Prescriptions from the Doctors of the Church: Saint Alphonsus (September 27, 1696–August 1, 1787)

Saint Alphonsus is one of the thirty-six saints who are Doctors of the Church. The Doctors of the Church are renowned for their holiness and also for their important teachings. Using the doctor metaphor, we can say that in a sense each Doctor of the Church gives us a “prescription” for spiritual growth. Saint Alphonsus’s particular prescription for holiness can lead us to a greater love for Jesus.

Alphonsus was born near Naples, Italy. His wealthy family provided him with the finest education and by age sixteen he had earned doctorates in both civil and canon law. Two years later, he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy and cared for the sick at the hospital for “incurables.” At the same time, he began to practice law. However, after several years, Alphonsus left the bar, disgusted by the unscrupulous machinations of the court system.

Alphonsus entered the seminary and was ordained in 1726. He soon became known for his sermons, which were eloquent and persuasive. His great compassion led him to evangelize everyone, especially the poor, with patience and love. Due to his untiring efforts, groups in which people would pray and reflect on the Word of God began to arise throughout the city. In 1732, Alphonsus founded the Redemptorists, dedicated to evangelizing the materially and spiritually poor the world over. He became an expert in moral theology and was widely sought after as a compassionate confessor. Despite resisting the honor, Alphonsus was made a bishop when he was sixty-six years old. He wrote over one hundred books, including classics such as The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ and The Glories of Mary. Known for his strong devotion to Mary, Alphonsus died at the age of ninety-one, just as the Angelus bells tolled.

Alphonsus’ prescription:  Live with a penitent heart. Go to confession on a regular basis.

Being an expert in moral theology, Alphonsus did his best to help people to have a spirit of contrition for their sins. He knew that people often sinned from weakness and did not realize the seriousness of their sins. His remedy was to move people to have a deeper love for Jesus, a penitent heart that would help them to want to invite Jesus more and more into their lives. Alphonsus focused on love more than on sin itself. He would preach about the sufferings of Jesus, which he endured out of love for each one of us. This emphasis on love had the power to help people come to a deeper conversion in their lives. Alphonsus moved many hearts when he preached and gave parish missions. It was because Alphonsus himself had a penitent heart that he was able to move people so deeply.

Some practical things to do:

  • Go to confession. If it has been a while since you’ve received this sacrament, prepare for it by focusing on Jesus’ love for you. He is ready to pour out his love and mercy on you and forgive all your sins through the ministry of the Church. After your initial confession put it on your schedule to go regularly. A monthly confession is a good ideal to strive for.
  • Do you have some resentment in your heart against any particular person? If so, pray for the grace to give up the bitterness and reconcile with that person if possible. It may not be possible to have an actual reconciliation. In that case simply forgive in your heart.
  • Practice gratitude. Praise God for the many gifts he has brought into your life. You may wish to pray with the Psalms, which are full of praise prayers.

Prayer

Saint Alphonsus Liguori, pray for me that I might live with a penitent heart just as you did. Inspire me with thoughts and sentiments of love for God and for my neighbor. Help me to see Jesus in each person whom I meet. Amen.

Feast: August 1
Patron: Moral theologians, confessors, and those suffering from arthritis

Excerpt from the writings of Saint Alphonsus:

The Scriptures are clear enough in pointing out how necessary it is to pray, if we would be saved. “We ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Lk 18:1). “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation” (Mt 26:41). “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Mt 7:7). The words “we ought,” pray,” “ask,” according to the general consent of theologians, impose the precept, and denote the necessity of prayer. . . .

 Without the assistance of God’s grace we can do no good thing: “Without Me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Saint Augustine remarks on this passage, that our Lord did not say, “Without Me, you can complete nothing,” but “without Me, you can do nothing;” giving us to understand that without grace we cannot even begin to do a good thing. Even more, Saint Paul writes, that of ourselves we cannot even have the wish to do good. “Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5). If we cannot even think a good thing, much less can we wish it.

The same thing is taught in many other passages of Scripture: “God works all in all. I will cause you to walk in my commandments, and to keep my judgments, and do them.” (Ezek 37:27). So, as Saint Leo I says, “Man does no good thing, except that which God, by his grace, enables him to do.”. . .  

From these two premises, on the one hand, that we can do nothing without the assistance of grace; and on the other, that this assistance is only given ordinarily by God to the person who prays, who does not see that the consequence follows, that prayer is absolutely necessary to us for salvation? And although the first graces that come to us without any cooperation on our part, such as the call to faith or to penance, are, as Saint Augustine says, granted by God even to those who do not pray; yet the Saint considers it certain that the other graces, and especially the grace of perseverance, are not granted except in answer to prayer: “God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, he has only provided for those who pray.”

Hence it is that the generality of theologians, following Saint Basil, Saint Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Saint Augustine, and other Fathers, teach that prayer is necessary to adults, not only because of the obligation of the precept (as they say), but because it is necessary as a means of salvation. That is to say, in the ordinary course of Providence, it is impossible that a Christian should be saved without recommending himself to God, and asking for the graces necessary to salvation. Saint Thomas teaches the same: “After Baptism, continual prayer is necessary to man, in order that he may enter Heaven; for though by Baptism our sins are remitted, there still remains concupiscence to assail us from within, and the world and the devil to assail us from without” (Part 3, q. 39, a. 5).

From The Great Means of Prayer, chapter 1, “The Necessity of Prayer.”

By Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP

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