Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, SJ

by Silas Henderson, Ignatius Press, £12

Aloysius Gonzaga’s father was not best pleased when his teenage son announced that he wanted to join the Jesuits. As a member of one of the mightiest families in 16th-century northern Italy, and destined to become the marquis of Castiglione one day, Aloysius was not expected to renounce the world.

His dad came round in the end, though only after strenuous efforts at dissuasion, and Aloysius headed off to the novitiate of Sant’Andrea in Rome at the end of 1585. The dream was to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazing Jesuit missionaries in Asia and the Americas, but Aloysius, always a sickly youth, succumbed to plague in 1591, his career in the Society of Jesus barely begun.

As Silas Henderson explains, accounts of Aloysius’s short life have been sentimentalised. He was, we’re often told, possessed of “superhuman virtue at an early age” but the “effort to make him a sort of icon of religious zeal and perfection” has sometimes “obscured the true dynamism of his personality”.

Henderson, make no mistake, is in awe of Aloysius’s piety and humility. We learn a great deal about his devotional passions and his care for the sick, but there is an attempt here to humanise him. Henderson quotes Daniel Berrigan who, in 1991, did a wonderful job of capturing Aloysius’s true significance.

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