Who is this Alphonsus Rodriguez?

Source: District of Asia

Pius XI in 1924 addressed to the major superiors of all religious orders and congregations of men an Apostolic Letter, in which referring to the training of novices, he says: “Most useful to read through and study will be the writings of Saint Bernard, and of the Seraphic Doctor Bonaventure, as also of Alphonsus Rodriguez. . .. Their power and efficacy, far from failing and being weakened by lapse of time, seem today rather to have increased.” (AAS, XVI, p. 142)

Who, then, is this Rodriguez?

The Man

Alphonsus Rodriguez, unfortunately, has always suffered from the petty annoyance of mistaken identity. And no wonder, since some thirty-five Jesuit writers bear the name of Rodriguez, four of these prefixing Alphonsus. Most frequently he is confused with the Jesuit lay-brother, Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, who was his contemporary and also a spiritual writer. It is worthwhile, therefore, to set things right by sketching the main events of his life, about which there is almost nothing in English, and also to add a few interesting details about his great spiritual book.

For an account of his early years, two documents, signed by himself, are of special value. The first is a statement written by him in the third person when he was received as a Jesuit novice in Salamanca:

“He was examined by Father Rector, July 14, 1557.. Native of Valladolid, 19 years old, son of Doctor Rodriguez and Doña Maria Garcia; a student, has done two years of theology; has profited greatly from his studies. Signed: González Alonso Rodriguez.”

In the margin occur these words: “He has received the tonsure.”

Four and a half years later, in January 1562, Alphonsus, then a Scholastic, filled out a questionnaire for the Jesuit Visitor from Rome,. Father Jerome Nadal, in which he gives us a candid portrait of himself (Monumenta S.J., Nadal, Tome II, pp. 532-533):

“My name is Alonso Rodriguez. -- Three months from now I shall have completed my 24th year. -- I am from old Castile and Valladolid. -- My parents are living. -- They have sufficient to support them. -- . . . I have two sisters who are nuns, and four brothers: one is a monk, another is a priest. . ., the other two have almost nothing; except what their parents may leave them neither is married. -- I have no debts or obligations, except a half- real which I found and though knowing to whom it belonged, I did not return it; now I have nothing, and even if I had anything, it seems I could not return it..... In the world I was devout and given to prayer and almsgiving, and so I prayed a lot, but I did not often frequent the sacraments, nor did I know anything about mental prayer. -- I made a vow to be a religious or a monk . . . On account: of my vow and desire to serve God, I entered the Company without any consolations... four and a half years ago.... -- It is a year and a half since I took the vows. Once I made the exercises of the First Week for eight or nine days. -- I have served in the lowest offices of the house, made a pilgrimage, served in hospitals. . . taught catechism.

“I desire to persevere until death in the Company and, with the grace of the Lord, to obey in all things, no matter how difficult and hard they may be, and to keep the rules very perfectly, as something in which my perfection consists. I desire very much to undergo all the mortifications and experiments of the Company, as though I had just recently entered it, and I desire my superiors to take great care to mortify me, because I need it very much, since I am very remiss in mortifying myself.... On the other hand, Our Lord gives me promptness to obey in all things . . . Particularly do I wish to be instructed in prayer (about which I am very ignorant) in order to know how to make further progress. -- Wherever the greater service of God our Lord may be, thither am I inclined to go; even though it be to the confines of the earth, I shall go there with good will; and I desire to be able and capable of undertaking difficult and great things with the divine favor. . . -- Salamanca, January 15, 1562. Alonso.”

Questioned about his studies, he adds: “I have studied thirteen years: five of grammar and three of arts in Valladolid, and am now studying theology for the fifth year in Salamanca. I have been thought to be very healthy throughout my studies. I have an inclination for studies, and especially for theology. But I have little talent for them, especially for metaphysics. Memory is poor and intelligence likewise. I know very little about anything, but it seems I know more theology than anything else. I am a bachelor of arts.”

Obviously Alphonsus was a young man of high spiritual objectives coupled with a humble estimate of himself. This depreciating inventory of his talents and virtues, however, was not accepted by his superiors, for after his studies and ordination to the priesthood he was immediately made master of novices in Salamanca at the precocious age of twenty-five. And the records of the time note also that he was “very skillful in solving cases of conscience.”

