St. Alphonsus Liguori was born Alfonso Maria de’Liguori in Marianella, a town near Naples, Italy, in 1696. He was a brilliant student who, by the age of seventeen, had already earned two doctor’s degrees, one in civil law, the other in canon law, both at the University of Naples. He practiced law with much success for eight years until he lost a major case because of a serious blunder of his own, and he interpreted this as a sign from God to leave the legal profession and study for the priesthood.
Alphonsus threw himself into his theological studies and was ordained to the diocesan priesthood in 1726 at the age of 30. He spent the next three years canvassing the countryside preaching and hearing confessions, and he quickly gained a reputation for excellence in both.
Three years later he became the chaplain for a college that trained missionaries for China. There Alphonsus became friends with a senior colleague, Father Thomas Falcoia, who had spent a long while trying to found a religious order of nuns, but he had only been able to establish a single convent. Falcoia was made bishop of Castellamare. One of his nuns, Sister Celeste, claimed to have had a vision that confirmed Falcoia’s earlier vision regarding a new rule of life for their congregation. Bishop Falcoia asked Alphonsus to offer a retreat for the nuns and to investigate Sr. Celeste’s vision. Alphonsus found the vision to be authentic, and with a new rule and religious habits, a new religious order was founded, the Redemptorines.
With the religious order of women established, Bishop Falcoia asked Alphonsus to found a religious order of priests that would specialize in preaching and missionary work directed toward the poor in the rural areas around Naples. The new institute was established in 1732 and called the Congregation for the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists. The Congregation was officially approved by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749. Alphonsus did his best to guide the new community, but his efforts were hindered by the dissension among the members.
Meanwhile, Alphonsus continued to go from village to village preaching the gospel with a message that was understandable to all, especially common folk, children, and the elderly. He also was in high demand as a confessor because of his gentle style and wise advice.
At this point Alphonsus increasingly turned to spiritual writing, and he composed thirty-six separate works, some scholarly, others devotional. His first work was published in 1745 and his most famous work, Moral Theology, was published in 1748, which presented a reasonable middle ground between the morally stringent approach of Jansenism and laxity, an excessively lenient approach. His contributions led him to being named a Doctor of the Church.
After leading the Redemptorists since 1732, Alphonsus was named the bishop of Saint Agata dei Goti in 1762. His major initiatives were to reform the clergy and to serve the poor. He was afflicted with rheumatic fever, and because of ill health, he resigned in 1775 after having serving for thirteen years. He retired to Nocera dei Pagini in Campagna where he died in 1787.
Alphonsus was beatified in 1816, canonized a saint in 1839, pronounced a Doctor of the Church in 1871, and named the patron saint of confessors and moral theologians in 1950.