St. Alphonsus Liguori was a bishop and founder of the Redemptorists, but as we explain at greater length in our new book Persecuted From Within, one of his final purifications in this life was a test of the virtue of obedience.
In 1778, King Ferdinand of Naples asked the Redemptorists to help raise money for a crusade against the Barbary Pirates. Bishop Liguori replied that, if the King wanted their help, then he needed to give them a permanent legal status.
The saint’s first mistake was opening negotiations on these matters without informing the Curia in Rome. Another disastrous error was agreeing to the suggestion of Fr. Maione (a priest of his own order) taking an oath of secrecy about the negotiations. As a result, not only had Bishop Liguori not informed the pope of the negotiations; he had taken a vow that kept him from fixing that mistake.
Fr. Maione negotiated on the saint’s behalf in Naples and made major changes to the rule, such as eliminating the vow of poverty and common life.
When the saint received the news of the changed rule, he was shocked and humiliated. “I ought to have read everything, as I am the superior…But you know how much it costs me to write even a line.” He dissolved into tears.
The priests and brothers were outraged at both the bishop and his betrayers. Within months, half of the priests in Naples and all of the seminarians in Naples left the order.
St. Alphonsus dealt mercifully with Fr. Maione, and did not even remove him from his role as his advisor. The saint defended him publicly and wrote to him, “let us forget the past.”
The saint wrote to former friends, including bishops and superiors of other orders, asking them to intercede for him with the royal court. Cleric after cleric turned him down.
The betrayal in Naples was not nearly so bad as the betrayal in Rome. The saint had sent two of his priests to plead their cause. Instead, the priests denounced their Founder for offenses both real and invented.
The pope promptly ordered that the rule remain unchanged, cut off the Redemptorist houses in Naples as no longer part of the order, and removed St. Alphonsus as Rector General. The order was suppressed in Naples, the land that had originally inspired St. Alphonsus in the first place. The pope appointed one of the saint’s betrayers as the new Rector General of what remained of the Congregation in the Papal States.
The priests broke the news while the saint was preparing to hear mass. He was startled, but quickly gathered himself. He stated that he accepted the decision, and went back to preparing for mass. He remained at peace, but on the way back from mass, he broke into tears and began shouting that he had destroyed a work of God and would surely be punished in hell.
Pius VI restored the rights and privileges of the missionaries in the Kingdom of Naples in 1783.
By then the saint needed to be carried everywhere or pushed in a wheelchair, and yet he could (and did) preach in the pulpit for hours at a time. One of his final sermons touched on the subject of obedience:
“I recommend two things to you, obedience and poverty : obedience, were it even to the cook; obedience is that which preserves us; he who lacks obedience is wanting as regards his duty to God, and God will drive him out of the Congregation. I regard faults against obedience and poverty as capital offences.”
The saint obeyed not only the pope, but his new superior, his enemy Fr. De Paola. Once when a priest seemed to look at him with pity, the saint said, “you must accept everything because it is the pope’s will.”
In his final years he is recorded as saying, “after God is the Pope. Without him, in what confusion should we not be! It is the Pope who makes known to us the will of God, and puts our consciences in peace.” The saint’s letters from these final years are filled with entreaties for his priests to “pray for the pope.” Those who came to the saint for advice about controversy were told simply, “obey the pope.”
He told his priests, “We cannot judge the Pope in our own cause; let us humbly bow our heads in submission. If the Pope has cast us down by one decree, he can raise us up by another; we must obey, and not put interpretations of our own on what he does.
On July 31, 1787, the saint died at age 90. As is often the case with history’s greatest men and women, St. Alphonsus endured hatred in life only to be loved after death. Within months, Fr. Villani and Fr. De Paola—men who had caused him so much difficulty and who did not get along with each other—began the process that would lead to his canonization.
In 1790, the pope and the king reached an agreement that reunited the order under the rule approved by Benedict XIV, the rule followed by St. Alphonsus for decades.
In April 1796, Pius VI declared that the saint was not to be blamed for his handling of the controversy, and it was not to be considered as a factor in the decision for canonization. The same pope who had punished him declared him Venerable.
Pius VII beatified Alphonsus in late 1816. In 1839 St. Alphonsus was canonized alongside the Jesuit Francis Jerome, whom he had met as a child. In 1870, Pius IX named him a Doctor of the Church. St. Alphonsus’ Memorial on the Traditional calendar is August 2.
Image by Aleksandr Stepanov on Shutterstock.
This article was adapted from Alec’s new book, Persecuted from Within, which is available from Sophia Institute Press October 17, 2023.