A friend of mine died 110 years ago on Holy Saturday, April 11, 1903. Separated as we are by time, distance and, alas, holiness, it may seem strange that I would claim her as my friend. But, during the last ten years, she has proven her love for me by praying for me. The reason I know this is because her prayer has incited a deeper, burning love in my heart for Jesus and His Passion and His Church. So I invite you to ask Gemma to intercede for you too on her feastday. She is our sister in Christ!
Life of St Gemma Galgani
Death of her mother
It was during these tender years that her mother fell a victim to tuberculosis. Her long lingering illness, endured with saintly resignation, was made more difficult by the thought that she must soon leave her children when they most needed her care. Gemma came to know that her mother was going to the heaven of which she had so often heard her speak, and her great wish was to go with her. Every day as she returned from school her first thought was to hurry to her mothers sickroom fearing that her mother might have taken flight in her absence. Meanwhile the day of her Confirmation came, May 26th, 1885, and with it the first of those heavenly communications which played such a large a part in her spiritual life. During the Mass of thanksgiving after the ceremony “all of a sudden,” she tells us, “ a voice in my heart said to me: “Will you give me your Mamma?
“Yes,” I answered, “if you will take me as well.”
“No,” the voice replied, “give me your Mamma without reserve. I will take you to heaven later.”
“I could only answer ‘Yes’ and when Mass was over I ran home.”
It was her first great sacrifice and it cost her bitter grief and tears; but when her mother died a few months later it was Gemma who consoled the others. Gemma was only eight years old.
“Why should we cry? Mamma is gone to heaven” she said.
Shortly after her mother’s death, Gemma was sent to the school of the Sisters of St. Zita in Lucca. Under the guidance and direction of the good Sisters she acquired a greater taste for prayer, and a tender devotion to the Passion of Our Lord on which she began to meditate daily. Her love for the Mother of God was always deep and intense, the more so as she had lost her earthly mother. “If God has taken away my mother,” she would often say, “He has left me His own.” And her frequent prayer was: “Holy Virgin, make me a Saint.” During this time she often said the whole fifteen decades of the Rosary on her knees in the evening after her return from school and she also began to use penances and to rise in the night to pray.
However, the devout life is often times a hard struggle. And the help she needed and desired most was as yet denied her. She had long expressed the wish to make her First Communion. “You are too young,” the parish priest had told her. “Give me Jesus,” she would say to the Confessor or the Sisters, “and you will see how good I shall be: I will not sin again, I shall be quite changed.” But the custom of the time was against Communion at so early an age, and she was ten years old before permission was finally granted, and only granted by special exception. “There is no alternative,” the confessor declared, “but to admit her to Communion or see her die of grief.” We can only imagine the angelic fervour with which she received her Lord for the first time on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, June 17th, 1887. “I feel a fire burning here,” she said to one of her fellow friends afterwards, pointing to her breast. “Do you feel like that?” She did not imagine that there was anything exceptional in her own experience. Her life afterwards was a constant growth in union with Jesus. “Gemma is good for nothing,” she would say, “but Gemma and Jesus can do all things.”
Gemma’s school life was brought to an end by a painful illness. An injury to her foot which she made light of resulted in a severe and painful infection and she was forced to remain bedridden for some months. An operation was necessary, but she refused an anaesthetic and with eyes fixed on the crucifix suffered the excruciating pain with little but a moan or two. The doctors were amazed and edified by her courage and endurance.
Her home duties and her pressing concern for others were in no sense an obstacle to the growth of her interior life. Rather the contrary: her busy life of active charity drew its inspiration from her life of prayer and union with God. When she was most occupied with external things she seemed to those around her wholly absorbed in God. “Her life was one continual prayer,” says a priest who knew her well, “and her prayerbook was the crucifix.” The thought of the sufferings of Christ never left her, and it was in those days, as she tells us, she “began to feel a growing desire to love Jesus Crucified with all her heart, and together with this a longing to help Him in His sufferings.” She was especially drawn and devoted to the Passion of our Lord. “O Jesus,” she prayed, “I wish to follow You whatever it may cost me of suffering—to follow You fervently . . . . I wish to suffer for You.”
