J. M. J. A.
SOME PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS.
Objections have been raised against some of the examples employed by St.
Alphonsus in his edition of the GLORIES OF MARY. The following
observations will therefore not seem amiss.
The examples quoted by our Saint are taken from various
sources: some are from post mediaeval writers, some from his own
experience, and others from the legends of the middle ages. The word
"legend" meant at that time, not fable or fictitious narrative, but event
or occurrence; things to be read, "res legendae" as the Latin
The nature of these narratives bears witness to the simplicity
and sincerity of the times in which they were written. May we not say
that sincerity and simplicity were equally characteristic of St. Alphonsus
and his Neapolitan people. In that spirit only can they be rightly
understood and appreciated.
To quote the Saint's own words: "When an opinion tends in any
way to the honor of the most Blessed Virgin, when it has some foundation,
and is not repugnant to the faith, nor to the decrees of the Church, nor
to truth, the refusal to hold it, or to oppose it because the reverse may
be true, shows little devotion to the Mother of God. Of the number of
such as these I do not choose to be, nor do I wish my reader to be so, but
rather of the number of those who fully and firmly believe all that can
without error be believed of the greatness of Mary, according to the Abbot
Rupert, who, amongst the acts of homage most pleasing to this good Mother,
places that of firmly believing all the redounds to her honor. If there
was nothing else to take away our fear of exceeding in the praises of
Mary, St. Augustine should suffice; for he declares that whatever we may
say in praise of Mary is little in comparison with that which she
deserves, on account of her dignity of Mother of God; and, moreover, the
Church says, in the Mass appointed for her festivals, 'Thou art happy, O
sacred Virgin Mary, and most worthy of all praise.'"
During the ages of which we speak the people were noted for a
childlike confidence in God joined to an intimate whole-souled love for
Christ and His Blessed Mother. Little wonder then that God's goodness
should manifest itself in exceptional favors bestowed on these fervent
souls. The accounts of extraordinary graces were readily accepted and put
to good purpose in sermons and public discourses. Without doubt many of
the stories have a foundation in fact. Others contain merely an
historical kernel that must needs be viewed in its proper setting. Other
stories again were handed down from generation to generation and served to
embody important truths. Some writer or preacher of distinction may have
narrated a story as an allegory or parable such as our Lord Himself
employed. The same was repeated by others, embellished and passed on from
one to another.
The fundamental idea of all these stories was practically the
same. Their object was to depict in graphic coloring the mercy of the
Mother of God, and the power of her intercession for the repentant
sinner. They serve to bring home perhaps more forcibly than a long
doctrinal discourse could do, the mediation of Christ's Blessed Mother,
the truth universally accepted, that all God's graces come to us through
the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mother.
It would be far from the truth to say that people of the
middle ages were influenced merely by sentiment and were only too eager to
give credence to the seemingly miraculous. Men like Vincent of Beauvais,
James de Voragine, noted for their profound investigations and scientific
experiments, could hardly be accused of childish credulity, and yet they
employed the narrative of which we speak. Caesarius of Heisterbach was
the object of much unmerited abuse, but he is acknowledged even by
Protestant authorities as holding a place in the front rank of the world's
historians. Cfr. Dialogue Miraculorum.
There were in those days, as in ours, falsifications,
forgeries, exaggerations and historical errors. But would it be just, on
that account to demolish everything at one fell swoop as the skeptic is
prone to do? A story may not be based on historical fact, but it may
nevertheless serve a worthy purpose. Often we discover in such narratives
a mine of information which throws light on the history, culture and
religious life of the times. Cr. "Analecta Bollandiana" and "Studien zu
den mittelaterlichen Marienlegenden" by Mussafia.
The authorities referred to by St. Alphonsus when quoting his
various narratives were looked upon in their day, as approved and reliable
sources of information. "A critical examination of all he quotes from
others would often have been very difficult, and at times impossible,"
says Cardinal Capecelatro. He wrote for the benefit of the people of his
day, and his large experience in directing consciences guided him in
selecting matter that would appeal to his reading public. Were he writing
for the people of today, no doubt he would omit some of the stories he
narrates. The same may be said of St. Augustine, and St. Ambrose, and St.
Bernard and St. Francis de Sales. (Vie de St. Alph., tr. By le Monnier.)
With this in mind therefore, a number of the original stories have been
omitted, and others also quoted by St. Alphonsus put in their place.
These substitutions are designated by an asterisk. After a rigorous
examination of all the writings of our saint, the Sacred Congregation of
Rites declared that "nothing in them was deserving of censure." In the
Bull of Canonization we find these words: "The faithful may read his works
without any harm whatsoever."
THE STYLE OF
A few words as to the style the saint employs. In the Introduction to
the GLORIES OF MARY we find these words of the holy author: "I have tried
to gather together within a brief compass from all the writers at my
disposal, the most beautiful and most significant sayings of the Fathers
and theologians of the church." These few words gave rise to the opinion
in the minds of some that the work was little more than a compilation of
choice quotations. Of this opinion the distinguished writer Romano has
the following to say: "Far from being a mere compilation, the book
resembles a work in mosaic executed by a clever artist; or to use another
simile, it is like a work done in enamel, adorned with sparkling jewels so
arranged as to exhibit a beautiful harmony of light and shade and color.
Such an achievement reveals the skill of the master who planned the work
and executed it with consummate skill. The numberless passages culled
with remarkable diligence and prodigious labor are fused in the heart of
the holy author as in a crucible aglow with the fire of love for the
Blessed Mother. Alphonsus lives in his work, proclaiming until the end of
times, in accordance with his vow, the glories, and prerogatives of his
beloved queen. Not only are the outline of the work and the arrangement
of matter to be attributed to St. Alphonsus, but his thoughts,
considerations and affections are so interwoven with the text as to impart
to the whole his spirit and his life.
Listen to the words of the celebrated Jesuit Lehmkuhl: "His
[St. Alphonsus] humble disregard of self appears in almost every line of
his writings. We are almost tempted to believe that the Saint purposely
tried, by his unassuming style, to keep his remarkable talents and
extraordinary knowledge in the background. But this very artifice only
discloses to the observant reader his keenness of intellect and his
acuteness of judgment. From his ascetical writings there breathes a
sacred unction that irresistibly draws the reader to God and His holy
love." Stimmen aus Maria-Laach 1887 II. P. 359.
The illustrious Cardinal Dechamps says: "St. Alphonsus is a
holy and learned theologian, and the faithful echo of Tradition for our
modern times. His great learning coupled with a prodigious store of
useful information render him eminently suited for such a task. He shows
an astonishing familiarity with Sacred Scripture and the writings of the
Fathers and Doctors of the Church. His very language is redolent of the
unction so characteristic of the sources whence his quotations are drawn,
and withal it is simple and childlike. Witness the words he addresses to
the Virgin Mother. It is the language of the heart, and no one
misunderstands that." Cf. L'Infaillibilite etc. C. 8.
Let us conclude these observations with the words of the
celebrated Alibrandi quoted in the Acts of Conferring the Doctorate: "St.
Alphonsus has given us an excellent work and perfect from every point of
view. It is worthy of a man of his great intellectual gifts and profound
knowledge. Not only does it serve to promote piety among the faithful,
but it provides ample material for theologians and preachers of the Word
of God. A cursory reading may convey the impression that it is just an
ordinary book. But an attentive study of the contents will reveal a
veritable mine of ecclesiastical lore and Marian theology. Often a single
sentence or a prayer will exemplify a doctrine that other theologians use
a lengthy discourse to explain. The manna of Sacred Scripture seemed to
have the property of adapting itself to the taste of him who ate it. The
same seems to be true of the GLORIES OF MARY. It satisfies the needs and
the taste of the most diverse readers.
When the grave of Alphonsus was opened at Nocera, three
fingers of his right hand were taken and sent to Rome. This was the wish
of Pope Pius VII, who said: "Let those three fingers that have written so
well for the honor of God, of the Blessed Virgin and of religion, be
carefully preserved and sent to Rome."