During sixty years of Christian service in central Italy, opposition of every sort stalked St. Alphonsus Liguori. His bullheaded father resisted his ordination. Powerful anticlericals battled the Redemptorists, his religious order. Jansenists denounced Moral Theology, his book that sought to correct them. Rheumatism bent his head into his chest, a deformity he suffered for his last twenty years. And for two years just before he died, Alphonsus was assailed with a dark night of doubt, fear, and scruples.
A successful lawyer before age 20, Alphonsus used his legal skills lifelong in his writing and the governance of his order and his diocese. He was ordained in 1717 and immediately became well-known as a compassionate confessor and down-to-earth preacher. “I have never preached a sermon,” he said, “that the poorest old woman in the congregation could not understand.” You can hear his gentle voice in the following excerpt that also suggests the secret behind his perseverance:
We are now at the end of 1761. Today the New Year of 1762 has begun. How many saw the beginning of the year that has just gone but did not live to see its end! We should give thanks to God that we are allowed to see its conclusion. But do we know whether we shall see the end of this year? Certainly, many will not see it. Who knows if we shall not be among this number? A year must dawn for us that will be our last. We should awaken our faith and strive for the remainder of our lives to live according to the maxims of our faith. Why should we wait until death overtakes us and finds us living according to the maxims of the world? Let us awaken our faith to realize that this earth is not our true home but that we are merely here as pilgrims.
Our faith will give us confidence in our difficulties, teaching us that whoever prays will be saved. May our faith make us always live with the thought of eternity. Let’s keep ever before our eyes this great thought—everything in this world comes to an end, whether it be prosperity or adversity. Eternity alone never ends.
In 1748, St. Alphonsus published his acclaimed Moral Theology that steered a middle way between the rigorism of the Jansenists and an irresponsible laxity. At age sixty-six, he reluctantly accepted appointment as bishop of Sant’ Agata and worked hard for thirteen years to renew his flock. His resignation in 1775 brought the saint no rest, as he had to fight to protect his community from the state. External politics threatened to divide and destroy the Redemptorists. But the community endured and today has missioners serving throughout the world. Exhausted by a life of extraordinary industry, St. Alphonsus Liguori died on August 1, 1787, two months before his ninety-first birthday.