2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
While every death is in some way a loss to the world, there is something especially tragic about the death of a young person. Our thoughts naturally gravitate around that bright future now lost; we think of the wonderful things they might have accomplished, all the lives they might have touched.
This is no less true for the young man we know by the Latin name Aloysius. Born March 9th 1568, Luigi de Gonzaga had a very bright future. His family enjoyed the kind of power and wealth enjoyed by few. What’s more, as the eldest son, Luigi stood to inherit the wealth of his powerful family.
His father, a landowner and military commander, molded his son to follow in his footsteps. Almost from the time Luigi was able to walk, he was dressed in armor and went along with father to troop inspections. His father also saw to it that the boy traveled and became very familiar with the aristocracy of the time, perhaps believing that this was the kind of cultural enrichment that would help him learn the ways and wiles of the elite social circle into which he was born.
If that was his strategy, it backfired. By the age of 16, Luigi had seen enough to know that this lifestyle was not for him. He didn’t want the armor, wealth and power of his family or political enrichment for his own gain; he preferred the armor of God and the wealth and power of his grace that he might be enriched for all generosity (2 Cor 9:11). Luigi saw at an early age what many do not see until years later, if ever: In God, he already had everything he needed. So he sought his father, not to ask his blessing as future head of the Gonzaga family, but to be released to pursue his desire to serve God as a Jesuit missionary.
It would be understatement to say that Luigi’s father was unhappy to hear this; he was furious. It took him nearly two years but eventually he relented. He may not have become a cheerful giver when it came to his firstborn but he loved his son and respected his resolve. In a letter to the Superior General of the Jesuits he wrote: “I am giving into your Reverence’s hands the most precious thing I possess in all the world.” Once Luigi had signed over the rights of inheritance to his brother, he left home to begin a novitiate with the Jesuits.
Adapting himself to life as a novice was both easy and hard. As a boy, Luigi had adopted such severe penances that those of the novitiate seemed almost trivial by comparison. True to the words of Christ in today’s gospel, he did not try to draw attention to himself, but his asceticism was noticeable. St. Robert Bellarmine, his spiritual advisor, counseled him to eat more, pray less, and become more a part of community life. This was hard for Luigi, for although he was pious he was also stubborn. Nevertheless, he took the advice, saying “I am a piece of twisted iron. I entered religious life to get twisted straight.”
Part of his duties included hospital service and at that time an outbreak of the plague struck Rome. Aloysius confessed to his advisor that serving these patients was extremely difficult for him, yet he let no one else know and gave himself over entirely to the work. Despite precautions, he contracted the disease and after a courageous battle, died at the age of 23.
St. Aloysius would not want us to mourn his early passing; indeed, he would tell us that he hadn’t lost a future, he had gained an eternity! Through him we learn that what matters isn’t the length of time we are given on this earth but how we use it. He would urge us to do as the readings counsel: Sow bountifully, give cheerfully, pray and fast without fanfare or notoriety, and in all things give thanks to God.
This may sound easy but we know it isn’t, for we too are twisted iron. Perhaps we can’t enter religious life to get twisted straight but we can enter into the silence of our thoughts and the privacy of the confessional to learn how to deal with the sins that are holding us back. Whatever they are, the example of St. Aloysius shows us that while change may be difficult or painful, it is possible.
The keys for us are the same as for him: Humility and docility. Humility is that poverty of spirit by which we come to see that only God has all we need, and docility is the teachable spirit through which we open ourselves to the instruction that fosters change within us. These are the virtues which, through constant practice, the grace of God gradually works to soften and straighten the iron of our self-will.
St. Aloysius, pray for us.