San Luigi Gonzaga

Birth of San Luigi Gonzaga

On 24 June 1566, Ferrante Gonzaga, Prince of the Empire and Marquis of Castiglione, concluded a marriage agreement with the lady-in-waiting of Queen Isabella of Valois, Marta Tana di Santena di Chieri, daughter of Baron Baldassarre and Anna della Rovere, cousin of Cardinal Gerolamo, Bishop of Turin.  The marriage, witnessed by the King and Queen of Spain, was the first celebrated according to the canons of the Council of Trent. 
On 9 March 1568, Louis, the eldest son, was born. The birth was not easy. The Marquis recommended that at least the life of the mother and the soul of the creature be saved. With nothing more the doctors could do, Marta vowed to go to the Holy House of Loreto with her son, if he survived. Having made the vow, the birth was completed without any more danger. The midwife, at the insistence of the marquis, baptised him. A few days later, the marquis informed the Duke of Mantua, head of the Gonzaga household, of his son's name: 'I thank Your Holiness for the contentment you show in hearing of the son given to me by Our Lord and then that I am the son of Aloisio and he will be called Aluigi if he lives'. 

The Baptismal Act of San Luigi Gonzaga

On 20 April 1568, the joy of the birth was renewed for the celebration of the solemn baptism. The ceremony was held in the parish church of Saints Nazario and Celso. Officiating was the archpriest Don Giovan Battista Pastorio, who wrote in the baptism book (in Latin), next to Aluigi's name: 'May he be happy and live forever, dear to God, thrice excellent and supreme, and to men'.  Godparents at the baptism were Guglielmo, Duke of Mantua and Ippolita Maggi, wife of Alfonso Gonzaga, Marquis of Castelgofredo and brother of Ferrante. Unable to attend, Guglielmo had himself represented by Prospero Gonzaga, his and Ferrante's cousin. "I send His Excellency Prospero Gonzaga to Your Holiness, who will be the bearer of this letter, so that he may keep in my name at the sacred fountain the son born to him, to whom I pray God to give a long and happy life, and to me the opportunity to be able to work for his benefit and comfort, as I am very ready to do also for Your Excellency and for his wife". 

Photocopy of the baptismal certificate of San Luigi Gonzaga

Episode of the possessed

Of the convent of Santa Maria, built on a probable Etruscan source and certainly on the remains of a Roman villa, only one wing remains today. (side). People made their way in large numbers to the convent of St Mary. On that day, a very pious old friar, to whom the power of exorcising was attributed, had returned to the convent. That afternoon, in fact, he was to exorcise a poor obsessive, who had been filling the town with terror and screams for some time. 
Among the people walking by were rowdy boys, tired old men and pensive mothers. Also arriving was a carriage, with the imperial eagle in the Gonzaga coat of arms, pulled by fiery horses. Inside were little Luigi and Rodolfo with their tutor, Pier Francesco del Turco.  The church was full of people. Luigi and Rodolfo were led to the golden chairs of the tribune, among the notables. The old friar began the exorcisms. In front of the possessed, he ordered the evil spirit to leave the body. The possessed emitted angry shrieks and cries, rolled on the stones of the floor cursing against the power that forced him to leave the body. Suddenly, rising to his feet and turning towards the tribune, he pointed his finger at Louis, shouting: "See him there!" "See him then! He shall go to Heaven, and great glory shall be yours!" Saying this, the obsessed man fell again to the floor, and the demon finally let the young man go free. 

Youth of San Luigi Gonzaga

In early 1573, Philip II had ordered Ferrante, giving him the rank of colonel, to train 3,000 infantrymen for the enterprise of Tunis. With his men ready to fight, he was to go to Messina to submit to the orders of Don John of Austria, winner of the Battle of Lepanto.
Perhaps to spend a little more time with his eldest son, but also to accustom him to his future role as marquis and man-at-arms, Ferrante took Luigi, who was then only five years old, with him. The little one soon learnt to handle small weapons as if they were toys.

Luigi showed aptitude for military life and weapons. One day, while firing his small arquebus, he burnt his face. One particularly hot and sultry afternoon, while the troops and officers slept, Luigi decided to put his skills as a gunner to the test. He took some gunpowder from the soldiers' flasks, and with this he loaded, albeit with difficulty, a culverin. The recoil of the shot almost overwhelmed Luigi. 
Suddenly the fortress came alive. Ferrante became alarmed, fearing a riot or a surprise attack. To his astonishment, he discovered his son still standing by the cannon that was about to crush him. At this point the father's pride turned to anger. Since Louis was considered an officer in his own right, he decided to punish him. But thanks to the intercession of soldiers and officers, the punishment was never carried out.

