The biographical notes about Saint Aloysius Gonzaga are as follows:
“Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591) was the eldest son of Ferdinand, Marquis of Castiglione. Coupled with his precocious piety, he also displayed the bellicose bubbling of his ancestral blood. The Marquis gave him a small armor, a helmet, a little sword and a small but real arquebus. He took him to the Casalmaggiore camp, where he was to review the troops he was leading to wage war against Tunis for the king of Spain.
Aloysius liked to be with the Spanish tercios—the most famous infantry troops then in existence—and imitate their martial step. However, he also repeated their jargon and sometimes the objectionable words of a few. These bad words caught his tutor’s ear, who told him that these expressions were not clean language. Although the five-year-old did not understand their meaning, he wept bitterly for this involuntary fault, which he always accused himself of being one of the most serious in his life. He said that his “conversion” began from that episode.
The author Daurignac recounts the incident:
“At the time of departure, having arrived in the army corps commanded by Don Ferrante de Gonzaga, father of St. Aloysius, Luís was sent to Castiglione. Don Francesco del Turco climbed into the young prince’s carriage. The gentlemen of the retinue accompanied him on horseback. When they got close to the open field, the governor said to his student, in the solemn and respectful tone in which he always spoke to him: “Monsignor, for several days I have had an important observation to make to your lordship. I waited until you had left Casals lest you’d repeat it.”
“What have I done, perchance?” asked the alarmed child.
“Here’s what you did. During your entire stay in Casals, your lordship lived in the countryside [as was the will of the prince his father]. But your lordship used objectionable words and expressions, which a prince of your blood must never allow himself to utter and even ignore, for that would be a cause of great sorrow to the princess your mother if she caught wind that they came from your lips.”
“But, dear friend [note that St. Aloysius was four years old], I have no idea what these words are. What did I say that was bad?” And the boy started to cry. The tutor then reminded his pupil of words the meaning and impropriety of which the innocent child had not understood.
“My good friend, that will never happen to me a second time,” replied St. Aloysius, heartbroken at his fault. “I promise always to keep this subject in mind.”
He was true to his promise. St. Aloysius Gonzaga never forgot his fault, the fruit of sheer ignorance. He deemed it the most regrettable thing he had ever done in his life and later confessed the remembrance of the episode deeply humiliated him.
Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira comments: I will summarize the incident to understand it better. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga had Spanish blood but was the son of a semi-sovereign prince of Italy. He was of the house of Castiglione, which had ties of kinship with the greatest sovereign houses of Europe, including the most important house of Austria. He was four years old and already placed in military settings.
This placement with soldiers may seem excessive, but it is a splendid thing. Children end up in a kind of perpetual childhood because they are placed in kindergartens from an early age. When you want a boy to mature, you do not put him in kindergarten but in a “man’s garden.” I have the impression that prolonged kindergarten softness plays a complicit role in the lack of structure and character found in current generations.
Maturing is proper to a child. The tendency today is to compress instead of expand a boy’s education. The boy is not placed in a higher stage, which would serve to accelerate his search for higher topics. The boy remains childish for a long time. He is then put in co-ed education. This combination risks producing a hybrid education, which produces a mentality that is neither adult nor childish, male nor female.
Accordingly, Saint Aloysius was not sent to kindergarten but an army camp. As you know, the language in military settings is not always as pure and elevated. The boy learned a few words peculiar to military jargon, which were not part of the language of the family home and had a vulgar sense.
Then comes his tutor. You see how a little prince traveled at that time. He went in a carriage with his tutor and had an entourage of gentlemen who accompanied him on horseback. His tutor spoke to him only after leaving the town where he had contracted this bad habit and waited until arriving in the middle of the countryside.
See the gravity his tutor attributed to the episode. Superficial minds will find his attitude exaggerated. He said that a prince of the blood should never learn such words and that a prince of his rank should not even know their meaning. Saint Aloysius asked which words were used and expressed extreme sorrow for using them.
Someone might say that his tutor was imprudent in rebuking the little prince. He did not know what he had said and thus had done no harm. On the contrary, the tutor revealed a profound vision of things. A word has such a nature that it does harm even when a person does not know what it means. For example, a person habitually utters blasphemous exclamations without reflection. Is it useless to correct him? Not at all. The words intrinsically have evil meanings, and the lips of a child of Our Lady must not sully themselves by uttering vulgar or obscene words.
Thus, we see Saint Aloysius’ humility. Humility is a consideration of the truth. The truth leads him to consider his sin so seriously that he calls it the most serious sin of his life. This consideration reveals his brilliant, we could almost say, blinding innocence and holiness.
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on February 9, 1966. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision.—Ed.