God was not long in answering her prayer for it was at this time that she was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis (or possibly spinal meningitis). She had felt symptoms for awhile, but her pious repugnance to medical examination made her conceal it until she found herself bedridden. Her pitiful condition, and the patience and sweetness with which she suffered drew those who knew her to her bedside. One of these brought her the “Life of Venerable Gabriel Possenti“, who was known for his sanctity and miracles though not yet canonized at that time. Gemma at first took little interest in the Life but having once invoked Brother Gabriel’s name in a distressing temptation with instant effect, she then read the book several times and thus developed a special devotion to him. Not long afterwards he appeared to her amidst her grave illness, speaking words of consolation and encouragement.
In February, 1899, the doctors pronounced her case hopeless and she received the Last Sacraments. Her confessor since childhood, Monsignor Giovanni Volpi, auxiliary Bishop of Lucca and afterwards Bishop of Arezzo, visited her on Feb 19th and suggested she should make a novena to St Margaret Mary Alacoque for her recovery. Twice she began the novena, but forgot to continue it. What then followed may be best told in her own words:
“On the 23rd February I began it for the third time, or rather had meant to begin it for it was now within a few minutes of midnight, when I heard the clink of a rosary beads and felt a hand laid on my forehead. A voice said the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Gloria nine times in succession. I hardly answered I was so weak. Then the voice said: ‘Do you wish to be cured? Yes, you will be cured. Pray with faith to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I will come every evening till the end of the novena and we shall pray together to the Sacred Heart. “And what of Blessed Margaret Mary? I asked. “Repeat the Gloria three times in her honor.” It was the Passionist, St Gabriel Possenti who had appeared and encouraged her. “He came every evening and we recited the prayers together. The novena was to end on the first Friday of March. Early that morning I received Holy Communion. Oh, what happy moments I passed with Jesus. He, too, asked me, ‘Do you wish to be cured?‘ “My emotion was so great that I could not speak, but in my heart I answered, Whatever You will, O Jesus! . . . The grace was granted. I was cured. I rose from bed. Those in the house were crying for joy. I too was pleased, but not so much that I had been cured as that Jesus had chosen me for His child. For that morning before He left me He had said: ‘My child, the grace you have received this morning will be followed by many others still greater.’
Her first thought after her recovery was one she had long hoped for -that of entering a convent. Circumstances up to this point had made it impossible to realize, but now her way seemed clear. Several religious communities in Lucca would gladly have accepted her, and even encouraged her hopes. But ecclesiastical authority was slow to believe in the permanence of her sudden cure from such a dangerous disease and also her extraordinary mystical experiences were known to the local Bishop. So to her great sorrow Gemma found the convent doors regretfully but firmly barred against her.
Meanwhile her spiritual life continued to grow in intensity and fervour; her union with God became more intimate, and her soul began to be visited with divine communications of the most extraordinary and exalted kind. She had been accustomed even during her illness to make the Holy Hour in honour of the agony of Jesus in Gethsemani. In gratitude for her recovery she now promised the Sacred Heart of Jesus that she would recite the Holy Hour every Thursday night – a promise she kept for the remainder of her life. It was during this Holy Hour that Jesus began to pour into her soul those marvellous and extraordinary graces which made of her life a martyrdom of love. Her first experience on this Holy Thursday she thus described to her spiritual director-
“I spent the whole hour praying, and weeping for my sins. Feeling weak I sat down. The sorrow continued, but after a little I felt rapt in recollection. Shortly afterwards I suddenly lost the use of my senses. I tried to get up and lock the door of my room. Where was I? I found myself in the presence of Jesus Crucified, blood flowing from His wounds. The sight filled me with pain. I lowered my eyes and made the sign of the Cross: I felt great peace of mind, but still intense sorrow for my sins. I had not the courage to look at Jesus. I bent down with forehead to the ground and remained so for several hours . . . when I came to myself the wounds of Jesus were so impressed on my mind that they have never since left it.”
The vision filled Gemma with a new horror for sin and with an intense desire to suffer with Jesus and to become a victim for the salvation of souls. The desire was to be gratified in a way she little expected. One morning after Holy Communion she heard the voice of Jesus say to her, “Courage Gemma, I wait for you on Calvary where you are soon going.”
