“It is better to be a child of God than king of the whole world!”
Saint Aloysius Gonzaga was born an Italian aristocrat and renounced all inheritance and wealth to become a member of the Society of Jesus.
Saint Gonzaga was born on March 9th, 1568 at his family's castle in Castiglione delle Stiviere , the Duchy of Mantua, part of Holy Roman Empire. He was the first born of seven children and a member of the very wealthy and well known Gonzaga family. His father, Ferrante de Gonzaga was the Marquis of Castiglione and his mother was a lady in waiting to Isabel, the wife of Philip II of Spain. As the oldest son it was assumed that Saint Gonzaga would inherit his father's title of Marquis and, as was custom of the time, he began training as a soldier from the earliest age. At the age of only four Saint Gonzaga was given a miniature gun for training and accompanied his father on several expeditions.
At eight his father sent him and his younger brother Rodolfo to serve under Grand Duke Franceso I de'Medici. This journey would be pivotal in his life. When the two brothers arrived at Florence, Saint Gonzaga fell ill with a kidney disease. To fill his time while bed ridden, Saint Gonzaga began to read stories of Catholic Saints and began to spend anytime outside reading in prayer. A year later, in 1579, the two brothers were sent to the Duke of Mantua. Saint Gonzaga hated his time here as he found the court and household full of violence and extravagant lifestyles.
Upon his return to Castiglione the next year Saint Gonzaga met Cardinal Charles Borromeo and received his first Holy Communion (on July 22nd, 1580). He filled in his time teaching catechism classes to young boys in the town and would often visit the houses of the Capuchin friars and the Barnabites. He borrowed a book on missionaries in India from the Cardinal and was instantly captivated - the seed to become a religious missionary was planted and was soon growing exponentially.
In 1581 the Holy Roman Empress Maria of Austria called the family in Spain to assist with the Infante Diego. After serving as a page for the Infante, Saint Gonzaga visited with a Jesuit confessor in Madrid and decided he was fully being called to the Jesuit order. His mother was welcoming and accepted his decision but his father was enraged at the thought and immediately prevented him from joining. The family returned to Italy in 1584. His father began to accept his son's decision but begged him to become a secular priest rather than a Jesuit. He went as far as trying to secure a Bishopric for him as he knew Saint Gonzaga would have to give up all rights to his inheritance and status in society should he become a Jesuit.
In November of 1585, Saint Gonzaga gave up all rights of inheritance and travelled to Rome to meet with Pope Sixtus V (he was granted an audience due to his nobility). In Rome he was accepted into the Society of Jesus (on November 25th of 1585). Now a novice, Saint Gonzaga continued to struggle with his kidney illnesses as well as chronic headaches and crippling insomnia. On November 25th, 1587, he took the three vows of chastity, poverty, obedience. He received his minor orders the following year and mediated a spat between the Duke of Mantua and his brother Rodolfo. In May of 1590 he returned to Rome and very late one night he experienced a miraculous vision in which Saint Gabriel the Archangel came to him and told him he would die within a year.
A terrible and nightmarish plague broke out among the people of Rome in 1591. In response to the plague the Jesuit order opened a hospital in the city and Saint Gonzaga volunteered heartily to help serve there. He began working with the sick immediately, washing and feeding plague victims and preparing them for sacraments. He worked hard to overcome the sights and smells of his work and worked alongside his spiritual director, Father Robert Bellarmine. So many of the Jesuits had fallen ill to the plague that the order soon began to ban members from serving in the hospital. Saint Gonzaga persisted in requesting permission and received it but would serve at a different hospital, the Our Lady of Consolation. This hospital was considered safer as only those with non contagious diseases were to be admitted. While helping a patient out of bed, he realized the man had indeed fallen ill with plague and it soon spread to Saint Gonzaga.
By March 3rd, 1591, Saint Gonzaga was bedridden from the illness. His fever grew worse over the next several weeks and was given Extreme Unction. He confessed to Saint Robert Bellarmine that he had experienced another vision from his bed - that he would die on the Octave of the Feast of Corpus Christi. On June 21st, 1591 he was given his last rites. Right before his death he changed his first name from Aloysius to Robert in honor of Saint Robert Bellarmine, his confessor and spiritual director.
Saint Gonzaga was buried in the Church of the Most Holy Annunciation (which would later be the church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola). His remains now rest in an urn of lapis lazuli in the Lancellotti chapel while his head resides in a basilica with his name in Castiglione dele Stiviere. Pope Paul V beatified him only fourteen years after his death on October 19th, 1605 and Pope Benedict XIII canonized him alongside Saint Stanislaus Kostka on December 31st, 1726. Three years later Pope Benedict XIII declared him to be the patron saint of young students. In 1926, Pope Pius XI followed this by declaring him the patron of all Christian youth. For his unfailing compassion and bravery in treating those with incurable diseases, Saint Gonzaga is the patron saint of both AIDS suffers and their caregivers.
Saint Gonzaga's feast day is celebrated on June 21st. Several institutions and buildings are named after him, most especially the Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington.