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News >  Higher education

Gonzaga’s patron saint died young as he cared for pandemic victims

UPDATED: Fri., April 2, 2021

By Catherine Johnston For The Spokesman-Review

Luigi left home at 17 and joined the Jesuits. Such a rebel.

As the eldest son of an accomplished military man, Luigi had been promised family money and status with his expected commitment to military life. When your dad hands you a set of miniature guns and takes you to work with him, the message should be clear. But the message Luigi reportedly learned? A salty vocabulary from real soldiers.

His path to Jesuit life evolved from his own illness and isolation. Kidney disease left young Luigi struggling and alone. He read spiritual books and learned to pray, creating his own path.

While on a family trip to Spain, Luigi met a Jesuit whose influence compelled him to join the Society of Jesus. Dad was not happy and did what many fathers might do with an out-of-control teenager: He sent him away. Luigi spent 18 months touring Italy. The travel did not sway Luigi; he renounced his inheritance, his status and headed to Rome, where he entered the Society.

“I am a piece of twisted iron; I entered religious life to get twisted straight,” he said.

Luigi moved through formation and pronounced his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to missions of the pope. He received minor orders and began theology studies at the Roman College.

And then the pandemic struck.

No, not our pandemic. The 1590 plague that struck Rome. And that rebellious Jesuit? We know him today as Aloysius Gonzaga. St. Aloysius Gonzaga – the son of powerful Ferrante Gonzaga, the marquis of Castiglione.

The plague ravaged thousands of people, bringing horrible fevers that induced delirium, killing mostly men.

Aloysius walked the streets of Rome, begging for alms on behalf of plague victims. He carried dying, abandoned persons into a hospital founded by the Jesuits.

“There he washed and fed the plague victims, preparing them as best he could to receive the sacraments,” writes Jesuit priest and author James Martin. “But though he threw himself into his tasks, he privately confessed to his spiritual director, the Rev. Robert Bellarmine, that his constitution was revolted by the sights and smells of the work; he had to work hard to overcome his physical repulsion.”

When many younger Jesuits became infected with the disease, Aloysius’ superiors prohibited him from coming to the hospital. But he insisted on caring for dying people, and soon superiors granted him permission to care for patients at Our Lady of Consolation, a hospital not admitting infected patients.

We easily create romantic notions about caring for the sick; but conditions in Rome were extremely grim.

“In August 1590 a plague broke out in Rome. Its impact on the people of Rome was worse than the famous Sack of Rome in 1527,” writes Jesuit priest and history professor emeritus John Patrick Donnelly.

“Rome’s population was about 140,000. By January 1591 it was down by some 23,000 people, mostly victims of the plague. Food was scarce, families often locked themselves in their homes but then fell victim to plague or hunger, their bodies left to rot.”

The young boy who refused to become a powerful soldier fought a bigger war, armed only with deep faith, compassion and determination to answer God’s call. Aloysius stepped into battle against an enemy impossible to identify until it pulsed with fever and destruction, indiscriminately killing Romans.

Aloysius tended to patients, washing and feeding them. One day he lifted a man out of his bed and cared for him, then put the man back in his hospital bed. The patient was infected with the plague and soon Aloysius fell ill, too. He struggled with feverish pain and coughing.

For three months he remained bedridden, sometimes appearing stronger. Through his prayers, he believed he would die on the Feast of Corpus Christi, June 21. He struggled to say, “Jesus” as he took his last breaths at age 23 – on June 21, 1591.

Aloysius’ remains rest at St. Ignazio Church in Rome in the Lancellotti Chapel, and each year Gonzaga family members visit the chapel on June 21 to honor him.

Pope Paul V beatified Aloysius Gonzaga (step one to sainthood) in 1605 and Pope Benedict XIII canonized him (official sainthood) in 1726. He was named a saint of youth, of plague victims and the people who care for them.

While Aloysius Gonzaga is a patron saint of pandemic sufferers, artists often render images of a young adult dressed in a stark white surplice (frilly top) over a long, black cassock (ankle-length “skirt”). He may hold a white lily to symbolize his purity and manage a crucifix in his hands, his eyes fixated on the body of Jesus.

These paintings and statues – suggestive of 19th century piety – do not depict Aloysius walking the pandemic-stricken streets of Rome, caring for dying strangers. Instead, they are theological symbols.

Yet a statue of Aloysius on the edge of the Gonzaga University campus captures my heart these pandemic-weary days. Gazing at this image, I weep.

Aloysius’ strong hands carry a thin, weak, dying man. Their garments flow together, indistinguishable, as though the two men are one. Aloysius looks forward, focused and strong.

In his face, I see legions of undeclared saints: caregivers and families who lost their lives during COVID-19. People who voluntarily enter the pandemic battle, working until exhaustion overtakes them. Nurses and doctors and loved ones and emergency workers carry bodies and burdens.

How many people did Aloysius carry from the street to a safe place for end-of-life care? How did he transcend the stench and grief and fear to carry one more person? How did he persevere?

How do we?

I walk across campus toward the Catherine-Monica dorm and reminisce about my life as a student. This holy ground, my holy ground, offers comfort.

My childhood home burned to the ground a few years after our family sold it; the quaint church I was married in – razed in favor of a modern, acoustically fine worship space. My parents are with God enjoying eternal life, their bodies buried in a Minneapolis cemetery, and one sister calls London home, while two sisters live in different states.

I lost my sense of place, of home. Except when I walk the Quad, smell the scent of hot juniper bushes near my freshman dorm and hear church bells clanging close by, I find peace.

Gonzaga remains my touchstone of tradition, an anchor of my formation. Here I explored possibilities, discovered my gifts and how to live them for others, for myself.

I watch students, masked and compliant, carry books and meet friends. They giggle and run; some stroll. Young adults, animated with anticipation, talk basketball. Lots of basketball.

“When I was a student here, you could get into a game with your student ID card and sit anywhere you wanted to sit!” I say.

Today, I carry a Medicare ID card, good for hospital admissions.

They gasp. I don’t tell them I went to half of one basketball game in four years. The team was “in formation” then and so was I. But now, wow! I am not an educated basketball fan – what’s “in the paint” anyway? I watch that team because I love Gonzaga.

What would Aloysius “Luigi” Gonzaga think of his namesake university? Talk of basketball, created 300 years after his death, would likely prove confusing.

Yet, he would recognize grace and humility in these student athletes.

“This team focuses on the game, not the hype and not the stats,” says former community basketball coach Marilyn Roberts-Hardy.

“They play with joy and they have fun. They know why they are there and they play with purpose. They care for each other.”

Gonzaga graduate Laura Richardson has watched the Zags since her grade school days.

“Basketball makes me think of those fun times. Each game a group of close friends from college, four of us (‘Quad’ is what we call ourselves) are usually deep in a group text, commenting on the game. It is the nostalgia for me,” Richardson says.

A team of athletically gifted young men, not just a “Few,” creates sacred community, unique holiness. We are blessed.

Spokanites know more about Gonzaga basketball than saints. But Aloysius deserves devotion. After all, he is a patron saint of youth and pandemics. We need him.

“It wasn’t until two years after the novitiate,” Martin writes, “when I was working with refugees in East Africa, that I began to pray seriously to St. Aloysius. Even at the time I wondered why: my sudden devotion came as a surprise.

“Sometimes I think that one reason we begin praying to a saint is that the saint has already been praying for us.”

May it be so.

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