In 1732, a young priest, Alfonso de Liguori, gathered around him, at Scala in the old Kingdom of Naples, a group of men who would dedicate themselves to preaching the good news of inclusion and blessing for all. Their special concern was society’s poor and most abandoned.
This little band grew to be the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, known the world over as The Redemptorists. Here in Australia and New Zealand, and with some affection, we have come to be known as The Reds.
In 1749, following many challenges in those early years, Pope Benedict XIV approved the Redemptorist way of life with our work among the poor. In God’s good grace it continues still.
In 1696, at Marianella, a suburb of Naples, Alfonso de Liguori was born to Donna Anna Cavalieri and Don Joseph de Liguori. In his youth, Alfonso studied law before entering into successful practice. But even in his high-profile career he was never far from the poor. While accompanying patients in the Hospital of the Incurables he came to know he was meant for something else.
He became a priest. Thereafter, it was the abandoned goatherds on Scala’s hillsides who spoke to his heart. It was for them that he founded the Redemptorists. At a later stage, he wished to go to the mission fields of China and Africa.
Alfonso was a learned man, a lover of art and beauty. He went on to write many scholarly works and popular prayer books for the people. He was widely published during his life time and remains so to the present day. Tu scendi, Italy’s most popular Christmas carol, sprang from Alfonso’s pen and his harpsichord keys those many years ago. In 1762, against his protestations, he was appointed Bishop in the Diocese of Sant’Agata dei Ghoti, in the kingdom of Naples. His reforms there were extensive. In 1787, at the age of 91, he died at Nocera and was canonised in 1839. During his life, Alphonsus encouraged the followers of Christ into the modern age, giving them a language, a philosophy and a new religious consciousness. In 1871, he was declared a Doctor of the Church.
St Alphonsus is a gigantic figure, not only in the history of the Church, but for the whole of humanity as well. Even people who would not seem close to him, in the sense of having followed his vision, still see in him the teacher of the Catholic souls of the West. He did for modern Catholicism what St Augustine accomplished in ancient times.
– John Paul II
Appreciating St Alphonsus is an acquired taste for he was not a man of apparitions or flamboyant religiosity. He was an ordinary man who understood deeply the unfathomable love of God for all humanity. It was the presence of this love in his life that allowed him to realise that every person mattered – they mattered to God and they mattered to Alphonsus. This was the underlying theme in his extensive writings and his popular preaching among the poor. And for the Redemptorists, people have mattered ever since.