Pope John Paul II
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 ofthe 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 his time.
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 TheEternal 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 lost".3
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 Meansof Prayer; The True Spouse of Jesus Christ; The Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament andto 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.4Alphonsus 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 inredemption; 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 hislife, 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 QuiEcclesiae 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 thisgreat man, and have recalled and maintained it even to our own day.
Pope Pius XII of blessed memory who, on 26 April 1950, conferredon 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 XXIIIdeserves 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 closefriend 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, hewanted 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, hishouse 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 theology".9
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 themore 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 thesimple, 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 salvation.
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 todiminish 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 Institute.
You should never be deflectedfrom 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 risk".
3 St Alphonsus Liguori, Del gran mezzo della preghiera e opuscoliaffini (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.
5Pius 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 faera 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 (6December 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 (2December 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 (1967), 960-963.
13 Paul VI, Encycl Letter Humanae Vitae, 29: AAS 60 (1968), 501.
14Constitutiones et statuta Congregationis SS. Redemptoris, Romae 1986, Const. 1, p. 21.
15 John Paul II, Epistula supremo Moderatori Varsaviensis Provinciae missa, 14 May 1987.
Weekly Edition in English
17 August 1987, page 4
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