Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Feast of St Aloysius Gonzaga in Rome

Each year on June 21st, the Jesuit church of St Ignatius in Rome opens the rooms where St Aloysius Gonzaga lived and studied while he was at the Roman College up to the public. (These rooms can be visited throughout the year, and priests can say Mass in them, but an appointment must be made first.) The church of St Ignatius was the first to be named for the Jesuit founder, and begun shortly after his canonization in 1622; the project was financed by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, nephew to one of the College’s more prominent alumni, Pope Gregory XV. Although he reigned for only two years and five months, Pope Gregory had the honor of canonizing, at a single ceremony, Ss Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Theresa of Avila, Philip Neri, and Isidore of Madrid, generally known as Isidore the Farmer. (The Romans joked at the time that the Pope had canonized four Spaniards and a Saint.) The church was not intended to receive the relics of its titular Saint, which still repose in the Order’s mother church, the Gesù, but rather to serve as the chapel for the 2,000 students enrolled in the Roman College by the beginning of the 17th century. Of the sixteen Popes who reigned from the accession of Gregory XV in 1622 to the suppression of the Society in 1773, half were alumni of the College.

St Aloysius died on June 21, 1591 at the age of 23, after receiving the Last Rites from his spiritual director, St Robert Bellarmine. He had come to the Roman College to begin his studies for the priesthood after completing the novitiate at the church of St Andrew on the Quirinal Hill. With the permission of his superiors, he was allowed to attend to those who had already recovered from the plague in one of the Roman hospitals, but wound up contracting it himself, and although he did not die immediately, was fatally weakened. Among the still-extant rooms of the Roman College which he knew were a common room with a chapel next to it, the very chapel in which he made his first vows in the Order after the novitiate, on November 25, 1587. Over time, the rooms have been decorated, and two more chapels built; collectively, the three are known as the “Cappellette (Little Chapels) di San Luigi.” His relics were formerly kept in one of them, but now repose in the magnificent Lancellotti chapel in the south transept of St Ignatius. Another of the cappellette formerly housed the relics of another youthful Jesuit saint, John Berchmans (1599-1621), but he has also been moved into the main church, opposite St Aloysius in the north transept.

The altar of the Lancellotti Chapel, which contains the relics of St Aloysius; in the reredos, St Aloysius in Glory, by Pierre le Gros.
The altar of St John Berchmans, in the transept directly opposite; he was a Jesuit seminarian from Flanders, and like Aloysius, was seen by his superiors as one of the most promising seminarians in the order, but died in Rome when he was only 22, before he could be ordained. He was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.
In 1923, the relics of St Robert Bellarmine were placed in this altar, which is dedicated to St Joachim, immediately next to St Aloysius’.

The courtyard of the Roman College, seen from the roof of the church of St Ignatius. The rooms of St Aloysius and the cappellette are within the lighter-colored part of the building in the upper right of this photograph. With the fall of the Papal State in 1870, the Roman College was seized from the Jesuits by the Italian government and transformed into a public high school.

The Jesuit Fr Angelo Secchi, one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, and the discoverer of astronomic spectroscopy, worked in and ran this observatory tower during his long and illustrious career; craters on both the Moon and Mars are named after him.

The entrance to the Saint’s room, now transformed into a chapel. (Kudos to the celebrant for ignoring the table.)

The relics of St Aloysius were formerly kept in this altar.
A picture on the wall of the chapel, showing the Saint ministering in the Roman hospital where he would eventually catch the plague.

The death of St Aloysius.
This inscription above this door, which leads into the chapel from the side (to the right of the altar seen above), says “ Here where you lived, you are honored, but while you lived here, Aloysius, you were worthy to be honored.”

The chapel behind that of St Aloysius, which was once the room of St John Berchmans, whose relics were formerly contained in the altar seen more clearly in the next picture.
The third chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. During the Roman Republic of 1849, when the Papal government was temporarily overthrown, the Jesuits were forced to leave the city; the Roman College was occupied, and the capellette were badly damaged, as an inscription above the door notes, “by the fraud and crime of enemies”. The wall paintings in these rooms today dates from a restoration of 1860.

The vials in the two reliquaries on the walls are filled with relics of Saints from the Roman catacombs, which in the mid-19th century were being discovered and explored by a team of archeologists under the aegis of the Papacy.

The entrance to the large atrium, originally a common room for the seminarians, which connects the three chapels.
The paintings in the atrium show episodes of the life of St Aloysius; here, he receives his first Holy Communion from St Charles Borromeo.

St Aloysius serves at the hospital for plague victims.
St Mary Magdalene dei Pazzi, a Carmelite nun from Florence, sees St Aloysius in the glory of heaven shortly after his death.

Part of the Roman skyline seen from the atrium; the dome is that of the Jesuit Order’s mother church, formally known as the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, but generally referred to as “il Gesù” in Italian and “the Gesù” in English. This nickname was later passed on to other Jesuit churches, such as the “Gesù Nuovo” in Naples.

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