Gemma receives the Stigmata
The meaning of the words was soon made plain. A few days later, on Thursday, June 8th, the eve of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, when she began as usual to make the Holy Hour, she felt a piercing sorrow for her sins such as she had never experienced, and a peculiarly vivid sense of the sufferings of Jesus. Suddenly she was rapt in ecstasy and found herself in presence of her heavenly Mother and her Guardian Angel. The angel made her repeat an act of contrition, and Mary comforted her with the assurance that her sins were forgiven, and told her she was to receive a great grace through the love of Jesus. “Then”—they are Gemma’s own words-“She opened her mantle and covered me with it. At the same moment Jesus appeared with His wounds open: but instead of blood, flames as it were of fire seemed to issue from them. In an instant those flames touched my hands and feet and heart. I felt as if I were dying and should have fallen to the floor, had not my Mother supported me under her mantle. I remained in that position some hours. Then She kissed my forehead, the vision disappeared and I found myself on my knees alone: but I still felt intense pain in my hands, feet, and heart. I rose to go to bed, but I found that blood was flowing from the places where I had the pain. I covered them as well as I could and got into bed with the help of my Guardian Angel. Next morning I found it difficult to go to Holy Communion. I put on a pair of gloves to hide my hands. But I could scarcely stand, and felt every moment that I should die. Those pains continued until 3:00pm on Friday, the Feast of the Sacred Heart.”
For some time Gemma kept these extraordinary occurrences a secret even from her confessor : partly through her extreme humility and partly through the difficulty of explaining them in the confessional. A few weeks after they began, however, a mission was given by the Passionist Fathers in Lucca which Gemma attended. After the general Communion on the last day of the mission, she heard an interior voice which said: “You shall be a daughter of my Passion, and a favourite daughter: one of these shall be a father to you: go and make everything known to them.”
She found a prudent and sympathetic adviser in one of the missioners, who communicated with Mgr. Volpi, her confessor, with the result that the Passionist Father Germanus was ultimately appointed her spiritual director. Mgr. Volpi was perplexed and doubtful about the authenticity of Gemma’s extraordinary mystical experiences. The mission Father and those whom he consulted were equally at a loss. Father Germanus, a priest of large experience and of a dry and scientific turn of mind, was frankly sceptical when first consulted by Mgr. Volpi, and he intitally declined to have anything to do with Gemma, and advised him to make his penitent follow the common spiritual path. It was only after considerable pressure that he was induced to visit her. After a searching and thorough investigation, however, he came to recognize in her an elect soul, “a true Gem of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” and remained her spiritual director for the rest of her life.
After her death he wrote a first hand Biography of Gemma entitled “The Life of Saint Gemma Galgani”
Gemma moves into the Giannini home
At this time Gemma’s father died, leaving the family destitute, and she was then obligated to live with one of her Aunts. Gemma was 19 years old at that time. “It is good to hide the secret of the King.”, and one of Gemma’s chief anxieties was to keep secret of the great things God had done to her from the eyes of outsiders. It was soon evident that in her aunt’s house this was impossible. The younger members of the family were curious: not one was sympathetic: things began to be talked of outside, and much of what was said was not very kind. Gemma was frequently rapt in ecstasy even in the course of her daily occupations, and was thus at the mercy of those nearby who did not understand such extraordinary graces. She had to suffer much in consequence. At length, through the influence of the Passionist Fathers, she was received into the home of their benefactors the Giannini family; a well-known family in Lucca, first as an occasional guest, then finally as an adopted daughter. The household consisted of the father and mother with eleven children, and an aunt named Cecilia, who already knew and admired Gemma and was to become a adopted “mother” to her.
The overall quality and character of this family may be seen from a sentence or two of the father’s (Matteo Giannini) evidence in the Process for the Beatification of Gemma where, telling of her influence in his home, he speaks of “my five sons who are a great consolation to me. They go to Holy Communion every day and are much engaged in the field of Catholic Action. Of my daughters five are nuns, one has remained at home, and one is married.”
“At first when she came to us,” says her adopted “mother” Cecilia, “she used to crochet, but she preferred knitting or mending stockings, because I believe it permitted her to keep more recollected. It kept her busy, for she mended for the whole family. She was always ready to do whatever there was to do. She was never unoccupied.” A priest who lived with the family and saw her at her daily duties could not help admiring “her spirit of recollection and union with God. Even in the midst of the most distracting domestic occupations she always seemed as if absorbed in God and in continual meditation. But this did not hinder her from attending with great care to whatever she was doing.”
