In this Year of Youth, we celebrate a Jubilee Year of St Aloysius Gonzaga.
At a time when there is widespread concern in Australia about the preparation of young men for adult life, the story of St Aloysius Gonzaga merits reflection. His brief life – he died at 23 – was aggressively countercultural: crazily and repulsively so for many modern observers. But as with all countercultural behaviour, Aloysius’ life points to elements in our prevailing culture that are themselves problematic.
Most of what we know about St Aloysius derives from his biography written a few years after his death in by Jesuit Vergil Cepari. He wrote partly to encourage young Jesuits in their austere way of life and partly as part of a campaign to have Aloysius declared a saint. (With another even younger Jesuit, also from the minor nobility, Stanislaus Kostka, he was beatified in 1605.)
Cepari’s book highlights all the conventional features of youthful sanctity praised in the Catholic Church of the time: Aloysius’ precocious devotional and penitential practices, his determination from childhood to become a priest, his adamantine rejection of the expectations placed on the eldest son of a noble family, and his avoidance of women’s company. He died as a result of nursing a plague victim in a Roman hospital.
The expectations held of Aloysius as an adult male and heir were made clear to him from the age of four. He was presented with a miniature set of armour and guns and accompanied his father in military manoeuvres, so expanding his vocabulary. As a child at court he was exposed to the plotting, sexual entitlement, gambling, greed and corruption endemic in that culture.
His early life was marked by uncompromising dissociation from such an unreflective, aggressive and passion-driven future. As child and adolescent he cultivated interiority and refused to accept the expectations that went with his inheritance.
He infuriated his father by his lack of compliance but remained obdurate in his dedication to prayer and to fasting, avoidance of frivolity, and other penitential practices. When his father refused to allow him to enter the Jesuits without his permission, he simply waited him out.
At Jesuit Social Services we have some sympathy for Aloysius in his determination to reject the toxic masculinity of his culture. We know how difficult it is for vulnerable young men to imagine breaking with family example and peer group expectations of how they should act.
It is no wonder, when Aloysius joined the Jesuits, that he said of himself that he was a twisted piece of iron that needed to be straightened out. That was true. But what is also true is that what the culture regarded as straight was also warped. The life of Aloysius speaks of the cost and the resilience involved in catching sight of something deeper and in breaking the mould.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