By Father Martindale
ITAKE a sort of elfish delight in writing about this young man, because the incredible popularity he achieved in southern lands, and, technically, even in northern organisations, has been countered by a distaste so vehement that he provides a problem, and all problems are attractive. The pictures or statues of him suggest all that is most repulsive to modern youth anywhere: they suggest damp calico (I am not very sure what calico is; but it sounds )imp), but his own remark upon himself was: " I am a piece of twisted iron. I entered ' religion ' to get twisted straight." His nature was: Iron, but distorted. He got " twisted straight," and I owe it to him to say that it was he who controlled most of my youthful choices. My chosen life, I must in sheer decency assert, has been due to Our Lady of Lourdes and SL Aloysius.
Fierce Pedigree He came of an extraordinary stock. His family was ancient, and was cousin to kings
and emperors everywhere. This fierce pedigree centred itself at Mantua, where you still see the grim Gortzaga fortress. It developed what was proverbially known as "La Gonzaghina "—the tendency to go to extremes at any moment — good or bad. The extreme they swept to was mostly bad. Aloysius's grandfather (also called Aloysius), who had hardly any limb left intact after his warfares, used nightly to practise getting into his black-brocaded leaden coffin, leaving as epitaph: " Here rests Aloysius Gonzaga, who never rested while alive."
The boy was born difficultly—one of his first birthday presents was a clock that tinkled out the hours on a dozen little bells, His childhood was normal—that is, vigorous. When still a child he wawent to join his father in his camp, and, during the men's siesta, stuffed a gun with powder, fired it off, almost killed himself, and created the impression of mutiny. He also learnt some military expressions which, when used among the court-ladies on his return, caused them to faint in a row. He was afterwards very sorry about this.
Sweating the People
Sent by his father to one Court after another (Madrid especially), he felt that the Society into whieh he was plunged was irreclaimable. Financially, it was based on an appalling taxation of the People by Nobles. Europe was bled white, and died at once when epidemics recurred. Sexually, he perceived that his world was suici
dal. We read that he " kept his eyes lowered." I can but say that the pictures in the country-house of the Head of his family (the Duke of Mantua) could not be reproduced publicly in England (or any
where else, I hope) without everyone concerned being arrested. The Gonzagas created, it appears, the first theatrical com panies. The Paris Parliament petitioned that they be excluded from France. They were, it said, a " high-school of adultery." (Yet it was to such comedies that Aloysius escorted his very lovable, very pious mother, though he would not go in himself.) I may add that the •Gonzagas were the best horse-breeders of their time, and that Henry VIII bought horses off them. Our Derby winners are probably even now responsible to Aloysius's family for the strain of their successes. I also add that (if I remember right) a Gonzaga lady refused Henry's request that she should marry him. She had beard enough about the other ladies whom Henry had annexed.
Aloysius, very young as our estimate of years goes — when will we English realise that Latin bodies grow up six years earlier than ours do, and remain different from ours?—made a vow of chastity in the " Annunziata " church in Florence at a shrine where it is easier to pray than not to. He had, thereafter, the destructive experience of Absolutist Courts. He saw that such a " society " was " all wrong." In what " shape " he saw this, is not my business here, but he did see it.
Became a Jesuit This completely " black or white " young man therefore decided to join the Jesuits, who, pre-eminently, just then, stood for the ideal of not having money of your own; of living chaSte (against odds); and being obedient—which was contrary to the whole of his up-bringing—and indeed they make a promise not to accept any position, even ecclesiastical, which in those days inevitably meant money and being bowed down to. Besides this, he had been fired by the exploits of Columbus and the history of new Catholic missions in the Far East and wanted to go there—not. I think, that he would have been sent: his extreme levelheadedness and forceful character made them, soon enough, see in this young man of 20 a future General of the Society.
He therefore, in the teeth of a literally European opposition, abdicated his marquisate in favour of his brother Rodolfo; and, being a prince of the Empire, the Emperor himself had to be persuaded. Indeed, the strongest argument against his abdication might well have been that he was handing over his family fortunes to wastrels. His father was a desperate gambler : Rodolfo, like half of his relatives, was doomed to be assassinated and died, in fact, excommunicated. Even his mother was shot; but
Aloysius, appearing to her in a dream after his death, cured her. Well, abdicate he did,
and went to Rome. Even there, during his studies, if he was to " argue " in public, Cardinals in heavily gilt carriages rolled up; his opponents could not begin their dispute without extolling the Gonzaga glories; even
doctors, feeling his pulse, melted into ecstacies at being allowed to touch the veins in which so splendid a blood was throbbing. You can understand that Aloysius, whose temper was in reality violent, administered
some terrific snubs, and, having resolved to be finished with all that, found that it was not nearly so easy as he had expected.
At first, he was stiff in his behaviour and not, T think, much liked. Afterwards, he became more mellow, largely because of his devotion to the Holy Eucharist, and men used to seek his company, especially on the eves of Communions.
Persuasive Personality It is interesting that this young man was the only person who could settle the feud between his brother and the Duke of Mantua, head of the family. The Duke said that no lawyer, no dignitary, would have persuaded him to yield; he did so entirely because of the personality of Aloysius, who had had to be sent for from Rome to quell so fierce a family dispute.
Soon after his return to Rome, plague
broke out. Aloysius, of course, volunteered to serve the stricken. The situation
was so appalling that in winter men crawled into dung-heaps for a little warmth; in summer, they lay naked in gutters if but thus they might find a drop of water. Contemporary records describe this. Aloysius used to hoist them on to his shoulders and carry them to hospitals where the stench was such that at first he went sick and faint till in
this too he conquered himself. Of no blasphemy, no obscene brutality, was he without experience. Some years ago, the Holy Father chose, as " characteristic " picture of him, one which showed the tall, gaunt, black-haired, big-nosed, squarejawed, young man carrying a plaguestricken man upon his back. " I am glad," said the Holy Father to me, " that you have not represented Aloysius as a little nun. He was volontarista — a man of will." (Not that " little nuns " cannot be women of will! The Pope did not decry little nuns nor certainly do I. But one cannot deny that Aloysius was not a nun.)
Of course he caught the infection. His dying was slow. He wrote unimaginably beautiful letters to his mother, whom he adored and who was certainly the strongest
influence in his life. She kept packing parcels — while the little clock chimed its hours—for him to distribute to the men in Rome—dying, as he was. As he lay helpless, they tried to muffle his head against the sudden chill of a Roman sunset. He whispered: "He died with nothing on His head." And yet—still later, the lad who had never given himself any ease during his life, asked to be shifted somewhatbed-sores were torturing him. But they dared not, and in their turn whispered: " He died nailed." He understood, and was content. Soon after that, he died and has left to all young men for ever an example of heroism such that we can but pray—whatever our age be—that we may imitate even the half of it.