Thursday, November 4, 2010
The Vocation of a Brother
Alphonsus had come to the Society of Jesus by a circuitous route. Born in 1533, he was the second son of a prosperous cloth merchant in Segovia. When Peter Favre, one of the original Jesuits, visited the city to preach, the Rodríguez family provided hospitality to the Jesuit. Favre, in fact, prepared the young Alphonsus for his First Communion, an important rite of passage in the church.
At 12, Alphonsus was sent to the Jesuit college at Alcalá, but his father's death put an end to his studies: he was forced to return home to take over the family business. At 27, Alphonsus married. He and his wife Maria had three children, but, tragically, his wife and children all died, one after the other. Heavy taxes and expenses led Alphonsus to the brink of financial ruin; many biographers depict him as feeling like a failure in life. In desperation he called on the Jesuits for guidance. The lonely widower prayed for many years to understand God's desires for him.
Gradually Alphonsus found within himself the desire to become a Jesuit. At 35, he was deemed too old to begin the long training required for the priesthood and he was rejected for entrance. But his holiness was evident to the local provincial, who accepted Alphonsus into the novitiate as a brother two years later. The provincial is supposed to have said that if Alphonsus wasn’t qualified to become a brother or a priest, he could enter to become a saint. He stayed for only six months before being sent to the Jesuit school in Majorca, Spain in 1571, where he assumed the job of porter, or doorkeeper.
Each time he opened the door, as I had mentioned, Brother Alphonsus said to himself, "I'm coming, Lord!" The practice reminded him to treat each person with as much respect as if it were Jesus himself.
In 1605 Peter Claver, a 25-year-old Jesuit seminarian, met the humble, 72-year-old Alphonsus at the college. The two met almost daily for spiritual conversations, and in time Alphonsus would encouraged Peter to think about working overseas in "the missions.” The prospect thrilled Peter, who wrote to his provincial for permission, and was sent to Cartagena, in what is now Colombia, to work with the West African slaves who had been captured by traders and shipped to South America. For his tireless efforts to feed, counsel and comfort the slaves, who had endured horrifying conditions, Peter would earn the sobriquet el esclavo de los esclavos, the slave of the slaves.
Peter Claver, the great missionary, would be canonized for his heroic efforts. Alphonsus Rodríguez would be canonized for his own brand of heroism: a lifelong humility.