Learning from St Alphonsus Rodriguez SJ, patron saint of Jesuit brothers

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Australian Jesuit Brother Ian Cribb SJ is the Provincial Assistant for Vocations and Vocations Promoter of the Australian Jesuit Province.  He was one of six Jesuit brothers from the six Jesuit Conferences, who were elected by their confreres to be members of the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus held in 2016.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the death of St Alphonsus Rodriguez SJ (October 31, 1617).  He was born in 1533 in Segovia, Spain. Alphonsus inherited his family’s textile business at age 23. Within three years, his wife, daughter and mother died. His business was going poorly. Reassessing his situation, Alphonsus sold the business and, with his young son, moved to his sister’s home. It was there that he learnt the art of prayer and meditation in the midst of tragedy and failure.

After the sad death of his son, Alphonsus, almost 40 years old, sought to enter the Society of Jesus. He did not have a good education and was accepted only on his second application. He entered the Jesuits as a brother and for the next 45 years he served as doorkeeper at the Jesuit college in Majorca.

Alphonsus’ holiness and prayerfulness attracted many to seek him out. As a doorkeeper, he greeted well people who came to the college – students, the rich and famous, as well as the poor. He greeted all as if they were Christ. Alphonsus not only held the key to the door, he also had the key that helped others unlock their inner life. He had perfected the art of spiritual conversation.

Recently, General Congregation 36 emphasised the necessity of spiritual conversation and discernment in our lives. We may well look to Alphonsus as a role model in this regard for us today. Out of his humility and the simplicity of his apostolate, he was able to engage others in a way that led them to greater depth and love of Jesus. St Peter Claver as a scholastic was inspired by Alphonsus and was deeply influenced by his counsel that guided him into his mission to the slaves.

Alphonsus confronted many personal battles against failure, loss, disease and temptation.  He learnt not to focus on himself but to see failure as a grace, a mysterious encounter with God. He humbled himself and let his failure shape him, handing himself over to the Lord in the simple service of others. Alphonsus adhered to a few simple spiritual guidelines that helped navigate his troubles and trials. For example, he had a method of finding joy in hardship. He would place himself in spirit before the cross, looking at Jesus full of sorrow, shedding his blood and bearing great bodily hardship for him.

Jesuit brothers in JCAP during their Brothers Circle meeting in Timor-Leste

Alphonsus is the patron saint of Jesuit brothers. Today Jesuit brothers serve alongside Jesuit priests in a variety of ministries in over 112 countries on six continents. The brothers offer who they are and what they have for the “Greater Glory of God”. Many work as craftsmen, administrators, teachers, university lecturers and spiritual guides. Pope Francis in his address to the GC 36 when speaking about his experience of the brothers in the Society of Jesus said, “My experience has always been positive. The brothers with whom I lived during my time as a student were wise men, very wise. They had a wisdom different from that of scholastics or that of the priests. Today, even brothers who have studied a great deal and who have leadership positions in the institutions still have an ‘I do not know what’ that is different from the priests. And I think this has to be preserved, the wisdom, that special sapiential quality that comes from being a brother.” Pope Francis went on to speak about a special sense, what he called an ability to “smell”. They have great discretion and ability to realise before any other community member what is happening. “I believe that there is a special grace here and we must find what God’s will is for the brother right now, and we also have to find how to express it.”

We do not find many brothers today that are doorkeepers, however, like Alphonsus, many brothers hold that gift of the art of spiritual conversation, constant discernment through prayer and a simplicity of lifestyle.

Br Ian Cribb SJ

One of the great mysteries that discernment yields is a consoling conviction that when we fail we join Jesus who failed. Perhaps we can say like Alphonsus “I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me”. (2 Cor 12:9)

In his old age, Alphonsus experienced no relief from his trials. The more he mortified himself the more spiritual dryness he experienced. In 1617, ravaged with disease, Alphonsus died at midnight on October 31. We are indebted to his Superior who asked him to write down his experiences of God and so we are left with a rich insight into his spiritual journey.

For those seeking to generously offer their natural and learned talents for the “greater glory of God” the Society of Jesus offers a unique and rewarding opportunity for humble service in the Church locally and abroad. We pray that St Alphonsus still inspires many to deepen their love for Jesus through humble, loving service of the Lord.

There are approximately 90 Jesuit brothers in the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific.