History’s Greatest Chumps: St. Aloysius Gonzaga

31 May 2013

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga’s birth name was Luigi, but despite this, he did not assist his shorter, fatter brother in rescuing kidnapped princesses, consuming dangerous quantities of shrooms and beating the shit out of turtles. If he had been anything like that green-garbed, ghost-hunting Italian stereotype, he would be great, and therefore could not possibly be featured in this column. But Aloysius Gonzaga was a chump. Here’s why.

The House of Gonzaga ruled the Duchy of Mantua in northern Italy from 1328 until the early 18th Century. Aloysius’ father, Ferrante, was a condottiero, or professional mercenary. His grandfather was a condottiero. Even when his great-grandfather became a condottiero, it was a family tradition going back at least four generations. So when he was born in 1568, the first of seven children, the pressure was really on little Luigi to join the family trade of killing people for dosh.

But Aloysius had other plans. “Fuck that shit, man,” he said, “I’m not gonna be a mercenary just ‘cause every single male in my family has been one for literally hundreds of years! I’m an individual! I’m gonna be a priest!”

Yep. Aloysius Gonzaga’s youthful rebellion manifested itself in a burning desire to convert heathens and to pretend not to have a dick. In fact, he felt this latter aspect so keenly that at the tender age of nine he swore a ‘vow of perpetual virginity’. Some say he took to wearing jeans and runners exclusively from that moment onward, ensuring this vow would never broken. It is also said that he always kept his eyes downcast whenever he was in the company of women, to ensure he was never tempted by their womanly womanliness.

Now, I don’t want to get all “Yay, sex and violence! Those are the only important things!” on you guys, because that would be ridiculous. But when we look back to history for entertainment (as opposed to moral enlightenment), we don’t always want to know about people who were quiet and nice. We want to know about the ladies and laddies who buckled swash and cracked wise, who bedded attractive people and wielded improbably large weapons. The badasses. And Aloysius Gonzaga was the diametric opposite of a badass.

Aloysius was frequently ill. He was baptised as soon as he was born, as it was feared he would not survive long outside the womb. At age eight, he contracted a kidney disease. Most biographies claim that this left him bedridden for extended periods and thus prevented him from having a social life, but I think that that was probably just because he rocked junners and couldn’t talk to girls. While infirm, he devoured book after book about the lives of saints. He was particularly moved by some texts about early Jesuit missionaries, who heroically went to India and thumped brown people over the head with big, heavy Bibles.

Aloysius got better, or at least, better enough to travel to the courts of Francesco de’ Medici in Florence the following year and of Philip II in Spain when he was thirteen. Though he received perhaps the finest education available in Europe at that time, courtly life confronted Aloysius’ sensibilities, with its deception, fornication and general lack of the gravity and zeal that made him who he was. By the time he turned eleven, Aloysius was teaching catechism to poor children in his hometown, fasting three days a week and practicing other ‘austerities’. This was at a time when even Popes gave jobs to their illegitimate children and had their rivals assassinated.

In 1585, after several years of arguments with his Luigi, Ferrante Gonzaga finally acknowledged that his son had come out and accepted him for what he was… a Jesuit. Aloysius travelled alone to Rome and he was soon accepted into the Jesuit novitiate. Before long, senior Jesuits actually asked him to reign in his asceticism and socialise more with his fellow novices- in essence, to lighten up a bit. So yes, Aloysius Gonzaga was too pious for a bunch of 16th Century priests.

Aloysius was desperate to travel to the East, but he was, inevitably, sick. Not only was his kidney trouble endlessly recurring, but he had issues with his skin and chronic headaches. Even his physiology was chumpy. He spent most of the next few years studying philosophy and theology, excelling but frustrated.

In 1591, a plague swept Rome. Hospitals were set up by the Jesuits, and although his colleagues knew how frail he was, they reluctantly allowed Aloysius to work in one.

Aloysius caught the plague. After months of struggle, he gave up and died on the 21st of June, aged 23.

Tradition holds that his last word was “Jesus”, as in, “Jesus, I wish I hadn’t been such a chump all my life.”
He was made a saint in 1726 and is now venerated by Catholics all over the world as a patron saint of plague victims and young people, all because he was really good at getting sick and really bad at getting laid.

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