APOSTOLIC LETTER FOR THE BICENTENARY OF THE DEATH OF
ST ALPHONSUS DE’ LIGUORI
JOHN PAUL II
To our beloved son
Juan M. Lasso de la Vega y Miranda
Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer
"The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has
anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up
hearts that are broken" (Lk 4:18; cf. Is 61:1). The biblical text
which Jesus, the adorable Son sent by the Father, applied to himself at
the beginning of his messianic mission and which, as the antiphon of the
Mass, opens the liturgy on the feast of St Alphonsus M. Liguori,
resounds in a particularly solemn way on the day when we celebrate the
birth into heaven of this most zealous bishop, Doctor of the
Church and Founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
It is with great joy today that I address you and all the sons of St
Alphonsus who are sharing with the members of the whole Church in the
living memory of a saint who was a master of wisdom for his time, and
who continues to enlighten the path of the people of God with the
example of his life and teaching, as a light reflecting Christ, the
light of the nations.
Let us briefly recall his life. Alphonsus was born at Marianella,
Naples, on 27 September, 1696. As the heir in a family of the nobility
he received a complete and thorough education in the humanities and law.
It was an education which, during his adolescence and youth, was
complemented by a careful and fervent Christian practice: deep
Eucharistic and Marian piety, visits to the sick and those in prison, a
sensitivity towards the poor, a strong commitment to the lay apostolate.
After a brilliant career in the court of Naples, he renounced the
world in order to consecrate himself to God alone. On 21 December, 1726,
at the age of 30, he was ordained a priest for the diocese of Naples. He
immediately gave himself to an intense apostolate in the "poorer
areas of Naples", and also put great effort into the "evening
chapels" which became a school for social and moral re-education.
Besides his ministry in the city he also engaged in preaching in the
outlying districts of the Kingdom as a member of the "Apostolic
Missions" in the diocese of Naples. This experience brought him
into contact with a different world, culturally and spiritually
impoverished, and led him to the decisive choice of "the most
abandoned souls in the countryside and rural villages". It was for
the evangelization of the poor that he founded a Missionary Institute at
Scala (Salerno) on 9 November 1732: the Congregation of the Most
Holy Redeemer. It was an institute characterized especially by an
itinerant preaching of missions to the people, spiritual exercises and
catechetical instruction. For thirty years (1732-1762) this
missionary apostolate, which he held close to his heart, took, Alphonsus
in many different directions, deepening in him the choice of the poor
and the humble.
In 1762, at the age of 66, he was appointed Bishop of S. Agata
dei Goti, and he brought to this new pastoral calling a level of active
involvement which was almost unbelievable, both in terms of direct,
ministry and in the apostolate of writing.
Exhausted by a painful and deforming type of arthritis, he left the
diocese in 1775 and returned to a house of his Institute at Pagani
(Salerno). He remained there, accepting much physical and spiritual
suffering in union with the will of God, until his death on 1 August,
1787, at the age of 91.
This long life was filled with uninterrupted work: the work of a
missionary, bishop, theologian and spiritual writer, founder and
superior of a Congregation.
Such a brief chronological description of his life cannot be divorced
from the recollection of his numerous activities because only in this
way is it possible to understand what the person of Alphonsus meant for
In order to respond to the needs of the People of God, he quickly
added the support of the apostolate of writing to that of the word and
pastoral action. Here one is dealing with two indivisible aspects of his
life and work which complete one another, bringing to the literary
output of the Saint an unmistakable pastoral spirit. The commitment of
the writer, in fact, stems from this preaching and brings him back to it
in the continual concern he had for the salvation of souls.
Beginning with The Eternal Truths and Spiritual
Songs, his literary work enjoyed an extraordinary growth which
reached its peak in the years of his episcopacy. The total output
contains at least 111 titles and covers three great areas: morals, faith
and spiritual life.
Alphonsus was responsible for the renewal of moral theology; through
contact with the people he encountered in the confessional, especially
during his missionary preaching, he gradually and with much hard work
brought about a change in his mentality, progressively achieving a
correct balance between rigorism and liberty.
