One of the pithy statements attributed to St. Alphonsus Liguori that you can put on a banner and hang in church is, “Love God and do what you please.” Saint Alphonsus meant that if you love God, you’ll consistently choose that which leads to life, that which is holy and healthy. If you love God, you’ll do God’s will and avoid activities or thoughts that you understand as contrary to God’s will.
The confidence at the heart of this man’s assertion is all the more amazing when you learn more about Alphonsus (1696-1787). Although St. Alphonsus is a saint, a bishop and doctor of the Church, the patron of confessors, the patron saint of our SA family, and the person on whom the moral theology of the Church is rooted, he didn’t have his entire act together. This may surprise people who think saints are perfect.
Saint Alphonsus was a man of great passion and desire. You come to appreciate that his energy was fueled by a conviction that the redemption Jesus offered was intended for all people, especially the poor and those who are often ignored and marginalized. His pivotal insight was that the only thing denying people their share in the reality of the gospel was that no one was giving them the news that God loves them. The passion, desire, and insight of Alphonsus led the Italian to found the Redemptorists, through which he sought to energize the Church and the people of God with the truth that there is “plentiful redemption for all.”
However, the flip side of his story is perhaps even more amazing and makes this saint more inspirational. Saint Alphonsus suffered terribly from scrupulosity. The man who poured his spirit into preaching, writing, and helping others struggled every day with believing he was lovable, that he was forgiven, and that God was pleased with him. He was easily able to see God’s love at work in others, but he struggled to see God working within himself. This aspect of his life has been downplayed by many of his biographers, perhaps because they were uncomfortable that such a great saint could suffer in such a way.
The doubts, the anxiety, the uncertainty of constant questioning and the compulsiveness that accompanies this suffering affected St. Alphonsus’ physical health and well-being. However, despite his suffering and daily struggle, he constantly acted against: the impulse to despair, to doubt his spiritual beliefs, to give in to the feelings of guilt and anxiety. Instead, he held on for dear life to the conviction that he had been redeemed and that his redemption was something that needed to be celebrated and proclaimed.
His conviction gave him a foundation from which grew an effective moral theology and teaching that enabled him to recognize error and false teaching quickly. Alphonsus identified immediately any lies being preached and was determined to offer effective remedies to combat them. Such sensitivity can be a great gift when it’s understood and appreciated as a gift and not as something that needs to be overcome or disciplined.
The philosophy “love God and do what you please” that Alphonsus fostered also comes to life when we reflect on Gospel narratives, particularly those related to scrupulosity. For example, one of Jesus’ central teachings comes to mind: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” In order to love God with your whole heart and soul and love your neighbor, you first must love yourself. If you don’t love yourself and don’t believe you are lovable, then that which you offer to God and to your neighbor will be incomplete, conflicted, and marked with your own self-doubt and questioning, your own anxieties and insecurities.
This is another place where St. Alphonsus can help us and point the way that will lead us to the full truth that we are loved. Remember, the saints weren’t perfect. Like Alphonsus, they struggled to accept and love themselves as they were and believe that they were formed into the kingdom of God. Thus, knowing that the beloved saints had challenges becomes more essential in helping us come to accept and love ourselves and our fellow people as God loves all of us.
As we begin this new year of grace, let’s resolve to live the gospel. To help, I invite you to make the statement of St. Alphonsus into a prayer: “Help me, Lord, to love you, and in loving you, to trust that I please you in all things. Amen.” With this prayer, we will practice the commandments, learn the way of truth and love, and understand what it means to “love God and do what you please.”
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR