St. Alphonsus was born near Naples, Italy in 1696 with the baptismal name of Alphonsus Mary Antony John Cosmas Damian Michael Gaspard de' Liguori. Besides having a large name, he was raised with high expectations in a noble family struggling to maintain its place in neopolitan society. These high expectations drove Alphonsus to become a master of the harpsichord at thirteen, and to received doctorates in canon and civil law at sixteen. Twenty was the minimum age to even be eligible for a doctorate, but the college made a special exception for Alphonsus.
Alphonsus did not let his academic or musical education go to waste. Although he spent many years devoting his talents to more worldly pursuits, St. Alphonsus ended his life as one of the great contributors to church theology, and he authored the most popular Christmas carol in Italy, ‘From Starry Skies Descending’ (Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle).
Alphonsus began his career in law and enjoyed success. As he established a name for himself, his worldly surroundings made it more and more difficult for him to grow in a proper relationship with the Lord. Under these conditions, Alphonsus grew restless and started to be troubled by the constant nag and uncertainty of vocation.
In 1723, Alphonsus was one of the lead counsels in a major lawsuit. He made brilliant opening remarks on the first day of trial. The judge was greatly moved by his persuasiveness, but shortly after Alphonsus returned to his seat, the opposing counsel strenuously objected. The opposition pointed out that a very important document had been overlooked. When Alphonsus asked to see the document, he was shown a document he had reviewed and considered many times, but somehow, the obvious meaning of the document had always escaped him. He capitulated the case to the astonishment of all present. His blindness to the obvious was the sign God had given him, and it was by losing that God changed the course of his life. This loss in the courtroom was even more strange because Alphonsus had never lost a case in his entire legal career.
As a result of the case, Alphonsus retired from law at the old age of 26. While visiting the Hospital for Incurables in August of 1723, he heard an interior voice which said: "Leave the world and give thyself to Me." The voice made the same injunction twice, and the saint laid his sword before Our Lady of Captives making a solemn promise to follow the Lord in religious life.
At the age of 30, Alphonsus was ordained a priest. He also made and kept a vow to never waste a moment of time, and during his early years as a priest, he did considerable missionary work and affected many people. God changed the course of his life again when he met Sister Maria Celeste.
Sister Maria Celeste had been receiving visions from the Lord, and Fr. Alphonsus was sent to investigate the authenticity of these visions. On the eve of St. Francis’s feast day, she saw Jesus standing with St. Francis on His right hand and a priest on His left. The Lord said, "This is he whom I have chosen to be head of My Institute, the Prefect General of a new Congregation of men who shall work for My glory." The priest standing next to St. Francis was Fr. Alphonsus.
This vision, and the approval of many clergy, led Alphonsus to found the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (The Redemptorists) in 1732. From the beginning, it was very unclear that the order would survive. When the original five Redemptorists had only been living together a short while, the congregation schismed over the issue of founding religious schools. To found a school would require changing the Redemptorist constitution and would have changed the character of the enterprise. At the end of the argument, only Fr. Alphonsus and a lay brother remained in the Redemptorist band.
It was not long before the Redemptorists began to grow under the leadership of St. Alphonsus. During this period of his life, the man who would write one hundred and eleven books did not lift his pen. He did not begin writing books until he was 50 years old. Since then, he has become the most published author in the world (excluding sacred works). St. Alphonsus had published 7,000 more editions of his works than Shakespeare by 1961 even though Shakespeare had over a century and a half head start.
Most of St. Alphonsus’s writings are very practical and aimed at inspiring devotion to our Lord in all people. His writings were also the greatest force countering the spread of Jansenist errors. St. Alphonsus’s greatest academic work was in moral theology. For this work, the Church has given him the titles Prince of Moralists and Patron of Confessors and Moral Theologians. Unfortunately, his Moral Theologia has never been published in English.
In 1762, the Pope compelled Alphonsus to become Bishop of St. Agatha near Naples. During his time as bishop, St. Alphonsus reinvigorated the diocese and sold the church’s possessions during a famine to feed the poor during a famine. In the first year of his appointment, he became very ill. He lost all of his teeth, and shortly thereafter started a battle with rheumatic fever which lasted over a year and left him paralyzed. His neck became bent so badly that his chin rested on his chest and caused an open wound. For the rest of his life, he would drink his meals through a tube, and despite receiving last rights numerous times, he would live severely crippled for another 18 years. It was through these infirmities that Alphonsus became the patron saint of those suffering from arthritis.
In 1775, St. Alphonsus was finally permitted to resign his Bishropric when the Pope became convinced he was nearly dead. Although his life had been marked by intense physical suffering, the final years of his life were also marked by intense mental suffering. Blind and unable to read or write, St. Alphonsus put a great deal of trust in his fellow Redemptorists. Unfortunately, the men he trusted were weak-willed and negotiated away many things at the core of the Redemptorist constitution to win political favor. They compounded their error by lying to the saint as he signed legal documents. This treachery ended with the sharp reprimand of the Pope, and all of those Redemptorists living in the Kingdom of Naples were dismissed from the order, including the founder.
Thus, at the hands of the Pope who would later declare him venerable, Alphonsus was cast out of the order he founded, and during this time he suffered great temptations to every sin. Some have said that his soul entered a dark night. He died still outside the order at the age of 90 never ceasing to praise and raise prayers to God.
The research on publications was compiled by R. J. Miller C.SS.R. in the Ligourian magazine 1962.
St. Alphonsus Ligouri, The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. Liguori Publications: Liguori, Missouri 1997.
Strange but true links between St. Francis and St. Alphonsus: