An understanding of the village setting in eighteenth century southern Italy helps our understanding of the context in which St Alphonsus Liguori founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
In past centuries, the great majority of the Italian population lived in rural settlements. In village society, citizens were strongly attached to the land that provided their livelihood. The village was set out in small hamlets or groups of houses, often dominated by the dark mass of the baron’s castle, a symbol of the medieval feudal system.
At the upper end of society were the ‘big-end’ farmers who owned or leased large tracts of land which they cultivated and used to graze their animals. But the largest group were the ‘small-end’ farmers who owned meagre parcels of land and supplemented their income by working on the ‘big-end’ farms. The village also included skilled workers such as blacksmiths, carpenters, coach makers, cask makers and tailors.
Raising livestock was particularly important to those in the lower ranks of society. Every year, between the first and second weeks of October, the flocks, as many as 1.5 million head, were escorted from the mountainous areas to escape the winter freeze. These treks followed ancient tracks. Each evening the trek would come to a halt in a sheltered place where an enclosure was set up, before setting out again at daybreak. The journey could last two or three weeks. The return to the mountains took place in late spring. Shepherds oversaw these transfers of stock. In doing so they spent three quarters of the year away from home and were allowed just three days at home every two weeks.
Those who couldn’t make a living in the village moved to other places or tried their luck in the city. There were also a considerable number of unattached and marginalised people: widows, orphans, beggars and the destitute elderly.
Grain was the basis of a village family’s diet – barley, millet, maize and beans. They seldom used the wheat they grew because it was needed to pay rent to the baron or to pay taxes.
The village, with the parish church at its centre, was the place where the community gathered and met. Often working in collaboration, the village civil and religious authorities looked after the needs of the community: the school, the sick, the poor, the orphans.
Alphonsus, a learned man from the city, saw the injustice of the neglect and the poverty. Any remedy it seemed would be a daunting task. Alphonsus was a practical man and he knew the situation required practical action. He launched wholeheartedly into the task at hand, addressing the needs of those who were affected by poverty and neglect. “It doesn’t have to be like this”, he said.
What was interesting about Alphonsus’ approach was its personal quality – he connected personally with those who were marginalised on the one hand, and pleaded their cause on the other. He introduced them to a larger world filled with the abundance of God’s love and plentiful hope.
The work was too much for one person and Alphonsus realised it was a task that required dedication and staying power. So he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer for the sake of the shepherds and goatherds, the widows and the orphans, and all those struggling around the mountain ridges and the outskirts of the villages.
In the late eighteenth century, 70 per cent of the population of the south lived in communities of less than 8,000 people. When St Alphonsus directed the apostolate of the congregation outside the cities and major centres, he chose to work for the welfare of the majority of the population, most of whom were abandoned and poor.