A Saint for our time

Having renounced his princely title in order to join the Jesuits, Aloysius, or Luigi as he was known, was the embodiment of a compassionate heart. His extraordinary example in the face of great suffering finds an echo in the work done by Year 10 students during their Ignatian Service placements.


By Fr Tom Renshaw SJ, Rector, Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview

The feast of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, one of our 16 House patrons, as well as the patron of the other Jesuit high school in Sydney, was celebrated on 21 June.

Since 1729, Saint Aloysius has been known as the patron of youth. In 1926 Pope Pius XI named him patron of students and in 1991, on the 400th anniversary of his death, Pope John Paul II declared him the patron of people suffering from AIDS and their caregivers. This more recent recognition drew upon Aloysius’ extraordinary example of caring for people suffering from the plague that was rampant throughout Rome between 1590 and 1591.

In some ways, Aloysius’ life experience is vastly different from ours, yet his youthful, enthusiastic, faith-filled desire to be a person of service is one that resonates easily with us. Gonzaga was the eldest son of the Marquis of Castiglione and, as such, was the heir to the family title. However, from a young age he struggled with the courtly way of life. At the age of nine, his father sent him and his younger brother, Rudolph, to the Medici Court in Florence. This was the time of the Renaissance and the Medici palace was one that reeked of opulence, as well as intrigue, deceit and sexual immorality. Aloysius, or Luigi as he was known, rejected this way of life, and like Ignatius recovering from his cannonball wound, he sought consolation in reading the lives of the saints. It was during this time that he first thought of the possibility of becoming a priest, a hope that ultimately was unfulfilled due to his untimely death in 1591, aged 23.

Several years later, Aloysius became a page in the court of the Duke of Asturias. It was this experience that finally confirmed for him that he wished to renounce his princely title and join the Society of Jesus. Unsurprisingly, his father was most unhappy with Aloysius’ desires. They returned from Spain to Castiglione in Italy and then undertook a tour of the courts of Italy. Aloysius’ father hoped that seeing this life of luxury and pleasure would lead his son to renounce any desire to enter religious life. Ultimately his father relented, and Aloysius joined the Jesuits in 1585. Very few of us have any experience of royal life, so the first 17½ years of Aloysius’ life are far removed from our experience, especially within the Australian context; however, the remaining 5-6 years of his life are much more relatable for us.

St Aloysius Gonzaga SJ. Photo: Jesuits Global

Through his example, St Aloysius becomes the embodiment of a compassionate heart; he sees people suffering in the streets of Rome and he is moved to heroic service and action. He renounces his life of privilege and power to live a life of prayerful service. He chooses to accompany the abandoned, the vulnerable and the dying by begging for alms, picking up plague-stricken people from the streets, carrying them to the hospital, washing and feeding them. Finally, he helps prepare them for their death by ensuring they receive the sacraments. St Aloysius is an extraordinary example of servant leadership; he is a person who responded fully to the call of Christ in the Judgement of the Nations towards the end of the Matthew’s Gospel:

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matt 25:37-40).

Just before the mid-year holidays began, our Year 10 students were undertaking their Ignatian Service placements, with 65 students doing this as a country placement – in places such as the Northern Territory, Moree, Bourke or Mount Druitt. Other students have been engaged in various placements across Sydney. Approximately 20 boarding students returned to their hometowns to be of service to their local communities. The focus of our Year 10 Ignatian Service Program is to encourage our students “to move into a new stage of their service journey and to be a Companion for those who are most in need. To be a Companion means to be present to the needs of another. It involves walking alongside the marginalised, spending time listening and responding. Students will therefore complete Ignatian Service that involves direct interaction with individuals in need.”

While the context of the various placements of our students is different to that of plague-stricken Rome in the early 1590s, in many ways our students are embracing the example of St Aloysius Gonzaga, engaging in activities that take them out of their comfort zone, reflecting upon their experiences and beginning to notice the different movements of the spirits within themselves as they learn from people whose life experiences are different from theirs. Hopefully it will also help them reflect more deeply on how they want to use their God-given talents in the coming years to make a lasting difference in our world.

This article was originally published in a recent edition of the ‘Viewpoint’ newsletter for Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview.