.- The Church owes a debt of gratitude to the towering figure of St. Alphonsus Maria of Liguori, Pope Benedict XVI said at his weekly Wednesday audience, March 30.
Although his times were much different, prayer groups the saint started are "a model of missionary action which can also inspire us today for a 'new evangelization,' especially among the poorest, and for building a more just, fraternal and united human coexistence," said the Pope.
"The task of spiritual ministry is entrusted to priests, while well formed laity can be effective Christian leaders, genuine evangelical yeast in the bosom of society," he added.
The final general audience of March took place outdoors for the second time this year as spring weather has begun to arrive in Rome.
Continuing his catechesis on the “doctors” of the Church, the Pope considered the life and spirituality of St. Alphonsus, who founded the missionary Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists.
St. Alphonsus was born in Naples, Italy in 1696 into a wealthy family. He finished his studies in canon and civil law at 16 years old and built an impressive record in court over the next eight years, never losing a case.
"However, in his soul thirsting for God and desiring perfection, the Lord guided him to comprehend that it was another vocation to which he was called," recalled the Pope.
He left riches and his successful but brief career as a lawyer to become a priest.
The still young Fr. Liguori focused on evangelizing and preaching to the poorest of the city. He started prayer meetings with those living in the greatest misery, and people began to attend in ever larger groups. "With patience, he taught them to pray, encouraging them to improve their way of life," said the Pope.
The prayer groups grew to include other catechists and priests and began to change neighborhoods. "They were a true and real source of moral education, social development, mutual assistance among the poor.
"Theft, duels and prostitution nearly disappeared," the Pope said.
Fr. Alphonsus dreamed of preaching to pagan peoples abroad. However, he soon found that in the rural areas around Naples the people were ignorant of the Gospels and in great material and spiritual need.
He began to help them and after just six years as a priest, he founded the missionary Congregation of the Holy Redeemer with the intention of bringing Christ's message beyond the slums of Naples to the most remote corners of Italy.
The missionary method was above all based on prayer, remembered Pope Benedict. In fact, among the most important forms of prayer he advocated was Eucharistic adoration.
Although he died in 1787, the congregation continues its founder's work today well beyond Italy's borders. Its 5,500 members in 77 countries carry out much of their work in schools, parishes and missions.
Alphonsus was canonized in 1839 and declared a doctor of the Church in 1871 for his "accurately expressed" teachings on moral theology, Pope Benedict said. In this same vein, Pius XII proclaimed him "patron of all confessors and moralists."
He is a figure to which "we are all debtors, because he was a prominent moral theologian and master of the spiritual life for all, above all for the simple people."
The Pope highlighted St. Alphonsus' great respect for the value of priests as visible signs of God's infinite mercy in confession where they pardon and illuminate "the minds and hearts of sinners that they might convert and change their lives."
Today, he said, where there are signs that moral conscience and respect for confession are being lost, this saint's teachings remain valid.
Pope Benedict recalled St. Alphonsus' success in winning souls to Christ through teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments with a "gentle and mild manner."
"We thank the Lord that, with his providence, he raises saints and doctors in different places and times, who speak the same language to invite us to grow in the faith and live our Christian being with love and joy in the simple actions of every day, to walk on the path of holiness, on the path towards God and towards true joy."