More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


Celebrating Our Partnership in Ministry

Sr. Patricia Ann Matthews, IHM
IHM Center, Scranton, PA
November 10, 2005

Evening of Prayer, IHM Center

I realize there is quite a range of knowledge in this group about our I.H.M. heritage. Some of you I know are better informed than I about our roots. I invite you to moments of remembering. Some of you may not be aware of exactly what the connection is between IHMs and the saint I am going to talk about, Alphonsus Ligouri. You'll enjoy getting to know him.

Let me draw you if I may, to the picture from the rotunda on the Marywood University campus. There in the dome is what may be referred to as the patronal mural. You face it directly as you come in the front door of the Liberal Arts Center. The picture shows the Immaculate Heart of Mary enthroned in heaven and 3 people – first, a priest who appears to be presenting a Sister in a blue habit and then a man in a gold cape, a bishop it seems.

The priest is Louis Florent Gillet, a missionary to the U.S. from Belgium, and co-founder of the Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the sister is any or all IHM Sisters (according to the artist).

The other gentleman depicted is Alphonsus Ligouri, a bishop and canonized saint, and founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, popularly called Redemptorists, of which Father Gillet was a member.

Father Gillet wanted Sisters to work with him in the mission fields of Michigan (and being unsuccessful in recruiting any to join him), he decided to found a Congregation and got Theresa Maxis (co-founder of the Congregation) to join him in this effort.

As you might expect, Father Gillet passed on the spirituality of his own Congregation, the Redemptorists, to the fledgling I.H.M. group he was mentoring. Later when Gillet returned to Europe, the Sisters sought out John Neumann, then the bishop of Philadelphia, who was also a Redemptorist to help them grow in their knowledge and practice of the Redemptorist way, based on the writings, life and spirit of St. Alphonsus Ligouri.

He is the bishop pictured in the Marywood University dome with Louis Gillet though they never met and lived in different centuries. Gillet and Bishop Neumann are the connections between the Redemptorist way of life and the newly founded U.S. Congregation of the I.H.M.

This March a group of us went to Rome and some of the places important to the life of St. Alphonsus as a spiritual pilgrimage to mark the 160th anniversary of the founding of the Congregation and the 90th anniversary of the founding of Marywood University.

I was asked to speak about St. Alphonsus to make sure all of the participants understood the connection between this saint/the IHMs and Marywood.

The setting was nothing like this. We had flown all night; it was 7:00 a.m., we were freezing due to a near-by construction site and the space they gave us was a storage room filled with luggage. So, sit back, relax, you've got a better deal here - -

Alphonsus Ligouri lived in the eighteenth century – he was born in Naples (South Italy) to a well-to-do family; his father commanded a ship of the Royal Navy. He had a first rate education and earned a double doctorate in civil and church law at the University of Naples.

He opened a law practice and at age 27 he overlooked a document and lost an important case. This failure caused him to think about his life and what was important. He was already involved in a spiritual confraternity, had a spiritual director and was engaged in some apostolic works in Naples with a hospital and at local prisons.

Alphonsus decided to become a priest. Because of parental opposition, he was not able to join a religious institute, so he became a member of the diocesan clergy and was ordained at age 30.

He studied and lived at home as was the custom of the day and he gained a reputation as a preacher all over Naples and as a confessor.

Alphonsus worked with condemned prisoners and set up a program of Evening Chapels in the slum areas of Naples to catechize the beggars and street dwellers of the city.

Alphonsus was sickly, he had asthma, and his doctor ordered him to get out of the city for some rest and relaxation in the hills above the Amalfi coast. There Alphonsus found the poor mountaineers, the unchurched of his day, who were not being taught, had no priestly services, and had not heard the Good News of the Gospel.

When he returned to Naples, he continued to worry about these poor and eventually made a commitment to spend his life ministering to them.

At this time, Alphonsus met a Sister, Marie Celeste Crostarosa who lived in Scala and claimed to have a divine revelation to start a new Institute for women. Her spiritual director and Alphonsus' was the same person (Thomas Falcoia) and he asked Alphonsus to look into the matter while he was in Scala giving a retreat.

Alphonsus was impressed with Marie Celeste and thought her vision was of divine origin. He convinced the bishop to give her permission for a founding of what today we call the Redemptoristines (1731).

Alphonsus worked on the Rule for the new Institute and was very involved in the early years of its development and cared for its members.

Then Marie Celeste had another vision of a Congregation of men with Alphonsus as its leader, a Congregation dedicated to preaching to the poor.

The Rule was similar to that established for the nuns and dedicated to imitating the Savior. Other nuns also received the same communication from God.

Alphonsus tested out these ideas, seeking counsel for over a year, and finally received permission from the Bishop of Scala to begin such a work.

Much opposition in Naples from groups Alphonsus belonged to there, and from his father and relatives ensued. But in 1732 having sought spiritual advice he went to Scala and began the work of founding a new institute. Suffice it to say it was very difficult but candidates did come and a full schedule of missions was begun.

There were many intrigues and jealousies as the Congregation was welcomed by people and while Alphonsus tried to get approval first from the King of Naples and then from the Pope which he did attain in 1749.

In order to develop the spirituality of the Institute, he did much writing for his men on devotion to Mary, on the Blessed Sacrament, and on the Passion.

He also wrote 9 editions of an important work on Moral Theology to guide Confessors in which he tried to find a way between the rigor of the Dominicans and the laxity of the Jesuits.

