Innocens manibus, et mundo corde

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A Saint for Schoolboys

When I was growing up, Catholic schoolboys were given a choice of two patron saints: Dominic Savio and Aloysius Gonzaga. In about fifth grade the biography of Dominic Savio by Saint John Bosco became a book that I read and reread. I confess to having found Saint Aloysius somewhat less appealing. I really didn't know Saint Aloysius. Although Pope Benedict XIII named him the patron saint of youth in 1729, poor Aloysius was not always well served by those eager to promote devotion to him.

Pastel Portraits

Mass-produced holy pictures of Aloysius more often than not depicted him as a wan and wilting youth, looking impossibly fragile, listless and pale. At his feet lay the cast off crown of his noble rank and, over his head, rosy-cheeked angels hovered just waiting to crown him with heavenly glory. Clutching his lily and with eyes rolled heavenward, this representation of Aloysius rather suggested that holiness was somehow incompatible with wholesomeness or, at least, not something that people with just normal neuroses could hope to attain.

Passionate and Strong-Willed

The real Aloysius was energetic, strong-willed, virile, passionate, and dashing. He was also gentle, tender-hearted and capable of magnificent acts of self-sacrifice and abnegation. There is a splendid sculpture of him by Pierre LeGros (1666-1719) that shows Aloysius carrying a victim of the plague in his arms. I wish that you could all see a photograph of it. There is a Pietà-like quality to it: tenderness and strength all at once. Aloysius carries the full weight of the sick man's body and the head of the sick man rests in the crook of Aloysius's neck. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A Little Boy Who Prayed

Aloysius (or Luigi, to call him by his proper name) gave up a life of princely opulence to live in The Company of Jesus -- in both senses of the expression. His father had destined him for something entirely different. Even as a little boy Luigi was being groomed for a brilliant military career. Dressed in a tiny made-to-order suit of armour, he would march alongside the troops in military reviews. He did this to please his father. Small boys so want their father's approval. All the while there was something else at work in little Luigi's heart. More than anything else he was drawn to prayer.

Prayer, Plotting, Sex, and Violence

Luigi began praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary when he was eleven years old. He took his life with God as seriously as any cadet takes his military training. His personal rule of life, even as boy, included daily Mass, weekly Holy Communion, and fasting three days a week. In a milieu where the sexual seduction of young boys by adult women and men was hardly a secret, Luigi kept a rigorous modesty of the eyes, determined to protect his innocence. He prayed, and distanced himself from the plotting, sex, and violence that sizzled all around him.

The Insatiable Desire for God

I have been thinking of late of the determining factor in discerning a vocation to the monastic life. Saint Luigi was not, of course, a monk; he was a Jesuit. All the same, what I see in him is what I see in every young man who knocks at the door of the monastery: an insatiable desire for God. The insatiable desire or God, a desire that no created thing can satisfy, is what compels small boys -- and old men -- to pray much. Men in the turbulence of middle-age are easily drawn away from prayer into other pursuits, but small boys and old men pray more easily.

The secret of perseverance in monastic life -- and in the priesthood, as well -- is to remain a small child while growing old. The small child prays simply, without observing himself and noting every change in his spiritual temperature. He prays the way he plays. And the small child, like the old man, is capable of praying much. This is, I think, the best way to grow old: by praying more and more. God desires to be desired. Saint Luigi, pray for us, that we may grow old while praying much, and pray much as we grow old.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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