Why Gonzaga’s namesake saint is a perfect fit in 2021 men’s basketball season
Aloysius Gonzaga is the patron saint of youth. This makes him a suitable saint for March Madness every year, though never more so than the one now upon us.
Top-ranked Gonzaga University is likely to be the top overall seed in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament if, as expected, it wins the West Coast Conference tournament that began Thursday. What’s more, the 24-0 Zags have a chance to be the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.
All that would be enough by itself, of course, but Aloysius Gonzaga is also patron saint of the victims of plagues. He died of one himself, 430 years ago. He was just 23 — thus his twin associations with youth and with pandemics.
Gonzaga, the university, honors Gonzaga, the saint, with a statue at a parish church adjacent to the campus. Aloysius Gonzaga is depicted carrying a man diminished by disease, head resting on the saint’s shoulder. The sculpture commemorates Gonzaga’s time in plague-swept Rome in the late 16th century, when he would seek sufferers in the streets, carry them to hospitals, wash their wounds and nourish their souls.
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That is how he lived — and died. Aloysius contracted the contagion from those to whom he ministered. And in 1991, on the 400th anniversary of his death, Pope John Paul II declared him patron of AIDS sufferers and their caregivers.
In our time, Gonzaga’s namesake Jesuit university has come to connote excellence in men’s college basketball — so much so that some fans call their saint “Al-a-swish-us.” The school with a funny name from a mid-major conference has joined several perennial powerhouses from major conferences as programs synonymous with college basketball. Think Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, all of which find themselves unranked at a time when Gonzaga is No. 1 in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll.
Unlike those blue bloods, the Zags have yet to win a national championship, though they are tournament regulars. Last season they went 31-2 and were headed for a No. 1 seed when the tournament was canceled by COVID-19. They have won at least 30 games in each of the last four seasons, including 2017, when they lost to North Carolina 71-65 in the national championship game. The Zags have been so good for so long that you might say they now qualify as blue bloods themselves.
There is irony in this, because Gonzaga was himself born a blue blood — and rejected the privilege. Luigi Gonzaga (Aloysius is a Latinized form of Luigi) was born, in 1568, into one of the most powerful families of Renaissance Italy. (His birthday is March 9, so he got into this March Madness thing right from the start.)
His father was the marquis of Castiglione and his mother a lady-in-waiting to the wife of Philip II of Spain. Luigi grew up in royal courts and army camps — and, as the eldest son, was expected to inherit the title of marquis.
Luigi had other ideas. He lived a life of self-denial from the age of 7. At 17, he renounced his inheritance and left home for Rome, where he joined the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic order that some 300 years later would build a university named for him on the Spokane River in eastern Washington state. It opened with seven students in 1887 and now has more than 8,000 — including in a law school, a business school and a nursing school.
“We also have a pretty good basketball program,” Gonzaga notes on its website, with Jesuitical understatement.
James Martin, the Jesuit priest who is editor-at-large of America, the Jesuit magazine, once wrote that overly pious painters get Aloysius wrong by depicting him as a delicate youth gently grasping a delicate flower. Better to think of him as a rebel with a cause: He defied his domineering father, as well as the Jesuit fathers who at first asked him to stay away from the desperately dying.
“The Vocation of Saint Aloysius (Luigi) Gonzaga” is a painting by Guercino, who was born the year Aloysius died. The colossal piece, which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows Gonzaga at the moment he decides to enter the priesthood. His father’s castle looms in the distance. An angel hovers over him, ready to set a crown of grass upon his head. A forsaken crown of gold lies at his feet.
Today, as the NCAA Tournament approaches, the Zags appear poised to paint a masterpiece of their own. This tourney will be played entirely in Indiana, mostly in Indianapolis, with some games in Bloomington — home of the Hoosiers, those undefeated national champs of 45 years ago.
Hard to know what Aloysius Gonzaga would make of basketball, or of March Madness. But he would surely recognize the anguish of this epidemic. He died, in 1591, on June 21, which is now his feast day.
The NCAA Tournament is a movable feast that offers the Zags a chance to celebrate Aloysius Gonzaga anew. And if the ball bounces their way — holy Al-a-swish-us! — the saint who gave up a princely court could, at long last, be crowned king of the basketball court.