On the subject of too great a rigorism often practised in the
Sacrament of Penance, which he called "a ministry of grace and
forgiveness", he used to repeat: "Just as laxity in the
hearing of confessions leads to the ruin of souls, so also does rigorism
do great harm to them. I disapprove of certain kinds of rigorism which
are not in accordance with sound learning, and which bring destruction
and not edification. Charity and gentleness are needed with sinners:
this was a characteristic of Jesus Christ. And if we want to bring souls
to God and save them we must imitate, not Jansenius, but Jesus Christ
who is the example of all missionaries"1.
And we find these memorable words, among others, in his most
important moral writings: "...it is certain, or must be considered
certain, that it is not necessary to impose anything on people under
pain of grave sin unless the reason is evident... Considering the
fragility of the present human condition, it is not always true that the
narrowest way is the safest way to direct souls; we see that the Church
forbids both excessive liberty and excessive rigour".2
The Praxis Confessarii, Homo Apostolicus, and his
principal work, the Theologia Moralis, made him the master
of Catholic moral teaching.
In the area of theological controversy he worked against the then
emerging movements: the Enlightenment, which was undermining the
foundations of the Christian faith; Jansenism, which promoted a doctrine
of grace which, instead of building trust and encouraging people towards
hope, brought them to despair or, by contrast, to indifference;
Febronianism which, as a result of political Jansenism and
jurisdictionalism, limited the authority of the Roman Pontiff in favour
of princes and of nationalistic Churches. In the strictly dogmatic
field, Alphonsus developed a doctrine of grace based on prayer which, as
he hoped, restored to souls a lively spirit of trust and hope in
salvation. Among other things he wrote: "God does not refuse anyone
the grace of prayer through which one can obtain the help to overcome
every concupiscence and every temptation. And I declare and repeat, and
will always repeat as long as I live, that all our welfare is to be
found in prayer". It is here that we find the famous axiom:
"The one who prays will be saved, the one who does not pray will be
The architecture of Alphonsian spirituality can be reduced to prayer
and grace. Prayer for Alphonsus was not simply a pious exercise. It is a
radical requirement linked to the dynamic of salvation itself. No one
can overlook in his description of prayer the importance it plays in the
practice of Christian life as the "great means of salvation".
On a par with the moral and dogmatic works, or better still, in an
even deeper way, the spiritual writings of Alphonsus grew out of the
apostolate and supplemented it.
His spiritual works are known to everyone. We recall the more
important ones, in their historical order: The Glories of Mary;
The Preparation for Death; The Great Means of Prayer;
The True Spouse of Jesus Christ; The Visits to the Most Holy
Sacrament and to Most Holy Mary; The Way to Converse
Continually and Familiarly with God; and above all, The Practice
of the Love of Jesus Christ, his ascetical masterpiece and
compendium of his thought.
One can summarize the characteristics of his spiritual writing by
saying: it is a popular spirituality.
Everyone is called to holiness, each according to his or her state of
life. Holiness and perfection consist essentially in the love of God
which finds its highest ideal in union with the will of God. God is not
an abstract deity, but the Father of all: the God of salvation revealed
in Jesus Christ.
The Christological dimension is an essential aspect of the
spirituality of Alphonsus with the Incarnation, the Passion and the
Eucharist being the greatest signs of divine love. Therefore, the second
reading of the Liturgy of the Hours (for his feast) is suitably taken
from the first chapter of The Practice of the Love Of Jesus Christ.4
Alphonsus attached supreme importance to the sacramental life,
especially the Eucharist and Eucharistic adoration whose most typical
expression is to be found in the Visits.
Devotion to Mary occupies a totally unique place for him in the
economy of salvation: Mary is the Mediatrix of grace and Companion in
redemption; for this reason she is Mother, Advocate and Queen. In
fact, Alphonsus did everything under her protection from the beginning
of his life until his death.
The reputation of Alphonsus, which was very considerable during his
life, and increased in an extraordinary way after his death, has
remained unchanged in the past two centuries. It is here that we find
the reasons why, after the canonization which was decreed by my
predecessor Pope Gregory XVI on 26 May, 1839, numerous letters
began to arrive at the Holy See requesting that the title of Doctor of
the Church should be conferred on the Saint. This was granted by Pope
Pius IX on 23 March 1871. In the Apostolic Letter Qui Ecclesiae
Suae of 7 July 1871, this same Pope, commenting on the title
of Doctor of the Church given to the Saint, wrote: "One can in fact
assert that there has not been one error even in our times which
Alphonsus, at least in great measure, did not fight against".5
The successive Popes have always recognized the reputation of this
great man, and have recalled and maintained it even to our own day.
Pope Pius XII of blessed memory who, on 26 April 1950, conferred on
Alphonsus the new title of "Heavenly Patron of all Confessors and
Moralists",6 also asserted on 7 April 1953: "The
treasures of real piety were spread through the writings of this Saint
of missionary zeal, of pastoral charity, of burning Eucharistic piety,
of tender devotion to Mary; and the light of his mind and the feelings
of his heart, both of which were nourished by a heavenly wisdom, and
which are the substance of life and of piety for souls, can easily be
assimilated by all and are a gentle invitation to spiritual meditation,
easily moving them to the raising of the heart to God".7
The following assertion of Pope John XXIII deserves to be
remembered: "Oh, Saint Alphonsus! What glory and what an object of
study for the clergy of Italy! We have been familiar with his life and
his works ever since the first years of our priestly formation".8
From the evidence in the history of the Church and in popular piety,
it is clear that the message of Alphonsus is still of value today. And
the Church puts him before you again today, and before the beloved sons
who are members of the Congregation, and all Christian people, as a
model to be lovingly imitated.
Saint Alphonsus was a close friend of the people, the
little people, the people of the poor sections of the main city of the
Kingdom of Naples, a friend of the workers and, above all, of the people
of the countryside. This feeling for people characterized the whole life
of the Saint, as missionary founder, bishop and writer.
As missionary, he went in search of "the most abandoned
souls of the countryside and the rural villages", going to the
people with the most suitable and effective preaching. He renewed the
ministry of preaching both with regard to method and content, linking it
with an oratorical style which was simple and direct. He spoke to the
simple in such a way that everyone could understand.
As founder, he wanted a group which, following his
example, would make a radical option in favour of the most lowly and
would always live near to them.
As bishop, his house was open to all, but the greatest
circle of his clients were the humble and the simple. He also prompted
social and economic initiatives for his people.
As writer, he focused always and only on what would be
of benefit to the people. His works, including his moral theology, were
inspired by the people. Our predecessor, John Paul I, while Patriarch of
Venice, wrote in this way: "Alphonsus is a theologian for the
practical problems which need to be solved quickly, following his own
living experience. If he sees that charity needs to be rekindled in the
hearts of the people, he writes ascetical works. If he wants to deepen
the faith and hope of the people, he writes works of dogmatic and moral
The popularity which the Saint has long enjoyed can be ascribed to
his desire for brevity, clarity, simplicity, optimism and friendliness
which, in the end, came down to gentleness. At the root of this love for
people is his concern regarding salvation: to save himself and to save
others, a salvation that was aimed at perfection, at holiness. The frame
of reference of his pastoral activity did not exclude anyone: he wrote
for everyone. He urged pastors of the People of God, in particular
bishops, priests and religious, to spare nothing in giving themselves to
the people entrusted to them in their varying needs.
The message of Alphonsus, even when he was innovative and above all
then, derives from the centuries-old consciousness of the Church. He
had, as few others did, the sensus ecclesiae, a criterion
that remained with him in his theological research and pastoral practice
in such a way that he became, in a certain sense, the voice of the
Church. It is not surprising that the Saint had a very special
veneration for the Supreme Pontiff, and he defended his supremacy and
infallibility in difficult times. On the more personal level
also, he revealed this devotion in every trial.