In Florence

Towards the end of 1577, Ferrante, after a period spent in Monferrato, decided to go to the Bagni di Lucca, in the hope that the thermal waters there would alleviate the pain caused by gout, a disease from which he often suffered. The trip became an opportunity to accompany his sons Luigi and Rodolfo to the Medici court in Florence. With the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco de Medici, Ferrante had been page and waiter, in Madrid, to Philip II. A friendship had thus been born that was maintained even when he returned to Italy. Also on the advice of their mother, an expert connoisseur of the courts, the children were lodged in a private house, not far from the Pitti Palace. Louis stayed in Florence for two years, from September 1577 to November 1579. This period was spent between court engagements, playing with the Grand Duke's daughters, studying and visiting the sights of the city.

Louis often wrote home. His letters already showed the maturity of one who had to get used to politics and government. The tutor Pier Francesco del Turco, a native of Fiesole, willingly accompanied the two boys on a visit to 'his' city and could not fail to notice Luigi's preference for stopping at churches. In those places, the peace and silence allowed him to pray and meditate. Since it was up to Luigi to choose the religious itinerary, two churches in particular were preferred by him: the Santissima Annunziata and San Giovannino.

The church of the Santissima Annunziata guarded a painting that tradition says was finished by an angel (the face of the Madonna).  This church was very much on Luigi's mind because his ancestor, Ludovico II Marquis of Mantua, had donated 2,000 ducats for the construction of the apse. As he contemplated the holy face, Louis thought back to the many gifts that nobles and non-nobles alike had made to the face painting in all ages. He, on the other hand, possessed neither gold nor silver, but already had a way to go, he had a 'treasure' of his own to offer, the same that had been delivered by Mary. One morning then, in the silence of the church, he made a vow to the Virgin of "perpetual chastity".

First Communion of San Luigi Gonzaga

After their time in Florence and seven months at the court of Mantua, Luigi and Rodolfo returned to Castiglione. Luigi appeared slim and wasted. In Mantua he had contracted a kidney disease: cystitis or calculi. Among the treatments prescribed by the doctors was fasting. Luigi followed it scrupulously and, once cured, took the opportunity to continue it as a form of penance. In Castiglione Luigi from May to September 1580, he increased his detachment from the world to devote himself more to oral and mental prayer.

He spent hours locked in his room; the servants often saw him with his arms raised or crossed on his chest, his eyes closed or fixed on the crucifix, perfectly still, unaware of their presence. Word spread about his strange isolation in prayer, and Louis became an object of great curiosity and wonder. People even went so far as to look for, or make, cracks in the door to be able to see him. Sometimes, to the castle guests themselves, the servants would show the young prince completely immersed in God, and they were amazed.

Some understood, others mocked such behaviour. This love for God and neighbour also shone through in his way of life: he showed courtesy, self-mastery and charity towards everyone. He did not give orders, he asked with kindness; if he happened to witness quarrels or hear blasphemies or angry words, he would gently admonish or rebuke.

This period of maturation in his life of faith in God culminated in July, during St Charles Borromeo's pastoral visit to the parish of Castiglione, which was then part of the diocese of Brescia. The cardinal had been appointed Apostolic Visitor by Gregory XIII. The visit became a festive occasion: the clergy prepared solemn welcomes, the people attended the services in large numbers. The Gonzaga family asked to host the cardinal in their palace, but the latter, true to his style of poverty, preferred to accept the archpriest's hospitality. 

St Charles must have already been informed of the little marquis' particular lifestyle. When the meeting took place, the conversation soon turned to the truths of the faith and spiritual topics. Louis was thus able to confide to the prelate his difficulties and doubts about his own lifestyle and how to interpret God's will. 
St Charles, knowing that Louis had not yet received his First Communion, decided to give it to him himself. Thus one of the most desired moments came to Louis almost by a miracle: on 22nd July 1580, in the church of Saints Nazario and Celso. 
Louis received the body of Christ from the holy cardinal for the first time, to the great joy of himself and all those present.

In casale Monferrato

The following year, towards the end of September 1580, Duke William of Mantua wanted Luigi and Rodolfo, who had returned to Castiglione in the meantime, with him to Casale in addition to Ferrante. Luigi risked losing his life on this journey because the carriage he was travelling in broke in two when he reached the middle of the stream. The front half, where Rodolfo was sitting, dragged by the horses to the other bank. The other half, where Luigi and the tutor Pier Francesco del Turco were, remained at the mercy of the current. A providential tree trunk prevented the carriage from capsizing and being swept away. Two local men rushed over, caught up with the two 'castaways' and, charging them on horseback, carried them to safety. News of the accident reached Ferrante who, anxious, decided to send servants to bring help. 
Finally, the whole healthy family regained serenity. For amusements, tournaments and popular festivals, Louis tried to avoid them as much as possible. His studies and poor health were an excellent excuse. Often, with the complicity of his mother or those accompanying him, after being present at the beginning of the evening, he would leave, only to reappear when he returned to the palace. During this period he was able to frequent two convents: the Barnabites and the Capuchins. From these frequentations came the decision to enter 'some religion in which, in addition to the vow made of virginity, he could also observe that of obedience and evangelical poverty'. 

