In order to approach the person and the works of St. Alphonsus de Liguori (1696-1787) in a correct manner, it is necessary to weave different approaches, given the richness of his personality and the diverse fields of his activity. For Redemptorists, since it is of prime importance to be connected with their founder, it is essential to grasp the fundamental intent, because on that depends the specificity of the Congregation.
The journey of Alphonsus as founder began in 1723, when after unjustly losing a law case (concerning the feud of Amatrice), he decided to leave the court and dedicate himself totally to Christ. He experienced Christ as the meaning of his life and a sure foundation of values. The choice for the priesthood and his ordination in December 1726 caused him move to the world of the poor. He became the advocate of their right to the truth (evangelisation) and to holiness (the sacraments, beginning with reconciliation). The decisive step arose from the experience of the struggles of the abandoned, those that he came across in the rural areas of southern Italy. He decided to dedicate himself totally to their evangelisation to ‘continue’ the plentiful redemption of Christ. Thus, this group of men who gathered in Scala in 1732, with the pontifical approval in 1749, would be called Redemptorists.
The manner of defining the profile of the community was not very smooth. Alphonsus was soon abandoned by some of his first companions. But he knew how to remain faithful to his fundamental intention, enriching it with the contribution of those who shared with him in the birth of this new community. Maria Celeste Crostarosa contributed her project of a ‘memorial’ community; Mgr Thomas Falcoia helped with his experience of religious life and a strong missionary yearning, particularly towards the Orient; Gennaro Sarnelli brought his tireless and creative dedication to the poor, especially in the social dimension.
Alphonsus was convinced of the specificity of his own community, vis-a-vis other missionary institutes. At the conclusion of this complex process of elaboration of the norms, he synthesised his ‘intention’ in these terms: ‘to follow the example of our common Saviour Jesus Christ, to dedicate themselves principally…to help the rural towns of the countryside most destitute of spiritual support.’ They will be like other missionary institutes, ‘but with an absolute distinctiveness to always situate their churches and houses outside the areas of inhabitation and in the midst of the dioceses, so as to be ready to travel with greater readiness for the missions in the countryside; and to be present more easily for the convenience of the poor people who rush to hear the divine word and re-ceive the sacraments in their churches’ (Spicilegium Historicum 16  385). To follow the example of the Redeemer must be understood in the perspective of participation and renewal: it requires continuing the kenotic mercy of Christ, i.e. his incarnating himself so as to share in our condition of weakness; his actions which witness to the experience of God’s love; his unceasing reaching out to those in need of truth and healing. All this is left to the guidance of the Spirit who leads the Church on the very path of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 8).
From the 1740s, the radical dedication to the abandoned transformed Alphonsus into a writer as he strove to lead them in the journey to holiness. Therefore, he was concerned with the formation of the clergy, especially in the field of moral theology and evangelisation. He became, as John Paul II has written, ‘the renovator of moral theology’, succeeding in indicating the way for ‘a correct balance between rigorism and liberty’, synthesising with these ‘memorable words: ‘it is not necessary to impose anything on people under pain of grave sin unless the reason is evident… Considering the fragility of the present human condition, it is not always true that the narrowest way is the safest way to direct souls; we see that the Church forbids both excessive liberty and excessive rigour’ (Spiritus Domini, in AAS 79  1367-1368).
From 1762-75, Alphonsus was the bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti, but he continued, at the same time, his task of writing and of animating the Redemptorist community. He died in Pagani on 1 August 1787. He was canonised by Gregory XVI on 26 May 1839. He was declared Doctor of the Church by Pius XI on 23 March 1871, and the Patron of Confessors and Moralists by Pius XII on 26 April 1950.
The fidelity of Redemptorists to the Alphonsian intent is thus expressed in the present Constitutions: ‘Preference for situations where there is pastoral need, that is, for evangelisation in the strict sense together with the choice in favour of the poor is the very reason why the Congregation exists in the Church, and is the badge of its fidelity to the vocation it has received.’ Such a task must concern itself with ‘the liberation and salvation of the whole human person. The members have the duty of preaching the Gospel explicitly and of showing solidarity with the poor by promoting their fundamental rights to justice and freedom. The means employed must be effective and at the same time consistent with the Gospel’ (Const. 5).
All this is possible only through an unceasing journey (exodus), on the level of the community and every single confrere. The steps are the same as that of the Founder: discernment of the abandoned, incarnating in their midst, unconditional dedication to their evangelisation. In this manner, Redemptorists seek to remind the entire Church of the need to constantly plan its pastoral presence and action from a missionary perspective. Sharing in the difficulties of the abandoned, they are stimulated, like Alphonsus, to outline a proposal of Christian life, beginning from human fragility, in a manner in which all can rediscover and respond to the universal call to holiness.
Like many of his countrymen, Alphonsus was a man of passion and volatility. He found his balance and security in his devotion to the Blessed Mother. His appeals to Mary were impassioned, like those of a distressed child calling for his or her mother.
