Imagine, for a moment, that you decide you want to run a marathon next year. Not knowing much about running, working out, or dieting, you hire a trainer to help you reach your goal. After the first few meetings with your trainer, you realize that most of your time together has been spent sitting around, talking, and eating. The workout sessions are short, and when the first bead of sweat drops from your brow, the trainer suggests that you call it a day and go get an ice cream cone. Your trainer is constantly saying things like “the marathon will be very easy!” and “you will receive much help along the way!” Your trainer tells you that you don’t need to adjust your eating habits. He encourages the idea that on race-day, you will receive a miraculous ability to complete the race.
While this trainer has offered you comfort and “fun,” you start to become a little skeptical and decide to get a second opinion. You meet up with a new trainer who has a much different message. He says that you must run each day until the race, building up your stamina over time until you can run 25 or so miles without stopping. He says that you should feel utterly exhausted after working out. Finally, he confirms that you must adjust your eating habits, being sure to avoid desserts and unhealthy foods. Following your intuition, you realize that the first trainer did you a grave disservice. You decide to follow the second trainer, the good trainer. The first trainer was either woefully ignorant, or he had a hidden desire to see you fail. The good trainer is good because he tells you the truth, even if it might be difficult for you to hear in the present moment.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori is a good trainer for those who would like to spend eternity united to their Creator in heaven. Saint Alphonsus was born in Italy in 1696 and died in 1787. After a short career as a skilled lawyer, he left the practice of civil law and was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 30. By immersing himself in the Scriptures and the writings of the Saints who came before him, St. Alphonsus became a champion of the Christian moral life. He wrote an abundance of works which have helped Christians to avoid the snares of Satan and live a virtuous life in accordance with the Gospel. He challenges Christians with the idea that true faith must be accompanied by an exodus from sinful ways. The Christian should utterly despise sin, not tacitly accept it or worse, rejoice in it. “My brother,” writes St. Alphonsus, “to save your soul, you must give up sin. If then, you must renounce it at some time, why do you not abandon it at this moment?” (From St. Alphonsus’ book Preparation for Death).
In his deep love for souls, St. Alphonsus not only unveils the “hard truths” of the faith, but he provides Christians with practical strategies for following these truths. St. Alphonsus wrote extensively on the danger of developing a mentality which presumes God’s mercy. What does it mean to presume God’s mercy? St. Alphonsus observes that those who are in a state of grave sin often consciously or sub-consciously adhere to the following mentality: “God is merciful; I will commit this sin, and will afterwards confess it…God is good; I will do what I please” (Preparation for Death, Consideration XVII). But this mentality, says St. Alphonsus, leads many souls to damnation. St. Alphonsus declares that a thought of the divine mercy, if it is inducing one to commit a sin, is from Satan, not from God. Thus we should abandon the mindset which presumes God’s mercy and embrace a healthy fear of the Lord, which is “the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
The Scriptures reveal that God is both patient and merciful, and thus we should act patiently and mercifully toward each other; however, Christ Himself firmly announces that those who stubbornly continue in sin without repentance and an amendment of life will go to hell. “At the end of the age,” says the Lord, “The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will collect out of His kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 13:40-42). Reminding each other of this reality is a great work of true charity.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori courageously preached the full truth of the Gospel – not only the parts of the Gospel that give us comfort, but also the parts that make us uncomfortable. Because of this, his writings have been of great service to Christians for the last three centuries. In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI declared that professors of theology could safely teach any opinion of St. Alphonsus. In 1871, Pope Pius IX named St. Alphonsus a Doctor of the Church, which means that St. Alphonsus’ doctrinal writings now carry a special authority.
A good physical trainer cares more about your success than your comfort. Just like the body needs to be challenged to grow stronger, the soul must be purged of sin on its way to God. Recognizing this, the Church has endorsed St. Alphonsus Liguori as a reliable trainer in Christian morality.
Article written by: Curtis Gross, Seminarian in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati