The light at the door - celebrating St Alphonsus Rodriguez

POST BY JHellings

St Alphonsus in old age

31 October marks the 400th anniversary of the death of St Alphonsus Rodriguez SJ (1533-1617), St Alphonsus is a striking example of the transforming power of divine grace. He was gifted with a unique spiritual resilience enabling him to integrate prayer and humble service. That is what makes him stand out as a model for all generations.  St Alphonsus figures as one of the saints who impacted Pope Francis’ spirituality in a new book by Sean Salai SJ: “All the Pope’s Saints: The Jesuits Who Shaped Pope Francis” (2017).

Alphonsus was born in Segovia, Spain, the son of a wealthy merchant.  Aged 12 he was sent to the Jesuit school in Alcala but had to return home abruptly when his father died unexpectedly and he was needed to run the family textile business, eventually taking over its management altogether.  He married and had three children, but family life ended when his wife, children and mother died within four years of each other.  Excessive taxes took a heavy toll on his business which crumbled. He regarded himself as an utter failure.

Given his religious upbringing, he spent sad and lonely years in prayer, seeking to do God's will. During this time he applied to become a Jesuit priest, but because of his advanced age, poor health and limited education, his application was rejected on two occasions. Finally he was admitted to the novitiate as a brother on 31 January 1571, aged 38. He abandoned all self-pity or bitterness and never looked back. Six months later he was sent to the newly founded Jesuit school of Nuestra Senora de Montesion (Our Lady of Mount Zion) at Palma on the Spanish island of Majorca as doorkeeper – a post he held till his death in 1617.

The story of this humble Jesuit brother illustrates that status and achievements count for nothing for those who accept the responsibility assigned them with the conviction that it is God’s will. Rodriguez set himself free of ego; he found meaning and fulfilment in the lowliest tasks accorded him, and was zealous enough to give more than was demanded, in the spirit of the Ignatian Magis. Early biographies describe Rodriguez as a superhero who spiritually survived a rather humdrum, tedious job for 46 years. They tended to overlook the tenacity and uncompromising dedication of the unassuming brother who would inspire generations of Jesuits in the art of religious hospitality. He was a multi-tasker, blending ‘spiritual conversation’ with business while always attending courteously to visitors.  He quietly counselled students, and reached out to the poor who hang around outside the door. Rodriguez made sure his job was never humdrum and tedious!.

Rodriguez’s length of service at his post is hard to match, but it is not uncommon for Jesuits to have long stints in office. Especially today, with diminishing numbers, Jesuits get grounded for decades in routine responsibilities in schools, parishes, missions. Most create time for ‘magis’ ministries, burn brighter and kindle other fires. Some, nevertheless, turn their occupations into preoccupations if not obsessions. Rodriguez set a standard which challenges one to live abundantly (John 10:10) the life that Christ bequeathed us.

Rodriguez displayed unconditional discipleship to Jesus Christ. He was a brother and companion, serving all as he would Christ personified. “I’m coming Lord,” he would cry when someone knocked. He had personalized his spirituality, and this is what gave depth, appeal and credibility to his convictions. The rosary entwining his  fingers may not always have been used to pray the mysteries but to murmur mantras that connected him with the divinity present everywhere. He was a contemplative in action and spent most of his spare-time in prayer. He was a mystic, as his autobiography penned under obedience would reveal, favoured by God with remarkable mystical graces, ecstasies and visions of our Lord, our Lady and the saints.

At the age of 72, Rodriguez would counsel and motivate Peter Claver, a young student of theology in Palma, to volunteer for “the missions” in the New World. In true Ignatian spirit Rodriguez looked beyond the boundaries of his world with the universal good of the Society of Jesus at heart – a typical Jesuit charism. Claver achieved sainthood through his indefatigable service to African slaves in Colombia.

Rodriguez is the patron of Jesuit brothers. The lay-brother of the olden days, who performed routine duties such as cooking, construction and farming, has vanished. Today the Jesuit brother can hardly be distinguished from the priest, because of his professional competence in many fields. In the spirit of Alphonsus Rodriguez, brothers sacramentalise their work and bear witness to God’s compassionate love. We need them and pray fervently that their band increase.

Hedwig Lewis SJ is the author of “Profiles in Holiness, Brief Biographies of Jesuit Saints” and “Jesuit Saints without Paint”. He belongs to the Jesuit Gujarat Province.