Pope Francis Praises ‘Holy Doctor’ of St. Alphonsus Liguori

Full Translation of Pope’s Message for 150th Anniversary of Proclamation of Italian Saint as Doctor of the Church

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Here is an Exaudi translation of the Message that the Holy Father Francis sent to the Superior of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and Moderator General of the Alphonsian Academy, Reverend Father Michael Brehl, C.Ss.R., on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, Doctor of the Church:

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To Reverend Father Michael Brehl, C.Ss.R.,

Superior General of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer

And Moderator General of the Alphonsian Academy

One hundred years ago, on March 23, 1871, Pius IX proclaimed Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori Doctor of the Church.

The Bull of proclamation of Saint Alphonsus’ Doctorate highlights the specificity of his moral and spiritual proposal, having been able to point out “the safe way in the tangle of opposing opinions of strictness and laxity.”[1]

One hundred fifty years after this joyful event, the message of Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, Patron of Confessors and Moralists, and model for the whole Church in missionary going forth, points out again vigorously the master way to approach consciences to the Father’s welcoming face, because “the salvation that God offers us is the work of His mercy” (EG 112).

Listening to Reality

The Alphonsian theological proposal stems from listening and accepting the frailty of the most spiritually abandoned men and women. The Holy Doctor, formed in a strict moral mentality, was converted to “benignity” through listening to the reality.

The missionary experience in the existential peripheries of his time, the search for the estranged and the hearing of confessions, the foundation and guidance of the nascent Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, as well as his responsibilities as Bishop of a particular Church, led him to become a father and teacher of mercy, certain that “God’s paradise is man’s heart.”[2]

The gradual conversion to a decidedly missionary pastoral care, capable of closeness to the people, of being able to accompany their step, of sharing their life concretely even in the midst of limitations and challenges, drove Alphonsus to review also, not without difficulty, the theological and juridical formulation received in the years of his formation: initially marked by a certain strictness, it was then transformed into a merciful approach, an evangelizing dynamism able to act by attraction.

In theological disputes, preferring reason to authority, he did not stop at the theoretical formulation of principles, but allowed himself to be questioned by life itself. Advocate of the least, the frail, the rejected by the society of his time, he defended the “rights” of all, especially of the most abandoned and the poor. This course led him to the decisive choice to put himself at the service of consciences seeking, despite a thousand difficulties, the good to be done, because he was faithful to God’s call to holiness.

Hence, Saint Alphonsus” is neither lax nor strict. He is a realist in the true Christian sense” because he understood well that “at the very heart of the Gospel there is community life and commitment to others” (EG 177).

The proclamation of the Gospel in a rapidly changing society calls for the courage to listen to the reality, to “educate consciences to think differently, in discontinuity with the past.”[3]

Every pastoral action is rooted in a salvific encounter with the God of life; it is born from listening to life and is fed by a theological reflection that is able to respond to people’s questions and point out viable ways. On the example of Alphonsus, I invite moral theologians, missionaries and confessors to enter into a living relationship with members of the People of God, and to look at existence beginning from their angle, to understand the real difficulties they meet and to help heal wounds, because only true fraternity “is able to look at the sacred grandeur of one’s neighbour, which is able to discover God in every human being, which is able to endure the inconveniences of living together, clinging to the love of God, which is able to open the heart to divine love to seek the happiness of others as their good Father seeks it” (EG, n. 92).

Faithful to the Gospel, may Christian moral teaching called to proclaim, deepen and teach be always a response “to the God that loves us and saves us, recognizing Him in others and going out of oneself to seek the good of all” (EG, n. 39). Moral Theology cannot reflect only one formulation of principles, of norms, but must approach purposefully the reality that exceeds any idea (cf. EG, n. 231). This is a priority (cf. EG, nn. 34-39) because the sole knowledge of theoretical principles, as Saint Alphonsus himself reminds us, isn’t sufficient to accompany and support consciences in the discernment of the good to be done. It’s necessary that knowledge become practical through listening and welcoming the least, the frail, and of those regarded as rejected by society.

Mature Consciences for An Adult Church

On the example of Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, renovator of Moral Theology,[4] it becomes desirable and therefore necessary to be side by side, to accompany and to support the most destitute of spiritual help in the path to redemption. The evangelical radicalism should not be opposed to man’s weakness. It’s always necessary to find the way that doesn’t distance but brings hearts closer to God, as Alphonsus did with his spiritual and moral teaching. All this because: the immense majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; are in need of God and we cannot fail to offer them His friendship, His blessing, His Word, the celebration of the Sacraments and the proposal of a way of growth and maturation in the faith. The preferential option for the poor must be translated primarily into privileged and priority religious care” (EG 200).

As Saint Alphonsus, we are called to go to encounter the people as apostolic community that follows the Redeemer among the abandoned. This going out to meet those deprived of spiritual aid helps to overcome the individualistic ethic and to promote a moral maturity capable of choosing the true good. By forming responsible and merciful consciences we will have an adult Church capable of responding constructively to social frailties in view of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Going out to the frailest enables one to combat the “logic” “of competitiveness and the law of the strongest” that “considers the human being in himself as a consumer good, which can be used and then thrown away” giving initiation to the throwaway’ culture” (Cf. EG, n. 53).

In these latest times, the challenges that society is facing are innumerable: the pandemic and work inn the post-COVID world, the care to be ensured to all, the defense of life, the input that comes from artificial intelligence, the safeguarding of creation, the anti-democratic threat and the urgency for brotherhood. Woe to us if in this evangelizing commitment we separate “the cry of the poor”[5] from the “cry of the earth.”[6]

Alphonsus of Liguori, teacher and patron of confessors and moralists gave constructive answers to the challenges of the society of his time, through popular evangelization, indicating a style of Moral Theology capable of holding together the demand of the Gospel and human frailty.

On the example of the Holy Doctor, I invite you to address seriously, at the level of Moral Theology, “God’s cry who asks all of us: “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Where is your slave brother? Where is he that you are killing every day in the small clandestine factory, in the prostitution network, in the children used for begging, in him who must work hidden way because he isn’t legal?” (EG, n. 211). In face of epochal passages such as the present one, the risk is seeing concretely of absolutizing the rights of the strong, forgetting the neediest.

The formation of consciences to the good seems to be an indispensable objective for every Christian. To give space to consciences — place where God’s voice resounds — so that they can carry forward their personal discernment in the concreteness of life (Cf. AL 37) is a formative task to which it’s necessary to remain faithful. May the Samaritan’s attitude (Luke 10:33-35), as I pointed out in Fratelli Tutti, push us all in this direction.

Moral Theology must not be afraid to receive the cry of the least of the earth and to make it its own. The dignity of the frail is a moral duty that cannot be evaded or delegated. It’s necessary to witness that right always means solidarity.

I invite you, as Saint Alphonsus did, to go to encounter the frail brothers and sisters of our society. This entails the development of a moral theological reflection and a pastoral action, capable of committing itself for the common good, which has its root in the proclamation of the Kerygma, which has a decisive word in the defense of life, of creation and brotherhood.

On this special occasion, I encourage the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and the Pontifical Alphonsian Academy, as its expression and center of high theological and apostolic formation, to engage in constructive dialogue with all entities from all cultures,[7] to find apostolic, moral and spiritual answers in favour of human frailty, knowing that dialogue is marturya.

May Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori and the Virgin Mary Help of Christians be always you travel companions.

Rome, Saint John Lateran, March 23, 2021



[1] Pius IX, Acta Sancta Sedis, Vol. VI, Typis Polyglottae Officinae S. C. De Propaganda Fidei, Rome, 1871, 38.

[2] A. de’Liguori, “Way to Speak Familiarly with God,” in “Ascetic Works,” Vol. I, CSSR, Rome, 1933, 316.

[3] Ibid., 221.

[4] Cf. John Paul II, “Spiritus Domini,” in Enchiridium Vaticanum, Vol. 10, Dehoniane Publishers, Bologna, 1989,p. 1420. [Cf. AAS79 (1987), pp. 1367-1368].

[5] Cf. Laudato Si’, n. 49

[6] Pope Francis, “Project courageous steps to respond better to the expectations of the People of God. Address of His Holiness Pope Francis “ in Studia Moralia, 57/1 (2019), 13-16.

[7] Querida Amazonia, n. 36.