Dear Members of the Fordham Community,
Peace of Christ.
During my visits to the University Church, I have found myself irresistibly drawn to pray before a stained glass window in the east transept. I can and do stand before it for long periods of time, frequently with tears in my eyes. Understand that I have passed and looked at that window hundreds of times in the course of the twenty-three years that I have been at Fordham. And I have never had a particularly emotional reaction to it. In fact, if the truth were told, I would have to confess that my eyes–dry or otherwise–were never really drawn to it. At all. Of course, if you asked me, I could have told you who was depicted in the window. If you asked me if there was anything else interesting about it, I would probably have told you that the artist who created the window had cleverly inserted a Rembrandt Christ into the background. But I was never drawn to it. I was never drawn into it. Never. I’d walk past it without emotion. But not now. As I said, these days I can’t get away from it. It draws me in with great force. And it speaks to me.
You might ask what could possibly move me to tears before that window. Good question. Bear with me. The window captures a very innocent moment, the moment at which St. Aloysius Gonzaga received his First Communion from St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan (and a great saint in his own right). Innocent enough. But there is a story behind the young man in the window. Aloysius Gonzaga. Gonzaga. If people hear that name these days, they would most probably tell you that it brings to mind the famously successful basketball program at the Jesuit university in Spokane that bears that name. Nothing more. But there is far more to the man in the window than his connection to that perennially strong basketball team from Washington State.
Aloysius was the eldest son of the Marquis of Castiglione. Therefore, to say that he was a child of privilege would be an understatement. A vast understatement. A budding princeling, Aloysius spent his early life among the courtiers of the noble houses of Renaissance Italy (those hotbeds of ambition, corruption, intrigue and power), with a few side trips to the Hapsburg courts of Spain and Austria. Although he was destined to inherit his father’s title and live a life of privilege, his head was not turned by what he saw in those settings. Far from it. In fact, he was deeply troubled by the venality and corruption he encountered in them and decided at an early age to enter the newly-founded Society of Jesus. His father was furious. Aloysius stood his ground. He renounced his titles and his inheritance and left behind him the life his father wanted for him.
After he entered the Jesuits, he pursued his studies at the Roman College, where St. Robert Bellarmine was his spiritual director. When a plague broke out in Rome, like many of his young Jesuit confreres, he worked in the city’s hospitals, ministering to its victims. When his superiors (for fear of incurring his father’s wrath) forbade him to continue his work, he pleaded with them to allow him to continue. They relented, but with a catch. They told him that he could only work in a hospital that did not serve contagious patients. He accepted the assignment on the spot. In the course of his service, however, he cared for a patient who had, in fact, been infected with the plague and was himself infected. He died shortly thereafter.
His brethren recognized his holiness. They recognized his heroism. They recognized his goodness. They were also astounded by the magnitude of the sacrifices he had made: giving up the life of a courtier to live a life of simplicity, and giving up his life to serve the suffering. (His old spiritual director, Robert Bellarmine, a saint, a scholar, and a cardinal, was so impressed by Aloysius that he asked to be buried at his feet.) Throughout his life and in the manner of his death, then, Aloysius was a “sign of contradiction” (or a living oxymoron): he was a humble noble. Or was he all the more fascinating because he redefined nobility in terms of service? I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.
For myself, when I go to the University Church these days, I am drawn to St. Al’s window. I stand there transfixed. And these words from the Book of Sirach ring in my ears and rumble through my heart: “Let us now praise famous men and women . . . those who gave counsel by their understanding, leaders in their deliberations and learning, wise in their instruction. And … the men and women of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten. Their posterity will continue forever, and their glory will not be blotted out. People will declare their wisdom and the congregation will proclaim their praise.”
And then I think immediately of the St. Al’s in our midst. I think of the men and women on the front lines in the titanic battle with COVID-19 in which the whole world is caught up. I think of the doctors, nurses, EMS workers and counsellors. I think of the parents who have put their lives on hold to watch over their children. I think of the people who labor to keep the nation and the world running. And I am rendered speechless. Absolutely speechless. I find myself inspired just thinking about them. And grateful. Speechless, inspired and grateful. All at once.
Of course, I suspect that I am not alone. I suspect that, like me, you too recognize their goodness, their heroism, and their holiness. Indeed, I suspect that, like me, you recognize their saintliness. And, I suspect that, like myself, you are ennobled by seeing and knowing them, and deeply grateful that they have, through their work shown us the holy nobility that comes from service, especially service of the poor and the most vulnerable.
And so, my dear friends, I wonder if you would mind if I asked a favor of you: could you look at the faces of these latter-day St. Al’s as their stories are told not in the artistry of stained glass, but on the television news reports that we all watch with rapt attention every day. Look at them intently. As you peer into their eyes, pray for them. Pray for them. And, because this would both please them and affirm the nobility of what they are doing, pray also for those whom they are serving so selflessly during this time of trial.
Be assured of my prayers for you and all whom you love as I stand before St. Al’s window and contemplate the epitaph frequently used to summarize his life and the call that we have all received: Natus ad Altiora, “Born for Higher Things.” For we have all been called to Higher Things. Like noble service.
Prayers and blessings,
Joseph M McShane, S.J.
A Prayer in the Midst of the Present Crisis
God of all mercies, grant:
To the Fordham family, safety and good health:
To those afflicted with COVID-19, swift healing;
To the frightened, courage;
To the dying, comfort;
To the dead, eternal life;
To health-care providers, strength and stamina;
To our leaders, wisdom and compassion;
To our nation, unity of purpose;
To the Church, the grace to serve the suffering selflessly;
To all believers, strong faith in Your presence;
To the whole human family, unity of heart; and
To us, your servants, the reward of knowing that we are doing Your will when we spend ourselves in loving service of others.