If as a saint, bishop and doctor, Saint Alphonsus belongs to the
whole Church; as founder he represents the essential point of reference
for his Congregation.
On this point, I would like to recall in particular, three aspects of
his life which specially call you to imitate him.
Closeness to the people: The search for "the salvation of
souls" which was the intuition of the founder, must be followed
with great fidelity by the Congregation throughout the world according
to the particular exigencies of time and place. In this search
preference is to be given to the humble and the simple, who are
also in general the poorest. Therefore, in the present and coming years,
the Congregation must retain this commitment and give it priority in all
its undertakings. I noted also that your General Chapter of 1985
committed itself in a praiseworthy way to the "mission to the
nations", especially in Asia and Africa. This commitment reflects
the original intention of your founder.
Popular missions: These have been developed as a stable and solid
form of pastoral activity in the Congregation. They have always revealed
your closeness to the people. The missions, on which Saint Alphonsus
left such in indelible mark and which I myself recommended in various
documents, must take on among you a new vigour for the good of the whole
Church.10 In missionary preaching, as in every other form of
your apostolic work, you should have a particular concern for those
aspects which have always constituted what is peculiar to the sons of
Saint Alphonsus: the eternal truths must be announced with the pastoral
sensitivity required for today; the merciful love of God, "Rich in
Mercy"; plentiful redemption realized in Christ, "Redeemer of
the People"; the maternal intercession of Mary, "Mother of the
Redeemer", Advocate and Mediatrix: the necessity of prayer for
The study and teaching of moral theology: The importance of moral
theology, above all today, is well known to everyone. The Second Vatican
Council opportunely recommended: "Special care should be given to
the perfecting of moral theology. Its scientific presentation should
draw more fully on the teaching of holy Scripture and should throw light
on the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation
to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world".11
In fact, "the good of the person lies in being in the Truth and in
doing the Truth. This essential bond of Truth-Good-Liberty is largely
lost in contemporary culture, and therefore today it is one of the
proper tasks of the mission of Church for the salvation of the world to
lead people back to seeing this union".12 The
bicentenary of Alphonsus comes as a suitable occasion to dedicate
ourselves anew to this task of study, in which we seek to possess, in
the changed culture of our society, the great human balance and high
sense of the faith which Saint Alphonsus possessed throughout his whole
life as a scholar and a pastor. This Apostolic See, for its part, will
not omit to make its contribution to this effort by treating the issues
of the foundations of moral theology more fully and more deeply in a
document, shortly to be released.
Certainly, modern life presents new problems, which are often not
easy to resolve. But always to be kept in mind in the direction of souls
and in the ministry of teaching is that the indispensable criterion to
which we must always turn is the Word of God authentically interpreted
by the Magisterium of the Church. You must always be guided by a
pastoral kindness according to the wise advice of Pope Paul VI.
"Not to diminish the saving teaching of Christ is the
preeminent form of charity for souls. But it must always be accompanied
by the patience and goodness of which the Redeemer himself gave us the
example in all his dealings with people".13
The Apostolic Letter which I send you today on the bicentenary of the
death of Saint Alphonsus, expresses my convictions and feelings about a
Saint who was a master of wisdom and a father of the faith.
Turning to the sons of Alphonsus spread throughout the world whom you
worthily represent, I would like to give you the advice such a father
would give his heritage, the Congregation he founded. It is the advice
which Saint Alphonsus expressed in his life, in his pastoral work and in
his writings: he urges faithfulness to Christ and to his Gospel;
faithfulness to the Church and her mission in the world, faithfulness
to the people of our time; and faithfulness to the charism of your
You should never be deflected from this Alphonsian path in
your life and ministry. You should always be men who follow the
footsteps of the divine Redeemer, whose title and name you bear,
according to the purpose of your Institute as it is given in the words
of your Saint: "to follow the example of Jesus Christ, the
Redeemer, by preaching the word of God to the poor, as he declared of
himself: 'he sent me to preach the Good News to the poor’".14
During its long journey of 255 years, your Congregation has produced
saints worthy of being remembered: the lay member St Gerard Majella
(1726-1755); St Clement M. Hofbauer (1751-1820), the bicentenary of
whose arrival in Poland occurs this year and which I have had occasion
to remember by sharing in the celebrations at Warsaw (10-17 May 1987) by
means of a letter; St John Nepomucene Neumann (1811-1860); and Blessed
Peter Donders (1809-1987), whose name I added to list of the blessed.
