by Arthur Finan, C.SS.R. (1904-1996)
[Editor's Note: This article is taken from the Baltimore Province periodical, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 2(1939):347-350.]
Scala: where Alphonsus received the vision of his vocation
This writing will not in any way make a saint. There is no need of that; for the saint has already been made haloed, statued away in high and almost unreachable niches, libraried in dusty chronicles of miracles, bilocations, ecstatic utterances - all duly attested in impeccable ink. But this writing may pay a debt of very long standing. And then again, it may be the unavoidable outlet for the bubbling springs of pride; for I warn you that in this first of a series of papers (which immediately turns it into a threat), there will be flashes of pride seeping through the walled syllables and words. It must be so. This guilty admission immediately tinges each sentence with a personal bias - and that is the accepted and dreaded mortal sin of all hagiography.
But what can be done to clog and throttle the pen of a son writing about his father? Or to shunt into painfully slow-moving freight the thoughts of an admirer about one, who in every sense, is his hero? Believe me I have tried. I have chilled every fibre of my imagination and have held in check every straining leap of my fantasy. The probable result is that from these pages you will not be able to weave a very close likeness to Alphonsus de Liguori.
Alphonsus was born in Naples in 1696 and died in Pagani in 1787. Some ninety years of living he had, ninety years of supercharged personality; drama-packed, love-packed, persecution-packed, energy-packed years, any ten of which would make marvelous scenario material. Lawyer, priest, missionary, founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, Bishop of Saint Agatha of the Goths, director of souls, writer, confessor, musician, poet, canonized saint, Doctor of the Church (which, by the way, is a tremendous compliment to the bewildering reaches of the man's mind.)
That is a rapid-fire sketch of Alphonsus de Liguori, nobleman of Naples, cultured gentleman, the first and without doubt the greatest and, if Chesterton were writing, the only Redemptorist.
If by any chance this should inspire a prayer to him, any day or hour of the year will do, but August first is his special feastday for he died on that day. He died in a very plain room in a very plain monastery at Pagani with fellow Redemptorists circling his bed. And of all the things they were saying! They were chanting, in a tone of triumph, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. "Virgin Most Powerful, Mystical Rose, Gate of Heaven, pray for us. Queen of Angels..." and the lips of Alphonsus trembled, the words got caught in his throat; he struggled and coughed - and finished them smilingly in heaven. Queen! Queen! She was his Queen. He had written well of her, spoken brilliantly of her, preached heartfully of her. It was a Marian death for a Marian subject. That in itself makes him very loveable.
The finger of God touched Alphonsus early in life, No, I am not staking a claim for his early mystical youth. That would discourage you from him too quickly. And I want you to know him as a man of medium build, with sharp Italian features, very, very shortsighted; so much so that when women were around him, he naively took off his glasses and, by blurring his vision, kept his heart crystal clear from unnecessary temptations. These temptations of his stung his flesh the full ninety years of his life, which fact, I think, makes him a spiritual giant and should establish some kind of an all-time record for immaculate and unstained endurance.
But the finger of God did touch him; for it was that finger that crumbled the magnificently built structure of legal oratory which Alphonsus had thrown up before himself as an impregnable fortress of argumentation; and when he sat down in the courtroom to hear the verdict in his favor, the whole thing fell apart and almost crushed him in the collapse. But from these ruins was formed his future life.
He would be a priest. He would be a saintly priest. His father pleaded, argued, wept - the family name, the family traditions, the family nobility. But Alphonsus would be a priest. He would continue his pleading, too. He had to, for you cannot slough off a lifetime in a second.
His legal mind would gather together his Moral Theology. He would stand at the bar of human minds and convince them of right and wrong; he would draw up in legal form a system of living and working and praying and commanding and obeying and edit it in the formula of well-defined rule. He would organize and marshal the strength of men and sheathe them in the rigid steel of a religious order, and place the whole thing like an Excalibur on Mary's altar, to be used or not to be used at her biding.
