Who is Aloysius Gonzaga?
I didn’t know anything about him until I traveled to Rome and visited the Church of St. Igantius of Loyola. I encountered this beautiful altar dedicated to this young saint who died at the age of 23. I wanted to learn about this youth who was so highly venerated by the Society of Jesus, who even someone as great as St. Robert Bellarmine wanted to be buried near. His story is poignant and a strong witness to the power of grace, no wonder they love him so.
Aloysius is the Latin form of Gonzaga’s given name, Luigi. In English, the equivalent form would be Louis. The Gonzaga name is well known in Italy. Aloysius Gonzaga was born at Castiglione near Mantua, Italy, in 1568 to a celebrated family of wealth and prestige. As the first born son of his father, Ferrante, and his mother, Marta, he was in line to inherit his father’s title of Marquis. He grew up amid the violence and brutality of the Renaissance Italy and witnessed the murder of two of his brothers. In 1576, Aloysius’ parents sent him to attend the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco de’Medici, in Florence. Later, accompanied by his parents, he traveled to Spain to join the court of Philip II in Madrid.
In Spain, Aloysius decided he wanted to join the newly founded religious order, The Society of Jesus. His father resisted his decision and there followed a struggle of wills that continued after his return to Castiglione in 1584. But Aloysius eventually prevailed.
Renouncing his right to the title of Marquis and to the vast wealth he was destined to inherit, he entered the Society of Jesus in Rome on November 25, 1585. During his early studies in Rome, he would regularly go out into the streets of the city to care for victims of the plague. He himself contracted the disease as a result of his efforts for the suffering and died on June 21, 1591, at the age of twenty-three, six years short of his ordination as a Jesuit priest.
Even before his time as a Jesuit, Aloysius was known for his love of prayer and fasting. He received his First Communion from St. Charles Borromeo. As a Jesuit at the Roman College, he continued to devote his time to prayer and practices of austerity. His spiritual director was Robert Bellarmine who later was canonized and declared a doctor of the church. When Robert was dying, he asked to be buried next to the grave of Aloysius. Today, they rest next to each other in the church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Rome. Pope Benedict XIII canonized Aloysius in 1726, and three years later declared him to be the patron of youth in the Catholic Church, an honor later confirmed by Pope Pius XI in 1926.