The example of Saint Alphonsus and of these great sons of his,
recognized for their sanctity by the Church, should inspire in all of
you a desire for the way of holiness.
I am happy to have participated in the celebrations of the Church and
of your Institute through this Apostolic Letter, and I sincerely impart
to you, to all the sons of Alphonsus, to the Redemptoristine nuns and to
the whole Alphonsian family, a special Apostolic Blessing, as a pledge
of heavenly grace.
Given at the Vatican, this first day of August, 1987, in the ninth
year of my Pontificate.
1 A.M. Tannoia, Della vita
ed Instituto del venerabile servo di Dio Alfonso Maria Liguori, Vescovo
de S. Agata de’ Goti e Fondatore della Congregazione de’ Preti
Missionari del SS. Redentore, III. Napoli 1800, p. 88; cf.
ibid., pp. 151, 191-192,
2 St Alphonsus Liguori, Theologia
moralis, ed. L. Gaudé, II, Romae, 1907, p. 53. It is also important
to note what the Holy Doctor added immediately afterwards: "As St
Anthony accurately noted, when he was discussing the question of when
some action should be condemned as mortal (sin) or not, and wrote: if,
in the case, there is not the explicit authority of Holy Scripture, or
of a canon, or of a decision of the Church, or if there is not evident
reason, this (action) cannot be called such except with the greatest
3 St Alphonsus Liguori, Del
gran mezzo della preghiera e opuscoli affini (Opere
asectiche, II), Roma 1962, p. 171.
4 St Alphonsus Liguori, Pratica
de amar Gesù Cristo e opuscoli sull'amore divino (Opere
ascetiche, II), Roma 1933, pp. 1-4.
5 Pius IX, Acta,
V (1869-1871), 337.
6 Cf. Apos. Lett. Consueverunt
Omni Tempore: AAS 42 (1950), pp. 595-597.
7 Pius XII, Leltera
Autografa, for the new edition of the works of St Alphonsus: Spicilegium
Historicum Congregationis SSmi. Redemptoris, I (1953). n.
1-2, p. 247.
8 A.G. Roncalli, Il
giornale dell'anima, Roma 1964, p. 462.
9 A. Luciani, S. Alfonso
cent'anni fa era proclamato Dottore della Chiesa. (Letter to
the presbyterate of Venice for Thursday, 1972), Venezia 1972, p. 41.
10 Cf. Apost. Export. Exhort. Catechesi
Tradendae (16 October 1979), n. 47: AAS 71 (1979), p. 1315; Discorso
al Consiglio Generale dei Padri Redentoristi (6 December
1979), n. 2: Insegnamenti II-2 (1979), p. 1327; Discorso ai
partecipanti al I Convegno nazionale sulle Missioni al Popolo (6
February 1981): Insegnamenti IV-1 (1981), pp. 233-237; Apost.
Exhort. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (2 December 1984), n.
26: AAS 77 (1985), p. 247.
11 Second Vatican Council,
Decree on Priestly Formation Optatam Totius, 16.
12 John Paul II, Discorso
ad alcuni docenti di Teologia morale: AAS 78 (1986), 1099. The
words of Paul VI to the General Chapter of the Congregation of the
Redemptorists on 22 September, 1967, remain pertinent: cf. AAS 59
13 Paul VI, Encycl Letter Humanae
Vitae, 29: AAS 60 (1968), 501.
14 Constitutiones et
statuta Congregationis SS. Redemptoris, Romae 1986, Const. 1, p. 21.
15 John Paul II, Epistula
supremo Moderatori Varsaviensis Provinciae missa, 14 May 1987.