He was never afraid to use arguments in Mary's defense. So he collected thousands of them, each one on fire, bound them together and in a lover's frenzy called them The Glories of Mary. No book has ever been written just like it. No man would dare to bare his heart to the world about his earthly love. Ovid, Byron, Shelley - they become as husks in the field. Here was a new Ars Amandi, a new tribute of a man to the Lady of his heart. Read it some time if you can. And you can. You will feel a heart beating recklessly and unashamedly on every page. It is Alphonsus writing on his favorite theme - Mary, the Mother of God.
He came face to face with his life's work in a stony cave cut into the heights of Scala. He had gone there for a vacation, but with his illimitable capacity for prayer he had turned it into a retreat. He caught a vision of sad neglect, a vacancy in the corps of the Church. With reckless boldness he guaranteed God that he, Alphonsus de Liguori, would fill that gap.
We do not know exactly what happened. We were never told what words were used in the drawing up of the contract. But he came down from those heights like Moses, his heart on fire, his mind resolute with the strong determination to gather men around him and inspire them with the sublime but fearful task of being other redeemers, countryside preachers, gospelers of the poor. In fact, far back in his mind, he had already labeled the gathering very distinctly and very set-apartingly, the 'Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.' Pleading at court was child's work in comparison. The government opposed him; churchmen opposed him; his associates opposed him; but Alphonsus was sure of himself.
God had spoken to him at Scala. The work was the work of God and let no man tear it asunder.
Of course, on such a platform it had to succeed. And today, Alphonsus's men are scattered all over the world; not a brilliantly vast organization, not a corps of men who lead in the march; but they are still filling the gaps in the line of defense, in the cities, and on the far-flung frontiers of the Church. The poor are still with us and the Gospel must be preached to them. Sheep are still lost on the hillsides and they must be carried back to the fold.
Alphonsus will always be remembered as the man who took the thoughts of God and rippled them to the borders of the Kingdom of Naples, who thrilled the stifled souls of goat herders with kingly visions, who opened up ignorant hearts with the key of the Cross, who told men that Christ too was a hill Man, poor, forgotten, despised, even as they.
Acigliano, Raito, San Giorgio, Priati, San Lazzaro - maps do not even hint at their existence. But they are there - villages, hamlets, clusters of ugly houses clinging inartistically to the side of a hill. Souls to be reclaimed, men to be saved - Alphonsus de Liguori.
That his physical nature was not snapped to pieces beneath the constant tautness is a tribute to the human part of the man. He worked as no missionary every worked before. He preached in season and out of season. He personally took up a census and met the most abandoned of these abandoned.
He channeled the energies of his growing Order to the most effective results. He prayed constantly. He wrote over 100 works on every imaginable spiritual subject and everyone of his quotations was listed and authenticated with the thoroughness of a man true to his doctorate in canon and civil law. As bishop of Saint Agatha of the Goths, he governed a diocese of 300 priests.
His last years saw an old man vowed never to waste a second of time, head bent to his chest, rubbing open an ugly raw sore, tottering to the chapel, fighting temptations - so human was his flesh and blood.
And then one day, the feet grew heavy, the pen slipped from stiffening fingers, the voice grew weak and hoarse. It was the inevitable giving way of the body. He saw his young men pick up his work on missions, retreats, renewals, novenas, and Alphonsus blessed them as he stayed at home. They wheeled him about the corridors. He was in state at last. They could not bring him before the Blessed Sacrament, because his love caused a fever to rage in his flesh.
Then on August first, they knelt around him, and with a crucifix in one hand and with a picture of Mary in the other, Alphonsus kept his tryst of ninety years standing with Christ.
It was a perfect ending, from earth to heaven on the ladder of Mary's Litany. He had once said, "My most amiable Mother, I love thee exceedingly." He always signed himself Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. And in those two phrases are his life's love and his life's story.
Our Lady of the Mountain of Scala