Wednesday, August 1, 2012

St. Alphonsus Liguori: A Model for the Independent Sacramental Movement?

Today is the feast of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, bishop, doctor, confessor, founder of the Redemptorists, hammer of rigorists, and dispenser of practical spiritual advice. I owe my appreciation of this great saint to one of my dear friends and much of what I have to say here are probably things I've heard him say with a couple of bits thrown in from my time in the monastery.

The Independent Sacramental Movement tends to take a cautious approach toward the saints who come after Trent, especially the theologians, and perhaps rightly so.  It is reasonable to assume that a saint who fought for the rights of the Holy See against more Gallican visions of the church might take a rather dim view of what we do and St. Alphonsus was also an unrelenting foe of the Jansenism, which, directly or otherwise, provided many of us with our orders.  Even so, the life of St. Alphonsus provides much that is useful for those attempting to be the church in a new way.

St. Alphonsus lived most of his life against the backdrop of 18th Century Naples, which was as rough a place as there was to be found in Europe at the time. The clergy were known for their laxity and the people for their greater laxity. In response to this general climate, an extreme form of rigorism found a large following among many of the clergy and pious laity, a situation not dissimilar from some contemporary trends in the American religious landscape.

A 30-year-old aristocratic lawyer and sometime musician and painter at the time of his ordination, St. Alphonsus chucked a conventional upper class life and threw himself in among the poor, particularly those in isolated areas. He founded evening schools and chapels. He dispensed common sense advice for struggling average people from the pulpit and in the confessional.

While he abhorred laxity, especially among the clergy, and fought a life-long battle against his own scrupulosity, St. Alphonsus was equally opposed to a cold rigorism, which he said "has never been taught or practiced in the Church." Out of his pastoral experience grew his Moral Theology, which is credited with defining the position of equi-probalism, steering a moderate course between laxism and the rigorist confessors, who frequently declined to pronounce absolution. For this and his other works, including popular devotional texts such as The Glories of Mary, he was named a doctor of the church.

St. Alphonsus’s doctrine is rooted in devotional practice and persistence, in common sense rather than abstract reasoning and, perhaps most especially, in charity. Through all that he saw in his long life of 90 years, he maintained his love of music and beauty and a childlike devotion to the Mother of God. There is still much to be learned from him 225 years on. Indeed, his place and time and his life remind us that there is nothing new under the sun, whether the pendulum is swinging toward laxity or rigor.

Though he could have devoted himself to academic work or church politics, St. Alphonsus chose to work among common people, meeting them as they were and finding language that inspired them to return to the church.  When existing parochial and catechetical structures did not fit the lives of rural people and the working poor, he invented new ones. He had more than one false start and falling out in founding of the Redemptorists, but he kept moving forward.  He practiced charity with others even as he recognized his own demons, if not always so quickly as he might have wished.  In all these ways, he serves as a model for those of us trying to do things a bit differently, even if he might give us a cluck of the tongue or two.

A few quotes from the saint himself make the point far better than I can:

Acquire the habit of speaking to God as if you were alone with Him, familiarly and with confidence and love, as to the dearest and most loving of friends. Speak to Him often of your business, your plans, your troubles, your fears— of everything that concerns you. Converse with Him confidently and frankly; for God is not wont to speak to a soul that does not speak to Him.

The more a person loves God, the more reason he has to hope in Him. This hope produces in the Saints an unutterable peace, which they preserve even in adversity, because as they love God, and know how beautiful He is to those who love Him, they place all their confidence and find all their repose in Him alone.

Jesus seems continually to exclaim from the altar: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Come, He says, come you who are poor; come, you who are infirm; come, you who are afflicted; come, you who are just and you who are sinners, and you shall find in me a remedy for all your losses and afflictions. This is the desire of Jesus Christ: to console every person who calls upon Him.