Today is the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, a man who lived a long life (1696-1787, amazing even today!) and is known in our Church as the patron saint of moral theologians. A comment in his biographical sketch (http://www.americancatholic.org) could have been written of someone living in our day rather than four hundred years ago. It spoke of Alphonsus as a “practical man who dealt in the concrete rather than the abstract” and said this: His life was indeed a “practical” model for the everyday Christian who has difficulty recognizing the dignity of Christian life amid the swirl of problems, pain, misunderstanding and failure. During his life Alphonsus suffered all these things but was able to maintain an intimate sense of the presence of the suffering Christ through it all.
Alphonsus was the founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly called the Redemptorists and known especially as missionaries and preachers of the Word of God, primarily by conducting parish missions. The stated purpose of these missions is to invite people to a deeper love for God and a fuller practice of the Christian life. In accordance with the instructions of St. Alphonsus, preaching is to be down-to-earth and understandable to all who are listening. Stated another way, his biography observes that his great pastoral reforms were in the pulpit and the confessional – replacing the pompous oratory of the time with simplicity and the rigorism of Jansenism with kindness.
My fondness for the Redemptorists goes beyond the need I see for clergy to speak directly to the experience of people in their congregations and to be especially willing to listen to those coming to them seeking an intermediary of God’s great love and forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation. My uncle was a Redemptorist priest, well-known in Boston and beyond as an embodiment of those qualities. As a child I recall his rare but exciting visits when he returned with stories from missionary work in Brazil. Later we were happy for more frequent opportunities to see him during the years he was stationed close to home. His passion was for people and their faith and his motivation was his own great love for God. Unlike the founder of his religious order, Uncle Walter died early at age 53 in 1970 during another tumultuous time in the Church, five years after the end of the Second Vatican Council. Some struggles still endure in the wake of the Council reforms but much that has come to be has given “the faithful” opportunities for what St. Alphonsus saw as essential: the deepening of love for God and the practice of the Christian life.
Today I will pray for clergy and all those who lead congregations in any religious tradition, that their purpose and vision will always be to foster love of God in their people and their example be that of kindness and humility. I will be most aware of those leaders who suffer in difficult circumstances because of the struggles in pastoral situations or ecclesiastical politics and will pray that perseverance will be the gift God gives as reward for their labors.