Another duty she especially coveted was the care of the sick. “She always looked after those who were ill in the house with the greatest care and attention, and in all things showing the greatest kindness and charity; and all this she did for the love of God.”
However, few indeed would have suspected from Gemma’s ordinary external life the sublime spiritual heights to which she was raised. Her simplicity and humility threw an effective veil over the secrets of her interior life. A priest, who frequently visited the Giannini family and knew her well, was unaware of her extraordinary holiness until her death revealed it. “Her modesty and simplicity,” he tells us, “made a most pleasing impression on me. And though I often came in contact with her I could not find in her the smallest imperfection . . . . Her words were few and in answer only to questions asked of her. I never heard her speak of herself. But while knowing well that she had a most delicate conscience and a beautiful soul, all intent on loving God, I should never have thought that she was so far advanced in sanctity.”
Father Germanus tells us that if there was a virtue characteristic of Gemma, it was her evangelical simplicity. It distinguished her from childhood and accompanied her all along her ascent to the summits of the supernatural life. She could not bear to think or speak to the detriment of anyone. “You would need a wrench,” a witness said in the Processes, “to draw a word from her regarding others, even when the information was necessary, if it had to be an unfavorable word.” She was frequently rapt in ecstasy during the day, but on returning to herself went on with her work apparently unconscious of any interruption. And after the long weekly ecstasy “she would rise as if nothing had happened, wash away the stains of the blood which had flowed so profusely, draw down her sleeves to cover the large scars on her hands, and believing that no one had noticed her, would return to the other members of the family and take her part in the work of the day.”
It was her simplicity that led her to think at first that her mystical experiences were common with all those who wish to love God. And when she realized that they were exceptional, she was haunted by the fear that she might be deceived or a deceiver. She had heard of such cases from those least qualified to deal with her. She had even heard a whisper of the ugly word, hysteria. And she would ask her director : “Am I to believe it is Jesus, or the devil, or my own imagination? I am ignorant, and I may be deceived. What would become of me if I were the victim of delusion? You know I do not wish these things. I only wish Jesus to be pleased with me.” Or again, “ Can it be that I am a deceiver ? If I am I shall lose my soul. I should like you to explain what a deceiver is, for I do not want to deceive anyone.” She found her only consolation in absolute obedience to her confessor and her spiritual director: “Oh, what consolation my heart finds in obedience! It fills me with a calm I cannot explain. Dear obedience! Source of all my peace.”
Gemma and the conversion of sinners
Gemma’s whole life indeed was one long uninterrupted sacrifice of the most heroic kind. To a worldly mind such a life of suffering may seem horrible and even tragic. There is one secret which fully explains it. From her earliest childhood the contemplation of Jesus Crucified filled her with a sense of her own sinfulness and a desire to atone for it, and then to be associated with Him in His sufferings and to share them in reparation for the sins of the world. To win souls for Jesus through prayer and suffering was the one passion of her life. Even as a child at school, her teacher says, “Gemma suffered because sin was committed. I remember that when she was quite a small child she grieved if any of her companions acted wrongly . . . . She prayed much, but especially for poor sinners, and offered for them such mortifications as a child can perform.” It was the feature of her life which the witnesses to her heroic sanctity repeatedly singled out as characteristic of her. Thus, some of the witnesses have stated: “She was especially attracted to pray for poor sinners.”…….“She was much afflicted by the thought of the sins committed in the world and she often offered herself to God on behalf of sinners.”……..“She would gladly have gone through the world . . . to work for the extension of Christ’s kingdom by converting pagans, heretics, and sinners.”……… “The sins of mankind and the insults these offences offered to Jesus were an acute and constant source of suffering to Gemma.” She was often heard in ecstasy pleading for sinners and even offering her life for them. “What do You wish, O Jesus? . . . My life? It is Yours . . . I have already offered it to Thee. Will You be pleased if I offer it again as a victim in expiation for my sins and those of all sinners? If I had a hundred lives I would give every one of them to You!”
