The first thing you have to get over with Saint Aloysius Gonzaga is his name, Aloysius (aloe — like the plant — wish-us.) It sounds like the name of some spoiled rich kid in a “Little Rascals” short, the one who winds up crying and throwing a fit when he doesn’t get his way.
But, as Mary Reed Newland points out in her fine account of Aloysius’ life, he didn’t use that name. She writes, “…he never signed himself Aloysius, but always Aloius or Luigi. It was the head of the family at the time of his canonization who insisted on Aloysius.”
Try to find a copy of Newland’s now out-of-print, The Saint Book, published in 1979 by the Seabury Press. Newland wrote the stories and did the illustrations. This is a book every Catholic family should have in its library.
Even so, a spoiled rich kid is just what Luigi was born to be. In 1568, he was born into violence and wealth, an heir to the Visconti, Sforza and d’Este families who ruled the Lombardy region of Italy. His father expected Luigi, his eldest son and heir, to become a soldier. But, at the age of seven, Luigi had a profound religious experience. It changed his life and shaped the remainder of it. Luigi began severe penitential practices as young child. It is said that, from the age of nine on, he never raised his eyes in the presence of a woman for fear of inciting “lust in his heart.”
When the time came for him to enter religious life, he chose the Jesuits, in part because of their commitment to poverty and fraternal equality. His family name would not matter. So, he gave his inheritance to his younger brother and joined the Society of Jesus.
When plague came to Rome in 1591 Luigi worked in the Jesuit hospital, doing the worst and lowest work. He went out into the streets, searching for untended and abandoned plague victims, carrying them on his back to the sanctuary of the hospital.
Luigi, too, caught the plague, and, at the age of 23, he died on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
It may seem difficult to identify, or even admire, such an ascetic saint. But Newland tells a story that illustrates Luigi’s very earthy common sense and deep confidence in God’s mercy. She writes, “…on one occasion he was playing ball and his tutor asked, ‘What would you do if you were told that the end of the world and judgment were to come in a few minutes?’ he replied, ‘I would go on playing ball.'”
Think about that story when you reflect on Luigi’s last words. He cried out, “We are going!” They are the words of a young man who walked with his Lord, and trusted in his company with every step.