Aloysius Gonzaga (Luigi
Gonzaga, 1568-1591) gave up a privileged life and a princely inheritance to
live the vows of religious life even to the point of contacting the plague
because of his selfless care for people already sick with it. He was the eldest
son of the Marquis of Castiglione, and heir to the family title. The Gonzagas
were known as patrons of Renaissance artists, and they ruled what amounted to a
As a young man Gonzaga wore
a suit of armour and walked at his father's side when he reviewed troops. His
life began to change after he contacted malaria and suffered frequent bouts of
fever. As early as age seven, he became attracted to prayer and turned away
from the courtly life around him. When he was nine, he and his brother were
sent to Florence to learn the customs of princes at the court of their father's
friend the Grand Duke Francesco de' Medici. The Medici court was one of the
grandest, most opulent in Europe, but also one full of intrigue, deceit, sex
and violence. The young Gonzaga withdrew from this world and became firm in his
desire to never offend God by sinning. In November 1579 he moved to Mantua to
stay with the duke, a relative; in that residence he discovered a book with
brief lives of the saints. He also began to pray the Psalms daily and later
started meditating after he discovered a prayer book written by the Jesuit
Peter Canisius. His piety included daily Mass, weekly communion and fasting
three days a week.
The young heir traveled
with Maria of Austria, the daughter of Charles V, on her way to Madrid in 1582.
He became a page attending the duke of Asturias, the heir apparent, and was
later made a knight of the Order of St. James. The higher he rose in royal
society, however, the more his thoughts turned to becoming a Jesuit like his
confessor in Madrid. On Aug. 15, 1583 he had an experience in prayer that
confirmed his decision. When he told his confessor, that man said he would have
to get his father's permission.
The marquis was enraged by
the news that his heir wanted to renounce all that had been so carefully
prepared for him. The whole family returned to Castiglione and then the marquis
sent his two sons on a tour of the courts of Italy, hoping that the experience
of such refined living would change his son's mind and relieve the tension that
had developed between two strong-willed individuals. The son's determination
proved to be stronger, and the father finally granted his assent. In November
1585 Aloysius renounced his inheritance in favor of his brother Rudolph and set
out for Rome where he presented himself to the Superior General, Claudio
Acquaviva, who admitted him to the novitiate of Sant'Andrea.
Although the new novice was
not yet 18, his background made him mature beyond his years, and he found the
novitiate less rigorous than the life he had been living by his own decision.
He nevertheless obediently followed the novitiate rules and the guidance of his
novice master. He enrolled in the Roman College to finish philosophy studies
before taking first vows, and then went immediately into theology right after.
He returned to Castiglione in 1589 to negotiate peace between his brother and
the duke of Mantua, and then returned to Rome in May 1590.
Plague and famine struck
Italy the following year and Gonzaga threw himself into caring for the victims
of the plague. He begged alms for the sick and physically carried those he
found in the streets to a hospital where he washed and fed them and prepared
them for the sacraments. He told his spiritual director, Robert Bellarmine (who
would later be recognized as a saint), that he had a premonition he would die
So many young Jesuits were
becoming sick that the superior forbade Gonzaga to return to the hospital.
Gonzaga did get permission to work at Our Lady of Consolation hospital which
did not treat anyone with contagious diseases. Gonzaga went there but contacted
the plague when he cared for a man who had the plague. The young Jesuit put
himself to bed on March 3, 1591; his condition worsened and then improved
somewhat, but he could not recover full health. Fever and a cough set in and he
slowly lingered on. He knew he was dying and asked to receive communion. Two
Jesuits watched with him through the night and saw his face change as he held
onto a cross and called the name of Jesus. He was only 23 when he died. His
body is now kept in the church of St. Ignatius in Rome.
Originally Collected and
edited by: Tom Rochford, SJ