VATICAN CITY (CNS) — St. Alphonsus Liguori, proclaimed a doctor of the church 150 years ago primarily because of his contributions to moral theology, knew how important it was to offer people concrete help in drawing closer to God rather than simply quoting doctrine to them, Pope Francis said.

“Alphonsus’ theological proposal stems from listening to and welcoming the fragility of the most spiritually abandoned men and women. The holy doctor, trained in a rigorous moral mentality, converted to ‘benignity’ by listening to the reality” of the people to whom he ministered, the pope wrote to the superior general of the Redemptorists.

Pope Francis’ message March 23 to Canadian Redemptorist Father Michael Brehl, superior of the order founded by St. Alphonsus, marked the anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s recognition of the saint as a doctor of the church.

The Italian saint’s “missionary experience on the existential peripheries of his time, his search for those who were far off and listening to their confessions, his founding and guiding the new Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and then his responsibility as bishop of a particular church led him to become a father and master of mercy,” the pope wrote.

The saint knew that every authentic form of pastoral activity flows from and back to an encounter with God, the pope said. “It is born of listening to life and is nourished by theological reflection that is able to take on people’s questions in order to indicate viable paths.”

“Following the example of Alphonsus,” he said, “I invite moral theologians, missionaries and confessors to enter into a living relationship with the members of God’s people and to look at life from their perspective in order to understand the real difficulties they encounter and to help heal their wounds.”

“Faithful to the Gospel, Christian moral teaching, which the church is called to proclaim, deepen and teach, must always be a response ‘to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others,'” the pope said, quoting from his 2013 exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Moral theology, he said, cannot be only about principles and formulations, but must respond to the reality of the person in need, “because knowledge of theoretical principles alone, as St. Alphonsus himself reminds us, is not enough to accompany and sustain consciences in discerning the good to be done.”

In the confessional, in counseling and in preaching, he said, “it is always necessary to find a way that does not alienate, but brings hearts closer to God, just as Alphonsus did with his spiritual and moral teaching.”