In 1729 Pope Benedict XIII named St. Aloysius Gonzaga patron saint of youth. An apt choice, for Aloysius won his crown as a teen, dying when only 23.
He signed himself Aluigi or Luigi (Louis), this firstborn son of Ferrante Gonzaga, Marchese of Castiglione. His was a major noble Italian family, in an age of war, intrigue and corruption. The boy learned piety from his mother, the Marchesa. Ferrante, however, a worldly man, thought only of preparing Louis to succeed him as a soldier and ruler. On his fourth birthday he gave him a set of miniature guns and cannons. When he was only five he took him to live four months in a military camp. Here he innocently picked up a coarse macho vocabulary. When, on his return home, his tutor told him these expressions were improper, the gently lad was much chagrined.
Aloysius was only seven when he had a strong religious experience, and began to double his prayer-time and penances. Aged none, he was sent to Florence for schooling. Florentine courtiers lived splendid but violent and sensual lives. Exposed to their obvious sexual excesses, Louis learned to fight valiantly to maintain purity of heart. Later on, St. Robert Bellarmine, one of his confessors, would say that he believed young Gonzaga never committed a mortal sin.
Ferrante next placed Aloysius and his brother Ridolfo in the court of the Duke of Mantua. A sickness there gave him an excuse to lead a more private life, visiting churches and teaching catechism to poor boys. He was already set on joining the Jesuits. That would mean forsaking the title of marquis, bit he figured he could resign in favor of Ridolfo.
In 1581 Don Ferrante was requested by the Empress Maria of Austria to accompany her on a visit to Spain. When there, Aloysius, now 13, was named, with Ridolfo, to be a page to the Spanish crown prince. He fulfilled his court duties, but also kept up his devotions and acts of self-denial. Now he told his mother of his desire to become a Jesuit. When the Marchesa told her husband, he was furious, and threatened to flog the boy. He did not, but the battle continued when they returned to Castiglione in 1584, Ferrante trying every method of dissuasion.
Only when the imperial commission arrived to process the transfer of title to Ridolfo did the old marquis give up his efforts.
The contest won, Aloysius set out joyfully for Rome, and at the age of 19 entered the Jesuit novitiate on November 25, 1585, taking his first vows in 1587. He passed through his philosophy studies with flying colors at the Roman College and began theology. The Jesuit rule fitted him like a glove, and he advanced from strength to strength in his prayer-life and acts of humility. In stability of character he was mature beyond his years.
Only once after leaving Castiglione did he return home. By then his father had long since died, much changed for the better. Back in Rome in 1591, when the plague struck the city, Aloysius devoted his full strength to the care of its victims. He himself caught the disease, and although he seemed to have recovered from it, it left him with a persistent low fever that gradually wore him down. On June 21, 1591, a day that God had revealed to him as his last, Aloysius Gonzaga, Jesuit scholastic not yet a priest, breathed his last. He was happy to die: “We are going gladly, gladly,” he had said. He knew that he had accomplished all that God wanted him to do. As the Book of Wisdom says, “Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career” (4:13).
St. Louis Gonzaga remains a model of purity of soul that we hope all young people will struggle to maintain. But for those who fail, young and old alike, there is this touching prayer in his Mass: “By the help of his prayers, may we who have not followed his innocence follow his example of penance.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara