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The Doctor of the Church Who Was There at My Birth

August 1, 2016


I’ve shared my conversion story before, but this time I should really go directly back to the beginning. In the words of Charles Dickens: “Chapter 1: I am Born.” I was born in March 1955 at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Port Washington, Wisconsin. This must be the real beginning of my fascination with Catholicism: I was proud to have been born in a Catholic hospital. I loved visiting ‘St. Al’s.’ Even being a patient there had its upside. Having nursing nuns tend me after my tonsillectomy was such a cool thing— although I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t felt like my throat had been torn apart by a pack of rabid raccoons. My father took a picture of me with one of the sisters when I was discharged. To me it was as good as having a snapshot with a celebrity.

There was a statue of St. Alphonsus Liguori in the main hall of the hospital. When accompanying my parents to visit patients there, I was overjoyed to be too young and relegated to waiting on the hospital’s main floor. That gave me more time to casually wander past and study St. Alphonsus up close. My father always used to joke that “the good saint looks a little green around the gills.” And, honestly, he did. I was hoping to Google up a picture of a similar statue with which to illustrate this. It was a delightful surprise to find what looked to be a doppelganger and to follow the links to Milwaukee blogger Terrence Berres website, The Provincial Emails. The statue that appeared on his blog was the statue from St. Alphonsus hospital. [with this caption: “P.S. The photo is of a statue of St. Alphonsus which my parish obtained when St. Alphonsus Hospital (in Port Washington?) closed.”]  Now he does not appear very green – I think at the hospital he suffered from the ill effect of fluorescent light reflected off of green hospital tiling. My first bishop! It is so nice to see him again. 

I have been blessed to meet quite a few bishops. But when I name all the bishops who have touched my life I should start at the beginning with St. Alphonsus Liguori. Born in 1696 and baptized with a name that puts the British royals to shame, Alphonsus Mary Antony John Cosmas Damian Michael Gaspard de’ Liguori was raised in a upper-class Neopolitan family that had fallen into something of a state of genteel poverty. He was well educated and became skilled in the avocations of the youthful patrician, such as painting, poetry and music.

Eight years of law practice, which began in his late teens, did not end well. At one point he wrote to a friend, “My friend, our profession is too full of difficulties and dangers; we lead an unhappy life and run risk of dying an unhappy death.” My younger sister was also born at St. Alphonsus. Perhaps this patron of our birthplace would have understood well as she left 25 years of criminal trial law behind to go back to school and learn a diametrically different and far less stressful career.

In his youth he found his share of worldly diversions. He later wrote, “Banquets, entertainments, theatres…these are the pleasures of the world…Believe me who have experienced it, and now weep over it.”  He eventually discerned a vocation and entered the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. As a young priest, he worked with the poor— and especially the homeless— in Naples. In 1732, he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, aka the Redemptorists, with a rule of striving to “follow the example of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, by preaching the word of God to the poor, as He declared Himself: ‘He sent me to preach the Good News to the poor’ (Lk 4:18).”

Late in St. Alphonsus’ life, various political machinations (Church and secular) led to Pope Pius VI removing him from his beloved congregation. Heartbroken, but with complete trust in God’s will, he spent the remaining six years of his life persevering in the life of holiness. Cut off from the congregation – which to this day takes a fourth vow, a vow of perseverance – he persevered. He persevered through great physical afflictions, including rheumatological illnesses which caused immense suffering. The bent head and odd posture that we see in pictures of St. Alphonsus are a testimony to the devastating effects of his illness.

His perseverance continued through several years before his death when he was beset with his own “Dark Night of the Soul” and underwent much spiritual torment. He was almost 92 when he died in 1787. It was only nine years later that he was declared “venerable” by the same Pope who had removed him from the Redemptorists, and he was canonized in 1839. Less than one hundred years after his death, St. Alphonsus Liguori was declared a Doctor of the Church.

St. Alphonsus was a prolific writer with great contributions to Mariology and Moral Theology. It was relatively late in life that he began writing in earnest – a nugget of information that I find most encouraging. Various biographical articles also list instances of some of the more ‘glamorous ’ things that we often expect and enjoy in stories of the saints, such as ecstasies, levitation, clairvoyance and bilocation.

Out of all his accomplishments and accolades, what comes to mind for most Catholics when they think of St. Alphonsus is the Stations of the Cross. If you don’t run across his name any other time, you will certainly see it when you take part in this devotion. In the early years of the Church, when the time came that pilgrimages to the Holy Land were too impossibly dangerous, this devotion of meditation upon fourteen key moments of Christ’s Passion became a virtual pilgrimage of sorts. Today the meditations and prayers written by St. Alphonsus Ligouri have become the most popular way of making the Stations; a relatively small but ubiquitous example of this saint’s vast legacy.

I was born at 6:10am; when I was a lethargic teenager, my father would quote my hour of birth and tease me about that being the earliest I was ever up. It was funny— funny because it was true. When I consider that early morning in March of 1955, I think that my birth was attended by two good Catholic doctors. Not just our Catholic family doctor, but also this Doctor of the Church. And if he could have whispered one essential thing into my tiny ear, to stay with me and lead me along the path of faith and perseverence, perhaps it would have been, “We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee. Because by Thy holy Cross, Thou hast redeemed the world.” Could a child have a better start?