Two figures are particularly known for their influence in lifting the more mechanical and legalistic approaches to morals.
The Gentle Lawyer
One of these, oddly enough, was originally a lawyer. St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), became in time a bishop, spiritual writer, composer, musician, artist, poet, philosopher and theologian. But first he was the well-born son of a Neapolitan gentleman, although his father’s branch of the family was the clan’s poorer kin.
Despite the family finances, Alphonsus learned to ride and fence, but he had bad eyesight and chronic asthma, which eliminated a military career. Instead, he was prepared for the University of Naples under tutors hired by his father and earned doctorates in civil and canon law at the age of 16. Of his 10 years as a young lawyer about town he later wrote: “Banquets, entertainments, theatres, these are the pleasures of the world, but pleasures which are filled with the bitterness of gall and sharp thorns.”
Alphonsus was one of the attorneys in a 1723 lawsuit between a Neapolitan nobleman and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with property valued at 500,000 ducats (a large sum of money, perhaps millions today). After losing the case, he fled lawyering and went off to volunteer, as he had done in earlier days, visiting the sick in the Hospital for Incurables. While living this way, he suddenly found himself surrounded by a mysterious light, and an interior voice said: “Leave the world and give thyself to Me.”
In 1726 he became an ordained priest, initially preaching in the streets to the poorest of the poor of Naples, known as lazzarone. He started a confraternity of sorts for them called the Association of the Chapels. Then, as one biographer puts it, God called him to his life work through an unusual third party.
Around that time, a postulant to the religious life, Julia Crostarosa, about the same age as Alphonsus, entered the convent of Scala and took the name Sister Maria Celeste. She began to experience visions, and on October 3, 1731, she saw Jesus with St. Francis and a priest on either side. Maria Celeste heard a voice say, “This is he whom I have chosen to be head of My Institute, the Prefect General of a new Congregation of men who shall work for My glory.” The priest was Alphonsus. The order of the Redemptorists he started a year later began in a little hospice belonging to the nuns of Scala.
The Redemptorists are known for their dedication to the poor. Alphonsus always said that he preached for the humblest and least educated person in any crowd. He and his order are also notable for their gentle approach to morality in the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). Indeed, a contemporary Redemptorist, Fr. Bernard Haring, was notable in penning in 1954 The Law of Christ, a modern manual of moral theology for the laity as well as priests, not in small part influenced by Alphonsus’ own groundbreaking 10-volume 1748 work in Latin, The Moral Theology, translated into English for the first time this year, 2017.
Alphonsus drew on his experience as a confessor. He pondered a question that seemingly arose in the confessional: what should people do when the right course of action is not clear? He sought a middle ground between the prevailing rigor of his time and the laxity many in the clergy abhorred.
Also among his works is the devotional The Way of the Cross, a guide to the Stations of the Cross, also known as Way of Sorrows or Via Crucis, a series of images depicting Jesus on the day of his crucifixion and accompanying prayers. The book is still used in parishes during Lenten devotions.
Alphonsus Liguori was canonized in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1871. He is the patron saint of confessors.
The Curé of Ars
Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney (1786-1859), commonly known as St. John Vianney or the Curé d’Ars (parish priest of Ars), stumbled accidentally on the role that eventually got him a following and ultimately canonization as the patron saint of parish priests.
Jean-Baptiste was the fourth of six children born near Lyons to a farming family that was devoutly Catholic at a time in which the anticlerical Terror phase of the French Revolution forced many loyal priests to hide. He received his First Communion catechism instructions in a private home by two nuns whose communities had been dissolved during the Revolution. During his first communion Mass, at the age of 13, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside.
The Catholic Church was reestablished in France in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, resulting in religious peace throughout the country, culminating in a concordat. The new peace brought other problems: he was drafted into the army to invade Spain. Jean-Baptiste was already feeling a tug to become a priest and tried to avoid going to war. Through a series of accidents he missed his unit’s departure and ended up hiding in a village as a deserter until an 1810 amnesty freed him.
Then he met his advocate for the priesthood and future mentor, Father Balley, the schoolmaster whose patience he tried. Vianney could be called the second “dumb ox,” the first being St. Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas was called that out of envy for his sullen brilliance; Vianney actually struggled in school and needed tutoring. When he went to the seminary at Verrieres in 1812, he failed the entrance exam but was admitted when he retook it three months later. As a seminarian he had such difficulty with Latin (the language all subjects were taught in at most seminaries until the 1960s) that he was allowed to study philosophy in French. Balley persuaded Church authorities that Vianney’s devotion made up for his lack of intellect, and he was ordained in 1815, appointed assistant to Balley in Écully.
The following year, Balley died and Vianney was appointed parish priest in the then-tiny town of Ars, population 230. He founded an orphanage for destitute girls, The Providence, where he taught the catechism in a way that was so popular it had to be given every day in the church to large crowds.
However, the Curé d'Ars displayed other gifts, particularly in the confessional. He didn’t just listen to the recitation of sins but offered spiritual direction that showed outstanding insight. People came to confess from other parishes, then from other villages, then from all over France and ultimately from all over the world. It was estimated that in 1855 Ars’ yearly pilgrims totaled 20,000. Even his bishop forbade him to travel because of the people waiting to be heard.
He spent 16 to 18 hours a day in the confessional, offering advice to the sick, people in a variety of difficulties, young men and women pondering vocations and even fellow priests as well as bishops. All with long lines stretching out of the church. There were many stories told of his ministry.
Sometimes he would pop out of the box, walk down the line and stop next to someone he declared most needed to confess and would take that penitent to the confessional. He was said to know when someone was withholding sins and making an imperfect confession, breaking the requirement to state all sins since previous reception of the sacrament.
Yet he also showed the love of God. On one occasion a woman came to him troubled about her son, who had committed suicide jumping off a bridge, thereby condemning himself to eternal punishment. Vianney assured her that, as he realized what he had done, the boy had uttered a prayer of contrition and God, always seeking to forgive, had accepted his remorse.
Pius IX declared him venerable in 1874; he was canonized by Pius XI in 1925. His feast day is August 4.