And in her letters she frequently returns to the same thought: “What is sweeter than to be filled with the thought of Jesus and to kneel before that Divine Victim of love and sorrow…a Victim for my sins, for my salvation and for the salvation of souls?”…….. “I should willingly give every drop of my blood to please Him and to prevent sinners from offending Him.” ………“I shall be satisfied only when I am a victim—and may it be soon—to make reparation for my innumerable sins and for the sins of all the world.”
She did not confine herself to intercession for sinners in general, but almost constantly “carried on her shoulders,” as she would say, some obstinate sinner for whom she was asked to pray. And endless conversions were wrought by her prayers, from the dying man that refused to receive the Last Sacraments, who was converted by her prayers as a child at school, to the notorious sinner of Lucca whose conversion was announced to her the day before she died. Her sufferings were not meaningless, nor merely a personal discipline: they were the instrument of a great apostolate for the sanctification of souls, and especially for the conversion of sinners, that drew all its inspiration and all its virtue from her continual union with Jesus Crucified.
Desires to become a nun, but is denied
She had never lost her childhood’s desire of entering a convent. And from the time she first met the Passionists and heard of the Passionist Nuns, she felt that her place was with them. There was a convent of the Order at Corneto, Italy some two hundred miles from Lucca, and after asking advice she determined to go there for a course of spiritual exercises and ask admission. She met with a decided refusal, worded in no very genial terms, from a Reverend Mother who had heard about Gema’s illness and cure, and also the extraordinary graces that surrounded her life, and was therefore convinced that such a mystic (or possible hysteric?) would not be suitable for their contemplative Community. It was a bitter disappointment to Gemma, but she bore it bravely and patiently. Subsequent efforts were made in her behalf by her confessor Mgr. Volpi and her spiritual director Father Germanus, but without any effect. Gemma began as far as she could to lead the life of a Passionist Nun outside the cloister. She had already made a vow of chastity during her serious illness, and to this she now added with her Confessor’s approval the vows of poverty and obedience. She wore the Sign of the Passion on her heart underneath her clothing, and recited the Divine Office daily like the Passionist Nuns in choir. And she never lost the hope till near the end of her life of joining them, if not at Corneto, then elsewhere.
Her hope to become a Passionist nun was eventually realized after her death. In her first letter to Father Germanus, before she had yet met him, she predicted in minute detail the establishment of a convent of Passionist Nuns at Lucca. There was no thought of such a project at the time, but a year or two later it began to be talked of. Gemma was filled with enthusiasm and began to pray and to use all the influence in her power to hasten the coming of the nuns to Lucca. The difficulties in the way seemed at times insurmountable, but she was never disheartened. During the last year of her life it was her constant thought and the constant object of her prayers. She even searched Lucca more than once for a suitable site and interested herself in the material funds necessary for the foundation. She still had hopes of finding her vocation in the new convent. But towards the end she made the sacrifice even of these, if only the work on which she had set her heart might be accomplished: “I no longer ask to enter a convent . . . . Jesus has the habit of a Passionist Nun waiting for me at the gates of Heaven. Let me die so that the Passionist convent may be established.” She assured those who were losing heart that the foundation would be begun after her death and completed in the year of the Beatification of St Gabriel. Her words, contrary to all expectation, were verified by the events. Two years after Gemma’s death the first little group of Passionist Sisters came to Lucca, and though they met with many obstacles and disappointments a full community took possession of the new convent in 1908, just two months after St Gabriel was beatified. Pope Pius X, had already blessed the project, and, in words which would have brought joy to the heart of Gemma, assigned as the special object of the community that “of offering themselves as victims to Our Lord for the spiritual and temporal needs of the Church and of the Sovereign Pontiff.”
Today the Passionist convent in Lucca continues to flourish. Gemma’s body reposes near the altar in the little chapel and the nuns venerate her as their foundress and the patroness of their work. “The Passionist Nuns would not accept me,” she had said, “but for all that I wish to be one of them, and I shall be with them when I am dead.” So was Gemma’s wish fulfilled at last. “If for reasons independent of her will,” writes a companion of hers now a Carmelite nun, “Gemma never wore the Passionist habit, she was none the less a true Passionist. She was a Passionist in soul, and she had the spirit of the Passionists. The Order has made her its own. Her convent has been established for years and continues to flourish exceedingly.” The same thought was expressed by Benedict XV in the decree introducing the Cause of her Beatification: “The pious virgin, Gemma Galgani, if not by habit and profession, undoubtedly by desire and affection is rightly numbered among the religious children of St Paul of the Cross.” And Pius XI in proclaiming her heroic sanctity congratulated “the sons and daughters of St Paul of the Cross on the possession of this true gem of sanctity who would be an additional honor to their Congregation.” Gemma had once described herself as “wandering like a soul that had gone astray”: her long cherished vocation was at last realized and certainly not many vocations have cost such a painful sacrifice.