Maria d'Asburgo

At that time, a great and courageous noblewoman decided to travel from her court in Prague to that in Madrid. She was Mary of Habsburg, Daughter of Charles V, Widow of Emperor Maximilian II, Mother of the future Emperor Rudolf II, Sister and Mother-in-law of King Philip II of Spain and, just to keep all the contacts, Mother-in-law of King Charles IX of France. The entire nobility of imperial right was invited to join the retinue of such a great personage, even the Gonzaga. Ferrante accepted the invitation, careful as he was to take every opportunity to introduce his sons to the Spanish court.

The cortege reached Padua on 26 September 1581. From that city, through Vicenza, Verona, Brescia and Pavia it reached Genoa on 16 October. During the various stages, the Empress was able to appreciate the maturity and seriousness of the young Prince Louis. The procession arrived in Madrid in early March 1582. Here they were appointed as pages of Don Diego, son of Philip II and heir to the Spanish throne. 
In Madrid, Louis continued his studies.

In Madrid

Every day, Louis also performed the task of court page attached to the prince Don Diego. Being in the service of such a future powerful personage did not prevent Louis from being true to himself. One episode remains indicative: to the wind that was ruffling his hair, don Diego ordered: 'Wind, I command you to stop! Luigi's reply was prompt: ‘Your Highness may well command men to obey you, but the wind obeys God, whom your Highness must also obey. ’
Unthinkable, at that time, to take back the heir to the throne of the most powerful kingdom. This 'injection' of humility was reported to the king, who was pleased. Accustomed to always being served and pleased in everything, don Diego could develop delusions of omnipotence. An occasional zinger did no harm. 
Another episode showed Luigi's great capabilities. A nobleman of the court was to be entrusted with the task of bidding farewell, with a composition, to Philip II, on his return from Portugal where he had been crowned king. Louis was chosen to carry out this task. On 29 March 1583, he composed and recited the welcoming speech in Latin. 

Santa Maria

Santa Maria

In Spain, Louis made the final decision to enter a religious order, and he chose that of the Jesuits, for two main reasons: the recent constitution of the order and the prohibition of receiving offices of any kind. To his father who asked him to join another order, so that he could at least become a bishop, the son replied: "If I wanted honours, I would keep the marquisate, I would certainly not leave the certain for the uncertain". 
From Madrid onwards, a fierce 'fight' began between the father, who did not want to give consent, and the son. Ferrante resorted to every expedient to make his son recede from the decision. In order to avoid a scandal, Ferrante promised that he would give his consent once he arrived in Italy. On 22nd July 1584, the Gonzagas returned to Castiglione, but instead of the long-awaited consent, Luigi was asked to travel to the Gonzaga's friendly courts to meet and greet them before entering religion.

Santa Maria

Louis always appeared in the various courts dressed in a black habit, without ornaments, like a religious. Rodolfo, on the other hand, followed him wearing splendid robes. Returning from the 'farewell voyage', Louis hoped his father would finally give his approval. But Ferrante had no intention of doing so. Instead of assent, Ferrante studied new stratagems to procrastinate the decision and sought new allies. Infirm from the usual attack of gout, Ferrante pondered the future of the marquisate. Whichever way he looked at it, that future seemed to have only one name: Louis. The marquis then summoned his son and asked him what his intentions were for the future. The answer was obvious, his thought 'was and always had been to serve God in the religion already mentioned' (Jesuits). 
At this answer, in a very angry tone, Ferrante ordered Louis to 'get out of the way'. Almost automatically, Louis left the castle and headed for a place dear to him since childhood: the convent of St. Mary. For a few days, having his bed and belongings brought to him, Luigi prayed, wept, fasted and shared the life of those cloistered friars, until he was called back by his father. 

In Milan

An unforeseen event interrupted the 'fight' between Louis and his father. The marquis had urgent business to attend to in Milan, but was prevented from doing so by his gout. He therefore decided to entrust his son with the task. The stay in Milan that was supposed to last a few days lasted eight months, from the end of 1584 to 1585. During this time, Louis had a lot of free time at his disposal, which allowed him to attend courses at the Jesuitical college of Brera. As he had already studied logic in Spain, he perfected physics in Milan. Attending the college also became a test for his intellectual and adaptive abilities. In fact, Luigi had to integrate himself with a school group that was already organised from previous courses, united and compact. He also became better acquainted with the Jesuit order, which he had attended on only a few occasions in his later years. The future religious was so attracted to the order that on holidays, when there was no school, he still wanted to attend the Jesuit college. 

