnation. He cites I Tim. 2:3-4 ("This is good and pleasing to God our Savior, who wills everyone to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth"), and II Peter 3:9 ("He is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance"). From Scripture passages such as these, St. Alphonsus concludes:

From all this can you now have any doubt that God wishes to save you? From this moment onward never dare to utter again: "I wonder does God wish to save me. Maybe He wishes to see me damned on account of the sins I have committed against Him." Get rid of all such thoughts, once and for all, since you must now realize that God is helping you with His graces and calling you insistently to love Him.

(This series continues next week on St. Alphonsus' essay "Motives for Confidence in the Divine Mercy").

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