“May God protect me from gloomy saints” – Saint Teresa of Avila
Usually you have to have a little patience if you expect to be sainted. A hundred years or so of rotting (or not rotting in the case of the incorruptible) is usually sufficient, but occasionally someone comes to the canonization table with their A-game and gets fast-tracked. Humility, godliness, and cleanliness are all well and good if you want to get your beatification boogie on, but it’s darned hard to trump bilocation to the deathbed of a sitting pope. When your file comes up for review that’s going to weigh pretty heavily in your favor. Consequently, when Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori (1696-1787 A.D.), Bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti, “by an incontestable and well authenticated miracle, consoled the last moments of Pope Clement XIV from whom he was separated by a space of more than forty leagues” (Darras, 1898, p516), and was noted to have done so by other bishops that had assembled in the conventional way for the passing of the Pontiff, the Vatican tenure committee put its nose to the grindstone and got him a sainthood not long after Alphonsus himself sedately traipsed off this mortal coil.
Alphonsus Liguori had already established his theological and holy street cred through his prolific writing about moral theology and ascetics, giving up a lucrative legal career to found a Roman Catholic missionary congregation called the Congregatio Sanctissimi Redemptoris near Amalfi, Italy with the express purpose of laboring among the poor and downtrodden. As a fairly modest dude, he repeatedly tried to turn down appointment as a Bishop, and once the Pope insisted, he spent a lot of time trying to resign the post. Odds are, he was quickly canonized after he died (expired in 1787, beatified in 1816), as the Church was afraid that given the opportunity he would probably try to turn that down too.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori’s canonization took place at so unprecedentedly short period after his death, that his nephew supported the pendant of his banner in the procession at this time. Saint Alphonsus was born in 1696, at Naples, of a noble family; and after a youth of innocence and piety studied law, and was admitted to the bar as an advocate. The loss of an important case confided to his care, and for which he had prepared by long and careful study, disgusted him with the world, and he renounced all the flattering prospects before him to give himself to the service of God. He accordingly studied theology, and after his ordination devoted himself to preaching and the direction of souls. Having taken part in a mission at Amalfi, he was deeply moved by the spiritual destitution of the peasantry, and conceived the idea of a new institute to instruct the people. He accordingly, with the sanction of Clement XII, founded, in 1722, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, composed of secular priests, united with the view of imitating Christ, by instructing, like him, the people and the young. The rule of this institute was promulgated on the 21st of June, 1742. This was the period of the war made on the Jesuits, and the new congregation met with opposition from the enemies of that order, which suspected, and not unreasonably, that this new congregation was similarly intended to do the work of God. The holy founder was, greatly to his own regret, made bishop of Saint Agatha de’ Goti, and though he earnestly, when, broken by age, sickness, paralysis, and mental trouble, caused by divisions in his congregation, sought leave to resign, did not, for many years, obtain his release. He died on the 1st of August, 1787 (Montor, 1867, p809).
To achieve sainthood, you need a few miracles in your pocket, and Alphonsus was no slouch. Not only did he manage to minister to the pope at his dying bedside, even when his corporeal body was 140 miles away, but when he returned from the semi-catatonic state that initiated the transfer, he then told everybody the pope was dead, a fact which he could not yet have known.
Early one morning St. Alphonsus Liguori, bishop and founder of the Redemptorists, or, to be precise, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, entered his chapel, as was his daily wont, to say mass. Suddenly, as he was preparing to vest for the Holy Sacrifice, he was overcome with weakness and his face took on a look of sadness and wonder. In silence he walked to his chair and sat down. At once his head fell forward and rested on his breast. There was no movement of the lips in prayer, there was no rising or falling of the bosom; the eyes of the venerable man closed as if in sleep, and the diverse functions of life were, to all outward seeming, suspended. He remained in this state of immobility for hours, and no one ventured to trouble his repose. When he regained consciousness, he rang his chair bell and rose to robe for mass. When the brother who usually served his mass entered the chapel he told Alphonsus he was too ill to offer up the Sacrifice. At once the chapel was filled with the priests and domestics of the house, who had watched with anxiety the end of the cataleptic sleep. When Alphonsus, in surprise, asked a reason for their presence, he was told that for many hours he was as a dead man. “Ah! Yes indeed”, he answered, “but I have come from the bedside of the Pope, who is now dead.” Those who heard him deemed this to be the hallucination of a sick man; but when the report of the death of Pope Clement came to the bishop’s city of St. Agatha, it corresponded exactly with the day and the hour, September 22, 1774, when Alphonsus had returned to himself (Harris, 1919, p79-81).
The Papal historian M. le baron Henrion, when relating the final moments of Pope Clement XIV made sure to note that “the Sovereign Pontiff ceased to breathe on September 22nd, 1774, at seven a.m., in the presence of the superiors of the Augustinians and the Dominicans, the Observantins and the Conventuals, and (which is more interesting) that he was miraculously ministered to by Alphonso de Liguori, who was absent from his body, as was testified in the investigation that was held concerning the said saint and approved by the Sacred Congregation of Rites” (Delanne, 1904, p104). That’s a whole lot of church notables that rubbed shoulders with Alphonsus at the Pope’s bedside, while Alphonsus was simultaneously in some sort of non-communicative state in St. Agatha. Talk about trying to impress your boss, but I guess they maintain he created the entire universe in six days, so it probably takes some extra effort to wow him with your multi-tasking.
Carroll, Austin, 1835-1909. The Life of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop, Confessor, And Doctor of the Church, Founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. New York: P. O’Shea, 1886.
Darras, J. E. 1825-1878. A General History of the Catholic Church: From the Commencement of the Christian Era to the Twentieth Century. 13th ed. New York: P.J. Kennedy, 1898.
Delanne, Gabriel, 1857. Evidence for a Future Life: (“L’âme Est Immortelle”). London: P. Wellby , 1904.
Harris, William Richard, 1847-1923. Essays In Occultism, Spiritism, And Demonology. St. Louis, Mo.: B. Herder Book Co., 1919.
Montor, Artaud de, 1772-1849. The Lives And Times of the Roman Pontiffs, From St. Peter to Pius IX. New York: D. & J. Sadlier, 1867.