This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.
Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.
What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers:
Then, referring to Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, patron saint of youth, and also an alumnus of the same school, the Holy Father highlighted three aspects of his life. Firstly, his ability to “make important decisions for his life, without getting carried away by careerism and the god of money. There is a great need for young people who know how to act like this”, he added, “putting the common good before personal interests. To achieve this, it is necessary to take care of one’s inner life, through study, research, educational dialogue, prayer and listening to the conscience; and all this presupposes the capacity to forge spaces of silence … This applies to everyone, to those who believe and those who do not believe. Only in inner silence can one grasp and distinguish the voice of conscience from the voices of selfishness and hedonism”.
“Free yourself from dependence on your mobile phone, please!” he exclaimed. “You have certainly heard of the drama of addiction. … This one is very subtle. … The mobile phone is a great help, it is a great advance; it must be used, and it is good that everyone should know how to use it. But when you become a slave to your mobile phone, you lose your freedom. The telephone is for communication … it is very good to communicate between ourselves. But be careful, as there is the danger that, when the telephone is a drug, communication is reduced to simple ‘contacts’. But life is not for ‘contacting’, it is for communicating!”
Another distinctive feature of Saint Aloysius is his “capacity to love with a pure and free heart. Only those who love come to know God. In emotional life there are essentially two elements: modesty and fidelity. … The sense of modesty refers to a vigilant conscience that defends the dignity of the person and authentic love, precisely so as not to trivialize the language of the body. Faithfulness, then, along with respect for the other, is an indispensable dimension of every true relationship of love, since one cannot play with feelings. But loving is not just an expression of the emotional bond of a couple or of a strong, beautiful and fraternal friendship. A concrete form of love is also given by commitment in solidarity towards others, especially the poorest. … In this too Saint Aloysius is a model, as he died consumed by service to plague sufferers; that is, people who were on the margins of society and discarded by everyone else”.
Machiavelli had a lot to say about power, glory, and fame, yet his contemporary, Aloysius Gonzaga, unexpectedly reveals that saints have greater longevity of renown (and relevance!) than princes.