A rather imposing sculpture situated in the foyer of St Aloysius’ College, Sydney, recently sparked a conversation about role models and the impact a 16th century Mantuan has had on the Aloysian community in Milson’s Point.
Born in Castilglione delle Stiviere, Mantua (Italy) in 1568, Aloysius was destined from a young age to inherit his family’s wealth and power. As a member of the Gonzaga dynasty (which was to last for nearly 400 years) much was expected from the eldest of seven children. Two years attached to the infamous Medici household, coupled with time as page to the Prince of Asturias, revealed the machinations of court life – with all its frivolity and ribaldry. In response, the young Aloysius took a perpetual vow of chastity.
At age 15, he resolved to not only become a priest, but a Jesuit. In doing so, he would be spared the otherwise unavoidable elevations to higher office that would come to those who bore the Gonzaga name. He knew full well that Jesuits were forbidden to seek such election, indeed are obliged to report those who do. After a long running battle with his father, he publicly resigned his titles, clearing the way to join the Society of Jesus. The young saint’s novitiate was notable for the way he attended to all duties, however humble, with dedication and good grace. His generous and cheerful disposition struck all who met him.
Aloysius’s premature death at 23, at the hands of the plague, bear testimony to his desire to fully serve God. While others fled the pestilence that was ravaging the city, Aloysius tended to the afflicted. Tradition tells that he contracted the disease whilst carrying a plague-stricken man to hospital.
Pre-eminent among all who were inspired by his example, was his confessor, (Cardinal) St Robert Bellarmine. The impact must have been profound indeed, for Bellarmine asked that upon his own death, that he be buried at the feet of his young protégé. A visit to the Church of St Ignazio in Rome, reveals that Bellarmine’s wish was granted.
Pope Benedict XIII canonized Aloysius in 1726, and he remains today both the Patron of Youth and more recently, AIDS victims. Educational institutions on five continents bear his name: Milson’s Point- Sydney, Glasgow (Scotland), Mangalore (India), Spokane (USA) and most recently Nairobi, Africa. The last of these was established in 2003, quite poignantly, for the children of AIDS victims.
So what then does the life of a 16th century Mantuan, have to say to young people today.
Although not everyone is called to take a perpetual vow of chastity, we are all called to exercise of self-control in our various stages of life. Despite the power of popular culture, many young people still strive for high ideals. For some saints, such as Augustine, Francis and Ignatius, the lessons they learned with the result of long and circuitous personal journeys. Although it took some time, they all discovered that living the ‘bachelor life’ was not all it was made out to be. Aloysius’s example teaches young men and women to treasure their unique gifts.
Also he teaches that self-sacrifice sometimes entails forgoing what we desire, even when that desire is essentially good. The choice between ‘what is right and what is easy’ as JK Rowling puts it, is summed up by the Ignatian concept of ‘Magis’. Sometimes defined as the ‘Greater’ or the ‘More’. It is really about striving to be the best that one can be, in all spheres of life. For many reasons, young people (as well as the not so young) ‘compartmentalize’ God, excluding Him from those facets of life that often need his direction the most. In doing so, they can fall victim to peer pressure. The desire to please others, to the extent that one’s own integrity is compromised, can be a real challenge. To resist, often entails hard choices, choices that can fly in the face of convention and popular culture.
The life and death of St Aloysius reminds us that the glittering prizes are more often than not, simply ‘fool’s gold’, a kind of counterfeit happiness that ultimately fails to satisfy. St Augustine put it best when he argued that we all have a God shaped void that only God can fill. True consolation can only be found in living a life congruent with the Gospel values. Despite his youth, Aloysius sought to follow his vocation wherever that was to lead.
We are told in Luke 12:48 that ‘to whom much is given, much is to be expected’. The young Aloysius enjoyed a lifestyle that would have been the envy of many. As heir to the Gonzaga marquisate, Aloysius would have wielded both military and temporal power, ensuring a long and comfortable life. Instead he turned his back on both family tradition and significant wealth. The long running battle with his father bears testimony to the resoluteness of the saint. One story relates how the young saint, when presented with his vast inheritance, exclaimed that he was ‘ad majora natus’ – born for greater things. This proclamation remains our College motto and is a reminder to those, to whom much has been given, much is expected.
The willingness of so many of our students to participate in the wide variety of social justice and service opportunities bears testimony to Aloysius’s example. Whether the Benenson or St Vincent de Paul societies, the Philippines and Vietnam Immersion Experiences or the Arrupe outreach and Faith in Service programme, all are witness to the relevance of the life and service of St Aloysius, still present in our lives today.
The call to be ‘men for others’ as (former Superior General) Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ requested, is most acutely demonstrated in generous service, generosity with one’s gifts and ultimately generosity in life. Despite the passing of over four hundred years, a 16th century Mantuan still matters in Milson’s Point.