He was confident Mary would hear his prayers, and she was a great spiritual wellspring of his life. He never wrote a single letter - and his personal correspondence ran into the tens of thousands - without beginning or ending it with the words, "Long live Jesus and Mary." He strongly encouraged his fellow Redemptorists and others to pray the rosary daily, and to visit Marian shrines to foster their love for the mother of God. For him she was a constant helper and guide in all matters concerning his congregation.
Although he was sickly for much of his life, Alphonsus' final years were marked by very serious and debilitating physical ailments, especially arthritis, which caused him great pain and confined him to a wheelchair.
He also was plagued with spiritual afflictions, scrupulously fearing he hadn't done enough to serve the God he loved so much. To help him through these times, his confreres gathered with him to pray. They always included the Litany of Our Lady, usually followed by the rosary. They read to him from his own writings about the glory of Mary and how, as heaven's queen, she welcomed all her true and faithful servants at the hour of their death.
Early in the evening on July 31, 1787, Alphonsus made one final request. "Give me my lady," he whispered. They placed a picture of Mary in his hands. He spent the night in prayer with the Blessed Mother. The next day at the stroke of the noon Angelus, Alphonsus died at the age of 91.
St. Alphonsus was canonized in 1839 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1871. He was recognized as a patron of confessors and moral theologians in 1950. He is the only moral theologian whose opinion the Roman Catholic Church has said we can follow on moral issues.
Pope John Paul II described Alphonsus as "a close friend of the people ... a missionary who went in search of the most abandoned souls ... a founder who wanted a group which would make a radical option in favor of the lowly ... a Bishop whose house was open to all ... a writer who focused on what would be of benefit to people."
Alphonsus' art was influenced by what he saw around him. When he was 23, he painted his own "Christ on the Cross." His painting depicted the death of Love itself. Around that same time he also painted a picture of the Madonna as a woman of peaceful, gentle features - a woman who won his heart. Surrounded by 12 stars she is the portrait of divine beauty in human form. His art, like his music, was a way to lead the men and women of his day, rich and poor, to know the surpassing riches of the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ and his mother Mary.
In his writings for other religious, Alphonsus emphasized practical approaches to reach those who were neglected or alienated from the Church. On a scientific level, he gave new life and direction to moral theology. He found many prominent moral theologians of his time either too rigid or too lax. It was Alphonsus who preached the redeeming love of God.
He believed that law and the threat of punishment were not foremost in God's plan. In God the Creator, love and freedom coincide. The individual was called to love God out of an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what God had done for him in Christ. It was not fear but love that was to characterize the Christian way of life. Ultimately, he wrote his most influential work, Moral Theology, to correct what he saw as errors that could hurt people struggling to live good and moral lives.
In the course of his long life, Alphonsus authored more than 100 books, including his most beloved:Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, and The Glories of Mary.
Alphonsus would eventually be given the title "Doctor of Prayer" by the Catholic Church. His book, Prayer, the Great Means of Salvation, sets out his teaching on the subject.
"Having observed," Alphonsus writes, "that so many passages of both the Old and New Testaments assert the absolute necessity of prayer, I have made it a rule to introduce into all our missions ... a sermon on prayer; and I say, and repeat, and will keep on saying as long as I live, that our whole salvation depends on prayer ... For if you pray, your salvation will be secure."
St. Alphonsus was a brilliant, articulate, pragmatic preacher. He knew how to reach ordinary people who had limited education and very real needs. They followed this gifted preacher from church to church and town to town to hear him preach the message of hope in Christ for all people.
Three great images, basic to the Christian faith, formed the heart of Alphonsus' preaching and teaching - Jesus an infant in the crib, Jesus crucified on the Cross, and Jesus vibrantly alive and filled with love for all in the Eucharist. To this he added the image of Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer. When other theologians were opposed to devotion to Mary, Alphonsus invoked her: "Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope."
Alphonsus appreciated how the poor and working class people expressed their realities through song. A gifted musician and composer, he wrote many popular hymns and taught them to the people in parish missions. His compositions continue to be sung around the world and have never lost their charm and popularity. Redemptorists today still follow the cue of their founder. Their message, announcing the abundance of God's love, is enriched by the spiritual songs they sing in their community and with the people of God.
Alphonsus wrote for the people. Many turned to his spiritual writing, for he wrote in a way that was understandable to anyone with a basic education. On winter evenings in his time, the people in the villages often gathered around a fire in someone's home. Someone read stories about the Gospels or the lives of the saints, things that nourished their faith and helped them to pray. Alphonsus' works were frequent choices.
Alphonsus was declared a Doctor of the Church primarily because of the significant impact he had on moral theology. His role in the renewal of moral theology can be evaluated only in the context of the battles that raged between various kinds of rigorism and legalism. Alphonsus became a tenacious champion in favor of conscience, rejecting the devastating theories that prevailed during his time.
In his moral theology and pastoral care, Alphonsus draws his conclusions from the primacy of love and liberty. One conclusion says: Where there is a concrete doubt about the existence or application of a law or prohibition, freedom is always "in possession." The main purpose of the God-given liberty cannot be the observance of laws but a creative response of love to God and neighbor. Creative and faithful love is immensely greater than that of laws.