St. Aloysius Gonzaga – June 21
St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591) is often portrayed as a weak dreamy sort of figure. Worse, he has been presented to young people as a patron and role model who rejected all of the fun, adventure, and rebellion of youth. The real story is far more compelling.
How St. Luigi Gonzaga became St. Aloysius in English is not clear. The Latin for Luigi would be Ludovicus. Alois would be the German equivalent.
The “spin” of 17th and 18th century writers on his life was more a pietist anti-intellectual critique of the secularist Enlightenment. To be impolitic, he comes across as some sort of bloodless, lily toting wimp with upward cast eyes. Although it is not uncommon for saints to be “martyred” posthumously and their lives used to advance a contemporary cause, the Renaissance Luigi Gonzaga, Marquis of Castiglione is more relevant to us as post-modern Christians.
The overall sketch of his life is a simple as it is dramatic. Luigi was the oldest son of Ferrante, the Marquis of Castiglione, and named for the founder of the Gonzaga family Luigi, Lord of Mantua (1328). He was a pious youth, despised the things of this world, joined the Jesuits, and died of the plague after contracting it from nursing its abandoned victims in the streets of Rome when he was barely 23.
The context of his life and his status as an imperial prince give us a fuller understanding of who he was. According to John Coulson, the editor of The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary:
It is impossible to estimate Aloysius’ (Luigi’s) career without some idea of his appalling heredity and environment. The Gonzaga tyrants rank with the Visconti, the Sforza, and the D’Este. They entered history about 1100; the first Gonzaga, lord of Mantua, was Luigi (1328), whose third marriage took place on the same day as his son’s and grandson’s: the three brides entered Mantua together in triumph. Already their cliff-like fortress was looming over the city. These despots displayed an amazing mixture of qualities. The Gonzaga clan survived one assassination after another and became allied to most of the reigning houses; but Luigi Gonzaga (141), grimly surnamed ‘The Turk,’ kept up three printing-presses and had for clients men like Platina, or Mantegna, who painted the scenery–now at Hampton Court–for the plays to which the Gonzaga were devoted. The French Parliament petitioned against the introduction of these plays into France–they were a ‘high school of adultery’–and no one would now dare paint the pictures with which some of the Gonzaga palaces were adorned. Yet these princes could care for agriculture, irrigation, checks on usury; and their insane debaucheries alternated with explosions of a genuine underlying faith. Their subjects, bled white by taxation, thrilled by their exotic pageantries, worshipped them till they broke into bloody but useless revolution.
The life of a Renaissance prince was far from any story book. St. Aloysius’ primary schooling was at the Medici Court in Florence. While he received the best academic training of the day, there was a bigger focus on swordsmanship, riding, and intrigue. He also spent significant time at the Spanish Court of King Philip II. His mother was a Valois and a relative of the Queen and his father had turned down a position of Master of the Horse in the English Court of Henry VIII in favor of Spain. At the time, the Spanish Empire was at its height of power and global dominance. Philip II also became king of Portugal as Philip I and ruled the Portuguese Empire as well.
As the oldest son, Luigi was trained to fulfill the duties of a prince and to prepare to succeed his father in the wealth, power, and literal back stabbing of the Gonzagas. As a child, though, he was appalled at what he saw and experienced, including the murder of close relatives. Fortunately, he came under the influence of St. Robert Bellarmine, who gave him his First Communion as a teenager. His rebellion was to reject it all and to enter the Church. His mother was not opposed to the idea, since it was not uncommon for powerful families to place prominent younger sons in key church positions that controlled considerable wealth and property. Luigi’s desire to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was another matter. It would mean that he would forgo any type of service that could make him a powerful or wealthy cleric. Ironically, it was a wealthy and powerful churchman – Luigi’s cousin Cardinal Scipione Gonzaga – who prevailed on Ferrante to permit his son to join the Jesuits.
However, even as a Jesuit scholastic (student for the priesthood), he was still a celebrity who received celebrity treatment by those outside the order. Luigi probably over-compensated for this and his spiritual director and personal mentor, St. Robert Bellarmine, told him to ease up on prayer and penance and live a more moderate life. If we look between the lines, fitting a Renaissance prince into a religious house was not the easiest task for Luigi or his fellow religious. In fact, St. Ignatius’ famous letter on obedience was motivated in part to try to redirect the religious enthusiasm of these men to the ultimate in penance – to do what you are told whether you like it or not.
One can only imagine what it was to see a Gonzaga nursing victims of the plague on the streets of Rome.
There is a wonderful statue of St. Luigi outside St. Aloysius parish on the grounds of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington which shows a vital, caring, young man tending to a plague victim.
For some time when Gonzaga University was at the height of its fame as a basketball champion, there was a slogan which the University ran on national TV – Gonzaga: a Way of Life. The possibility of taking a brand like “Gonzaga” and making it stand for an impassioned life of faith inspired service is due to a young man caught up in grace. Isn’t that what we want for all young men and women?