Although the modern spectacle of Halloween has for most eclipsed the day’s original case for celebration, the Eve of All Saints (All Hallows Eve), I’d like to propose that families consider a devotion placed by the Church on the same day, honoring a relatively unknown Jesuit brother: St. Alphonsus Rodriguez (1532-1617). In his life we see that it is possible to have a powerful impact for Christ even while we perform simple, humble daily tasks with great love. No matter their mission, saints are always uniquely attractive.
The first half of Alphonsus’s life was full of tragedy. His poor father, a wool trader, died when Alphonsus was young. Years later, Alphonsus married Mary Suarez, though she would live only for five more years. Only one of their three children outlived Mary. Tragedy struck again within two years of her death when Alphonsus’ mother and remaining son both died.
Who wouldn’t be consumed by bitterness and anger in the face of such miserable misfortune? For the young widower, however, Alphonsus’s losses birthed a desire to consecrate his life completely to God. After his wife’s death, he immersed himself in intense prayer and rigid bodily disciplines.
As a young boy, Alphonsus briefly studied under Jesuit teachers. After the deaths of his loved ones, he sought to enter the Society of Jesus but was rejected because of his age, ill health, and lack of education.
Undeterred, Alphonsus enrolled in Latin school and found himself surrounded by students half his age who ridiculed him mercilessly. Still, he persisted, and after graduating at the age of forty, Alphonsus again sought to become a Jesuit priest. Impressed with his persistence if not his intellectual abilities, the Jesuits accepted him as a brother of the order, assigning to be a porter in the newly-founded Jesuit school of Majorca.
Such a lowly role might have discouraged many, especially after everything he had been through. But Alphonsus made the most of his opportunity to serve, and pursued his task with great care and devotion. As the years passed, his evident holiness and humility inspired many to seek spiritual counsel from the relatively unschooled porter.
Although most stories of Alphonsus’s life understandably focus on his prayerfulness and continual consciousness of God’s presence, others reveal his deeply human struggles with scrupulosity and agitations of mind. Obsession with rules can lead to mental torment about past and present sins and shortcomings. In this struggle, Alphonsus followed St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, who almost lost his battle with scrupulosity.
Ignatius was so tormented by his many sins that he came close to taking his own life during his stay in Manresa, the same place where he would begin to develop the highly influential Spiritual Exercises. For both Ignatius and Alphonsus, the crucible of interior pain would give birth to a path to hope and love for countless others influence by them.
Of the many who were profoundly influenced by St. Alphonsus, St. Peter Claver is perhaps the most well-known. Claver, after receiving counsel from Alphonsus, devoted his life to tireless missionary work among the victims of the slave trade. Both Alphonsus and Claver would later be recognized by their order as models of what became a common refrain for Jesuits, “a man for others,” a phrase intended as a stark contrast to the temptation to be men “for ourselves.”
We can think of these opposing possibilities as forces that we can yield to or resist. One pulls us toward satisfying our own appetites and desires, while the other draws us to offer ourselves as a gift to others. The theme is evident throughout Scripture and Church teaching.
The seven deadly sins, for instance, are all self-centered distortions of human freedom. Beginning with a disproportionate and unrealistic sense of our own importance, pride stealthily lays the foundation of other sins of self-absorption and excess. The opposite is seen most clearly in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, which draw a person out of himself, and toward God in prayer and in service to those made in his image.
We can choose to stay closed in upon ourselves, with one inevitable effect being a need to control and use others. The irony and tragedy, however, is that our own humanity is undermined in the ugliness that follows from such egoism. The Church offers a starkly different path by pointing us to the supreme Man for others: Jesus Christ.
I am fortunate to have known a few “old school” Jesuit brothers who resembled the saintly porter, St. Alphonsus. While sitting on a bench waiting to interview for a teaching position at a Jesuit high school, an older priest in a Roman collar approached me. His warm and inviting smile immediately set me at ease. I soon learned that this man, Brother Casey Ferlita, SJ, was a living legend. As prefect of discipline for the school, he was loved by thousands of young men he had counseled and corrected over several decades. A regular at daily Mass, his life radiated the joy of the Faith he loved. Brother Casey was deeply respected by all, and he cheerfully performed the most humble of tasks.
St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, like all the saints, models the supreme Man for others he faithfully followed. On a day that now serves as an occasion for endless parades of ugliness and pride, he presents a beautiful example of the holy and humble faith that gives shape to his life. Like all the saints, Alphonsus shows us that Christ-like love and service are the most attractive witness of the gospel.