Gemma had offered herself to God as a victim in expiation of the sins of men, and her offering had been accepted. Up to this point she had shared in all the sufferings of Jesus except one—the last and greatest, the agony, sorrow and destitution of His last hours on the Cross. Terribly as she had to this point suffered in soul and body, her suffering had been in secret, and her life was more like Gethsemani than Calvary. After her miraculous cure her health had been perfectly normal, and no one would have suspected that the strong, healthy girl was enduring the tortures of a living martyrdom. But the moment came when her sufferings could no longer be hidden: it was the immolation of the victim.
At Pentecost, 1902, she was suddenly stricken with a mysterious illness which lasted, with one short interval, for the remaining nine months of her life. She could not taste any food, her body was torn with the most violent pains, and she was reduced to a skeleton. At first she managed to drag herself to church for Mass and Holy Communion, with the help of her adopted mother and friend Cecilia, but this consolation soon had to be abandoned due to her deteriorating health. Doctors were called in, but disagreed in their diagnosis and for the most part confessed themselves baffled by the mysterious nature of her disease. The pains which racked her body without ceasing were aggravated by furious assaults of the devil on her body and her soul, so horrendous and continuous that she imagined herself possessed and begged to be exorcized. Her heroic life, all the virtues she had practised, all the divine favors she had received, were now represented to her as an accumulation of hypocrisy and deceit. And during all those months of suffering no ray of divine consolation reached her heart. She continued to pray unceasingly, calling on Jesus and Mary to be with her in this hour of bitter dereliction, and outwardly preserved a serene and unruffled calmness. Of her bodily pains she never complained but once, when she murmured, “My Jesus, it is more than I can bear”: but when the Sister in attendance on her reminded her that with God’s grace it is possible to bear all things, she never used the words again. On the contrary when the Sister once asked her “If you had your choice which would it be: to go at once to heaven and cease to suffer or to remain here and suffer for the glory of God?” “Better to suffer,” she said, “than go to Heaven when the pain is for Jesus and His glory.” One of the religious nursing Sisters from the order of St Camillius who cared for Gemma during her last illness stated “We have cared for a good many sick people, but we have never seen anything like this!”
One last consolation remained to Gemma and of this she was soon to be deprived. Pitiable as was her condition she was at least in the midst of affectionate friends. Some of the doctors, however, were of opinion that her disease was tuberculosis, and Father Germanus was anxious that the children of the family should not be exposed to the danger of infection. It was decided to remove Gemma, much to the disappointment of the Giannini family, who offered strong opposition. Some months passed indeed before they could be induced to consent to it. At last a compromise was made and a room was rented across the street street from which communication could be held with the Gianninis’ home by means of a bell fixed to a cord stretched across an intervening courtyard. Here Gemma was removed on February 24th, 1903, making her last sacrifice with a calm resignation that astonished even those who knew her best. At this point she could very well say, “I have made a sacrifice of everything; nothing now remains for me but to prepare for death.”
Death was not far off. Some two months later, on Good Friday; she entered with outstretched arms into a prolonged ecstasy, nailed, as she said, with Jesus to the Cross. Those who saw her suffering throughout that day and the following night knew that the end was at hand. On Holy Saturday a priest was called and gave her Extreme Unction, and then Gemma was left to taste the full bitterness of the desolation of Jesus on Calvary. The end came peacefully when with a look of seraphic joy on her face she gave up her pure soul to God an hour after midday on Holy Saturday, April 11th, 1903. Her countenance was so beautiful and peaceful that those present found it difficult to convince themselves that she was actually dead.
The feast of St Gemma is April 11th (and also May 16th for those in the Passionist Congregation).