Three years later, in 1566, Father Rodriguez left the novitiate at Salamanca for the joint college and seminary at Monterrey in Galicia, where he taught moral theology in the seminary. Certain little moral treatises written during this period were highly esteemed by Father Thomas Sanchez, the distinguished Jesuit moralist, who made use of them in his own writings. Rodriguez was also rector of this institution of some eight hundred students for six years (1570-1576), and, despite his many duties as rector and professor, frequently preached “with some ability,” heard confessions, and taught catechism in the town's environs. In 1579 we find him in his native city of Valladolid, engaged in the works of the ministry and solving cases of conscience. He remained there for six years.

In 1585, by special order of Acquaviva, the Father General, Rodriguez was sent from his own province of Castile to that of Andalusia to be rector and master of novices at the famous college and novitiate of Montilla. He was sent as a troubleshooter to solve some peculiar difficulties involving the training of young religious. His own provincial superior, Father Villalba, was loath to let him go: “In very few men are so many qualities found together. It is truly a considerable loss for our province. He is very learned, an excellent religious, and made for training young religious in spiritual life and devotion. Of that we have no less need in Castile than in Andalusia.” (Astrain, Historia IV. P. 745)

On the other hand, the success of his work at Montilla can be gaged from a letter written two years later to the General by the Andalusian Provincial, Father Gil González Dávila: “One finds there the true formation of the Company and the real way of training novices. . . . Those who come from it live according to the true religious spirit, the spirit of obedience and abnegation, and are distinguished for these virtues. To my mind, the best present that Your Paternity has made to our province... has been to call to it Father Alphonsus Rodriguez; and I hope that if the Fathers of the third probation pass through his hands, the fruit will be still more precious....” (Astrain, ibid, IV, p. 745) Another mark of confidence was shown him when he was chosen to represent the Andalusian province at the Fifth General Congregation of his order, held in Rome in 1593. This Congregation put an end to those internal difficulties of the Spanish Jesuit provinces for the solution of which Father Rodriguez had labored with such consummate prudence and ability.

Five years later Rodriguez left Montilla, having been appointed a general inspector of the Jesuit establishments in the province of Andalusia. That done, he was in Cordova the following year, hearing confessions and giving retreats, and there he remained for eight years, until 1607, when at the age of sixty-nine he once more took up his old duties as master of novices, this time in Seville, and added to them the duties of spiritual father of the community. This was to be his last appointment. During the final two years of his life he was plagued with ill-health and the infirmities of age, so much so that he could no longer offer up the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Then, on February 21, 1616, “after having received all the sacraments with full consciousness and with such serenity that he seemed rather to sleep than to die,” he quietly passed away at the goodly age of seventy-seven years and ten months.

Father Alphonsus Rodriguez was an exceptionally well-balanced character-not brilliant, but prudent, reliable, and steady. Father Nieremberg, who knew him well, describes him as “affable, thoroughly saturated with the charity of Christ, without a trace of bitterness or sadness; a faint, gentle smile on his countenance.” He was much given to prayerful retirement and perhaps for that reason was somewhat timid in meeting externs. He was not what we call today “a contact man.” “I do not know how to deal or observe the amenities with externs, as my duties demand,” he wrote humbly to the General. And Father González, the Andalusian Provincial, mentions in an official letter the “timidity of the superior” and “his embarrassed mannerisms,” but adds that this difficulty can be remedied by having recourse to other Fathers—and he might have added that the supply of such is usually plentiful.

Nevertheless, despite this annoying handicap, he was a capable superior, demanding an exact account of what was being done and giving orders so precise that “he seemed thoroughly attentive to each detail without any distraction.” His decisions once understood and their carrying out assured, he gave himself heart and soul to the spiritual direction of his novices and subjects. Here he was the master perfectly at ease.

In an unobtrusive way, he was a man of constant prayer, mortification, and meticulous observance of rule. When he was told that his austerities might shorten his life, he made the disconcerting, but very discerning reply, “An unmortified religious man is already dead.” His own religious brethren do not seem to have been too much aware of his more than ordinary sanctity, for when the Jesuits of Madrid were officially proposing to a certain prelate of the Rota the beatification of Rodriguez' fellow-townsman and contemporary, Father Luis de la Puente, the great authority on prayer, the prelate exclaimed: “Good! but why not make the same recommendation for the saintly Father Alphonsus Rodriguez?”