Born into a comfortable merchant family in Segovia, he quit school after his father's death to learn and run the family business. He married at 27. By 35 he was widowed, had buried his three children, and lost the family business. A complete failure.
He asked to enter the Society of Jesus when he was 37 but was rejected because of poor health and poor education. That did not stop him. He spent the next two years crouched at a grammar school desk learning the Latin and Greek he needed to enter the Society. He entered as a brother novice. He rejoiced and said, "I will never again follow my own will for the rest of my life." Would that all religious--including this one--could say that and truly mean it the way Rodriguez did.
He was made porter at a Jesuit college on Majorca spending the next 46 years in this unseen, grueling, and humble occupation. As one biographer noted, "He greeted everyone who came to the door with a smile; treating each one as if "God Himself" were standing there." When he died his diaries revealed that he was a man of deep prayer and mystical experiences.
Students at the college, of course, knew what a powerhouse Alphonsus was. They regularly sought him out for spiritual direction and advice. One of those seeking his counsel was a confused Jesuit scholastic who wanted to do great things for God but didn't know how. Rodriguez advised him to go to the New World. That scholastic, Peter Claver, labored for 39 years in Cartegena, Colombia ministering to Africans brought to the port on slave ships. Rodriguez and Claver, one who spent almost a half century answering the college door, and the other who labored half a world away, were canonized in the same ceremony in 1888.
Rodriguez died bedridden at age 85 with dementia so severe he could not remember any prayers. Except one. As death approached he gazed at the crucifix he held in his hand and with his last breath he murmured the only prayer he could remember: Jesus.
Poorly educated. A disaster with finances. A lowly porter for 46 years. Demented at the end. An obscure failure.
And a saint.
Rodriguez was memorialized in a poem by the renown English Jesuit poet (and convert from Anglicanism) Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
In honour of
St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
Laybrother of the Society of Jesus
Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.
The photo was one of those chance moments. It was taken through the window in the door of a Catholic Church somewhere in Chang-hwa, Taiwan. Ignatius and I were traveling to Sun Moon Lake. We stopped so he could rest (the driver). Ran into the priest. He took us into the church. And then served us coffee. He was Vietnamese. Over the coffee (Vienamese coffee is great but adds hair too your toe nails) the three of us discovered that Ignatius and I had gone to theology school with two Vietnamese Jesuits who were schoolmates of his in Viet Nam. Small world, isn't it?
+Fr Jack, SJ, MD