The eldest son of Don Ferrante Gonzaga and his wife, Marta Tana Santena, was born at castle Castiglione delle Stivieri in Lombardy. The Gonzagas (reputedly known for their brutality and immorality) were the ruling family in Mantua. Don Ferrante desired his son to be a military commander, so at age four little Luigi, as the saint was called, was sent to military school. He took part in military parades with a pike on his shoulder, and once fired off a real cannon, unauthorized. His piety was precocious, as at age seven, Luigi felt drawn to a religious life, and at nine took a vow of chastity, never looking at a woman—not even his mother—in the face again.
At the age of 11, Aloysius decided to renounce his inheritances in favor of his brother, even though Aloysius had already received investiture from the emperor. About this time Aloysius contracted kidney disease, which he welcomed as a way to stay in his room and pray. He also began practicing severe austerities: fasting every other day on bread and water, allowing no fire in his room no matter the temperature, and scourging himself. By age 12 Aloysius dreamed of being a Jesuit missionary, receiving his First Communion from St. Charles Borromeo and filling his summer days at Castiglione by teaching the catechism to poor local boys.
Aloysius continued his devotions and hardened his resolve to become a Jesuit. His mother approved his decision, but his father adamantly opposed it by any means possible: threats of beatings, tempting the boy with the pleasures of the northern Italian courts, and sending him on diplomatic missions all over Europe.
At age 16, Aloysius again pressed his case to become a religious and his father relented, prompting Aloysius to join the Jesuit novitiate house of Sant’ Andrea in Rome. The Jesuits curbed his austerities, ordering him to eat and take recreation, and sent him to Milan. While praying one morning, Aloysius received a vision telling him he had not long to live, a revelation that filled him with joy. In 1591, plague struck the city, and Aloysius begged to serve in the Jesuit hospital, tending patients and performing menial tasks. He caught the plague but miraculously recovered.
Aloysius contracted a fever that severely weakened him for three months. Unable to work, he would nevertheless arise at night and worship before his crucifix and kiss his sacred pictures, then kneel in prayer propped between his bed and wall. He asked his confessor, St. Robert Bellarmine (who was also his spiritual director who guided the youth to drop his somewhat naïve and priggish attitude to human relations), whether it was possible to go straight to heaven without passing through purgatory, and St. Robert replied that he believed someone like Aloysius could hope for such grace. Aloysius immediately fell into an ecstatic state and revealed that he would die on the octave of Corpus Christi.
When the octave arrived, Aloysius seemed so much improved that the rector talked of sending him on a trip, but Aloysius maintained he was dying and requested the viaticum in the evening. After receiving the last rites, Aloysius lay very still, occasionally saying, “into Thy hands,” and with Jesus’ name on his lips, Aloysius died at age 23. St. Robert Bellarmine testified that Aloysius had never committed a mortal sin and through his Jesuit service had developed total devotion to God and man.
“God is calling me to eternal rest; his voice from heaven invites me to the infinite bliss I have sought so languidly…” —St. Aloysius Gonzaga (from a letter to his mother, just prior to his death)