He approved, e.g., frequent and even daily Communion which was much disapproved in his day and wrote much about governing with gentleness, and being concerned for the health of the members of the Institute, not just for their work and study.

He tried to strike a balance and recognize human nature, while working for all to become saints.

Alphonsus thought that developing the Congregation was his main life work, but at age 65, he was made a Bishop, an honor he simply did not want. He rode about his diocese on a donkey conducting catechetical classes, going to homes of sick children to instruct and confirm them, taking alms to the poor and this despite the fact he was semi-blind, hard of hearing, had a profound limp, and frequent attacks of asthma.

His elevation to Bishop was his one and only trip to Rome. He wanted no jewels and when he was told what such a ceremony would cost, he replied: "I did not ask for the episcopacy; it was imposed upon me. The only way I have of paying these charges is out of the revenue of my Church and these I must use in relieving the poor."

He was welcoming of all to his house, sold the luxurious furnishings of his residence, and set about reforming the diocese, personally directing many missions.

He resigned 4 times, but his resignation was not accepted, despite rheumatism, inability to walk without assistance, and many other ailments.

Meanwhile his beloved Congregation was in other hands, mismanaged, which was a great cause of suffering for him.

Finally, at age 80 Alphonsus' resignation was accepted, and he lived out his years at Pagani; on our trip we visited where he lived out his days, saw his room and wheel chair, and the chapel where he prayed.

Alphonsus published 111 books that have now been translated into 61 languages in over 17,000 editions.

He had to live through the near annihilation of the Congregation he founded because of conflict between the King of Naples and the Pope, because of associates and confidants he trusted who were imprudent, because of fights over money and property, because of the view that his moral teachings were lax.

To get the Rule of the Redemptorists approved by the King of Naples, conditions were accepted to which the Pope objected and Alphonsus and the priests in the Naples area were dismissed from the Congregation – Alphonsus was 86. In fact, he died at Pagani technically outside the Congregation that he founded (1787).

Within 50 years he was canonized. Later he was declared a Doctor of the Church.

Alphonsus was a man who was SENT. He viewed his life's work as what he did as another's minister or agent and he tried to authentically make the other present. For him, the Other was Jesus, the Redeemer, and by prayer and conscious attention to the Redeemer's work in and round him, he was able to know how to represent his Lord. His lifestyle he viewed as essential to maintaining the authenticity of his mission, his commission – that which kept him the faithful, reliable agent. He placed himself totally at the disposal of the work God chose to do through him – this was his vocation – to be the docile, hard-working and unresisting servant of God's love. Alphonsus believed that one had the grace to do what he was given to do, if only he prayed, and therefore he acted very confidently and freely, able to hope and risk, starting the work with faith in the Lord's finishing and completing power. In this he says that all of us, when we pray, honor the mercy, faithfulness, and power of God – because our actions speak to our belief that God CAN and WILL save us and WILL keep His promises.

A man who was sent – to whom? "... to bring good news to the poor...." (Is.) All of Alphonsus' work was to those who, as the Redemptorist constitutions still state, have benefited least from God's redeeming mercy in Christ Jesus and with whom the Church has been less successful in its influence. He cared about those in country places, established houses in their midst, and insisted on a simple lifestyle so that the poor would be drawn to his missioners and a simple style of preaching so that they would reach the unlearned. "You do not wait for people to come to the doors of the Church" he said, "you go to the people." He didn't want his Fathers in Naples or Rome where there were already too many priests. When the Pope thought to honor the Congregation by having them take up a Church in Rome, Alphonsus wrote: "Gloria Patri. What should we do in Rome? Such a thing would destroy our Institute...A thousand others at Rome could do what we should do; and in the meantime what would become of our work? Our Congregation is made for the mountains and villages. As soon as we are placed among prelates, cavaliers, courtiers, good-bye to the missions, good-bye to country places. We should become courtiers ourselves. I pray to Jesus Christ to preserve us from such a misfortune."

The poor were always Alphonsus' special concern, especially those who had no priestly services – taking pity as Jesus did on the crowds who were like "sheep without a shepherd." (Mt. 9:36)

He was also sent "to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to those in prison" (Is. 61:1) for taken literally his first apostolic work was with condemned prisoners. But even more important was Alphonsus' work to free those bound by the false doctrines of his day, Jansenism. He spent his whole life fighting this heresy, stressing the humanity of Christ, -- his birth, his passion and death, and his Eucharistic presence; he proclaimed over and over again the redeeming love of Christ Jesus. In fact, he taught and believed that God was crazy about us!

Alphonsus thought that our love for Jesus and Mary should cause us to speak of them and to inspire others to love them. In the Evening Prayer to Our Lady said for many years in our Congregation (and written by St. Alphonsus) we prayed "I promise always to serve you and to do all that I can to make you loved by others also."

Alphonsus wrote to seduce his readers into an act of love. He wanted to move people emotionally into the saving arms of God and so in his writing he emphasizes a rhythm by repeating phrases. I suppose the one we all know best is at the end of each of the reflections on the Stations of the Cross where he wrote, "Grant that I may love you always and then do with me what you will."

Let us end where we started.

Redemptorists came to the U.S. as missionaries in 1832. Father Gillet met Theresa Maxis and out of a pressing need they were inspired to start the I.H.M. Congregation in 1845 in Michigan.

One hundred sixty years later we are here. We remember these friends of God and we celebrate God's continued blessings on IHM by continuing to tell the story of the Good News – a story of acceptance and blessing, love and inclusiveness, service and solidarity.

We too have been sent to do this.