In Milan

Finally in Rome

Having obtained the paternal consent to enter the Society of Jesus, after the renouncement ceremony, held in the presence of all the relatives in the palace of San Sebastiano in Mantua, lunch was scheduled. Luigi had left the room; he returned there, when everyone was already at table, dressed in the black Jesuit cassock. As if only then they became aware of what had happened, the relatives all fell silent, even those who previously had not failed to turn ironic smiles and sharp jokes to the young relative; who, on his part, appeared serene and jovial as they had never seen him before. It was November 2, 1585; after a few months he would have turned 18. Luigi also renounced a large income that his father wanted to be reserved for him.
Two days later he left for Rome to begin his novitiate period. To one who said to him: "Mr. Rodolfo your brother will have felt great joy in succeeding your state," he replied: "Never as much as mine in giving it up!"

On November 25, 1585, on the feast of Saint Caterina, Luigi began his novitiate, the period of religious formation lasting two years, necessary to verify the solidity of his vocation. He stripped off his rich trousseau. with which he had arrived in Rome, also manifesting his intention to abolish all privileges for himself and lead a life equal, in everything, to that of the other religious. He awaited his studies with renewed commitment, in which he was ahead of his classmates. He especially he devoted himself to a practice that he had not yet exercised: active service in favor of others. At the end of the novitiate period, on November 25, 1587, he took the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

World expert

The years of study also occupied Luigi for family problems. He had been in Rome for just a few months, when his father suddenly died. He did not return to him on that occasion, but he did know an affectionate letter of consolation to his mother. This event leads to the succession of his brother Rodolfo, who soon revealed how well founded were Don Ferrante's concerns about him. Too young for that office, of an impetuous nature and unable to measure the consequences of his actions, the new marquis did not accept advice, sowing painful pain for his mother and dangers for the state.
Luigi, with his interventions, showed how much experience he had accumulated in the world and how he knew how to skillfully use it. He once again showed a maturity higher than that of the chronological age.
After numerous trips between Rome and Castiglione, having removed the scandals caused by his brother, Luigi was able to accept an invitation that had previously seemed inappropriate to him: his mother had asked him to give a sermon in church. The sermon was held in the oratory of the Disciplini, next to the parish church, and had the Eucharist as its theme. It had such an effect that priests and friars spent the whole night confessing and the following morning more than seven hundred men and women communicated.

It was the Quinquagesima Sunday of 1590. In those days Luigi turned twenty-two in Castiglione. Three days later he left; he would never return home.

The plague in Rome and death

Luigi after a period of study in Milan, he left for Rome, finding it much changed. The winter of 1590-91 was particularly difficult for the people of Lazio. To the shortage of food is added the crowding of farmers, who went down to the city hoping to be able to access the supplies that I thought might be accumulated there. Finally, the terrible scourge called plague appeared: the very contagious exanthematous typhus. The Jesuits, like other religious, did their utmost to help the plague victims. They needed food, medicine and clothing. Upon learning that Giovanni De Medici, already his playmate when he was in Florence, was in Rome, Luigi came to him to ask him for alms for the poor. He entered the palace, with his cassock patched up and the saddlebag over his shoulders. John was struck by this and the alms far exceeded expectations. He had also written to his mother and brother to ask for help for the poor.
Although the superiors, because of his poor health, wanted to exempt him from serving the sick, he insistently asked to be able to serve at the hospital of the Consolation, near the Capitol. On the morning of March 3, 1951, while he was on his way to the hospital, he saw a plague victim lying on the ground complaining. Although he knew that he was contagious, with difficulty he loaded him on his shoulders, took him to the hospital, washed him, medicated him and assisted him until evening. When the brothers came to relieve him, he returned to the boarding school and went to bed, with a high fever and signs of the plague.

A week later, he had turned 23, it seemed in the extreme he was given Viaticum and the Anointing of the Sick. But on the evening of that day the violent fever subsided. The weeks passed without a complaint, with a serenity that edified the visitors. On June 10 he found the strength to dictate a letter to his mother, in which he recommended not to cry. According to the words of Saint Paul, he wrote, charity makes those who cry and rejoice with those who rejoice. She, therefore, must have felt great joy for the grace that God gave him to lead him to endless joy.

Between two and three in the morning of June 21st, while he was struggling to hold a lighted candle in his hands and contemplating the crucifix, his lips stopped invoking the name of Jesus.