March 7, 2018 — March 9 marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit who gave up a privileged life to enter the Society of Jesus and died young — at age 23 — from the plague, which he contracted during his selfless care for the sick.
To mark the anniversary, the Holy See has announced the celebration of a Jubilee Year of St. Aloysius from March 9, 2018, to March 9, 2019. The jubilee is fitting as the church focuses its attention on young people with the October Synod of Bishops in Rome on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment” and the January 2019 World Youth Day in Panama.
Father Arturo Sosa, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, has invited the whole Society “to find the best manner of celebrating, in a culturally contextualized way, this time of grace, which draws our attention to the rich contributions young people bring to society, the Church and the Society of Jesus.”
St. Aloysius, who died as a theology student, is the patron saint of students and of those with AIDS. Born into one of the most powerful families in Renaissance Italy, St. Aloysius’ father, the Marquis of Castiglione, groomed him for a military career. At the age of eight, he went to serve in the court of the Grand Duke Francesco I de ’Medici and was then sent to Florence for his formal education.
Shortly thereafter, St. Aloysius began suffering from kidney disease, which he saw as a blessing as it allowed him time to reflect and pray. It was during this time that he first felt called to the priesthood. He received his First Communion from St. Charles Borromeo in July 1580.
Against his father’s wishes, St. Aloysius announced his intent to join the Society of Jesus. At 18 years old, he renounced his title and lands. When he arrived at the Jesuit novitiate, he carried with him a letter from his father to Claudio Aquaviva, SJ, the Jesuit’s superior general, in which he wrote: “I am giving into Your Reverence's hands the most precious thing that I possess in all the world, and my chief hope, that I placed entirely in him, of maintaining and giving glory to my Family.”
St. Aloysius entered the Jesuits in 1585 and studied under St. Robert Bellarmine, SJ, who acted as his spiritual adviser. He professed First Vows in 1587 and studied at the Roman College.
In 1591, a plague swept over Rome. St. Aloysius volunteered to serve at the Jesuit-established hospital, where he and his fellow Jesuits worked directly with the afflicted. St. Aloysius begged for alms for the victims and also worked one-on-one to feed and clean those affected by the epidemic. He contracted the plague and his health declined quickly. He died in Rome on June 21, 1591, and was canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII.
Fr. Sosa wrote to the Society that the jubilee year is a time to listen to young people and ask how Jesuits can help them “grow so deeply in their faith and love for Christ that they may, with a courage similar to that of Aloysius Gonzaga, confront the idols of the dominant culture.
“Bearing in mind that he died serving people who were not only sick of the plague but also abandoned without hope in the streets of the city and regarded with fear, it is time for us to examine how we, as ministers of the reconciliation that Christ offers humanity, can help young people today to overcome all kinds of fear and anger, often stirred up for political reasons against those who are ‘different’ or ‘other,’ expressing instead welcome, trust, and compassion.”
In addition to the 450th anniversary of Aloysius’ birth, this year also marks the 450th anniversary of the death of St. Stanislaus Kostka, SJ, (August 15, 1568), who also died young, at age 17, as a Jesuit novice. Fr. Sosa wrote that “both young Jesuits gave witness to surprising openness to God leading to countercultural options.
“Feeling called to give their entire selves, both demonstrated an unambiguous willingness to identify themselves with the Lord, responded with determination and enthusiasm to their vocation, and overcame many challenging obstacles that seemed to block their entrance into the Society of Jesus.”
Fr. Sosa said that directing our attention on these two young Jesuits means returning to “the radical surrender of one’s life to Jesus Christ and to the cause of the Gospel, and to deepen our integration of life and mission.” [Source: Jesuit Curia]