St. Gemma Galgani
To prepare for the coming Holy Year, missions were held throughout Italy in 1899. In the city of Lucca several Passionists preached the mission at the cathedral of St. Martin. A young woman named Gemma Galgani, went to the cathedral for the mission. To her surprise she saw the missionaries wearing the same religious habit the Passionist youth Gabriel Possenti was wearing when he appeared to her. From that day on she did not miss one mission service. Finally she got up enough courage to talk to one of the missionaries, Father Cajetan. This was the first time she spoke to a Passionist. Hers is an important part of the Passionist story. It begins near Lucca some twenty years before the Holy Year mission.
Gemma was born on March 12, 1878, in Camigliano, near Lucca. She was the fourth child in a family of eight and was an intelligent, friendly child, cheerful and well liked. She was eight when her mother died of tuberculosis, a disease that was very common at that time. When Gemma was about seventeen, her brother Eugene who was studying for the priesthood, got tuberculosis. He had to leave the seminary and return home. Gemma nursed him day and night until he died in 1894. Her father was a pharmacist and had been prosperous but these deaths, and a prolonged sickness of others in the family took all his money. Soon the family was reduced to poverty. The situation got worse when her father got cancer of the throat. Gemma nursed him tenderly until his death in 1897.
So, before Gemma was twenty, when most young people enjoyed a happy, carefree social life with their friends, she experienced the sorrow of seeing both her parents and brother die. Because she was a very kind and sensitive person she suffered very much when they were in pain, particularly when she was unable to relieve their suffering. When they died she experienced great loneliness.
Gemma did not enjoy good health. When she was fifteen she developed a disease of the foot and had to undergo very painful surgery without an anaesthetic. A few years later she had severe problems with her spine. She had to have a very heavy iron brace day and night that left only her arms free. She did not feel sorry for herself, but tried to be cheerful and concerned for those who nursed her.
She experienced a prolonged, serious sickness all through the following winter 1899. The family moved to Lucca. She developed a curvature of the spine. Also, meningitis set in and left her with temporarily loss of hearing. Large abscesses formed on her head, her hair fell off, and finally her limbs became paralyzed. A doctor was called in and tried many remedies which all failed. She only grew worse. There was no hope of recovery.
A Sister who attended to her needs knew of Gabriel Possenti, the young Passionist, and she gave Gemma a novena card and the life of Gabriel which she read. Gemma began to pray and began a devotion to Gabriel Possenti.. She later wrote regarding Gabriel: “… I grew in admiration of his virtues and his ways. My devotion to him increased. At night I did not sleep without having his picture under my pillow, and after that I began to see him near me. I don’t know how to explain this, but I felt his presence. At all times and in every action Brother Gabriel came to mind.”
One day Gabriel appeared to her, called her his sister, and told her she would wear the same habit he did. He informed her that she would be cured, and that a special grace was being prepared for her. On March 2 1899 she experienced her cure. Then on June 8, 1899, the evening before the Feast of the Sacred Heart, while she was praying the Holy Hour with Jesus in his sufferings, she experienced the deepest love for him.
Her own words say . “All of a sudden I felt a piercing sorrow for my sins, grief, love, fear, hope encouragement…I found myself in the presence of my dear heavenly Mother…She opened her mantle and covered me with it. At that moment Jesus appeared with all his wounds open; but from those wounds there no longer came forth blood but flames of fire. In an instant those flames came to touch my hands, my feet and my heart….then I found myself kneeling; but I still felt great pain in my hands, feet and heart. I rose to go to bed and became aware that blood was flowing from those parts where I felt pain. Those pains did not leave me until three o’clock on Friday – the Feast of the Sacred Heart.”
It was in these circumstances that Gemma made the Holy Year mission at the cathedral and spoke to Father Cajetan. He listened to her story and allowed her to take private vows. He also arranged for her to live with the Gianini family, benefactors of the Passionists. Cecilia Gianini took Gemma to church even when the stigmata were present (usually on Thursday evenings to Friday at 3.00pm). Through Father Cajetan she met the provincial, Father Peter Paul Moreschini (later a bishop), and finally Father Germano Ruoppolo.
who at the time of his meeting Gemma, he was the postulator general working on the cause for the beatification of St. Gabriel. He was also known as a careful archeological excavator, having worked on the catacombs at the retreat of S. Eutizio near Soriano and then on the Roman ruins under the church of Sts. John and Paul.
He was well-acquainted with mystical theology and spiritual writers. Later on he wrote the biography of Gemma. It has been recognized everywhere as a masterful presentation of mysticism and mystical experiences. Gemma had been going to Bishop Volpi for confession and direction. When Gemma received the stigmata the bishop was not too sure how to counsel her. Father Germano was now able to assure him and Gemma of the authenticity of her graces, even the extraordinary ones.
At times the Bishop and Germano differed, even rather seriously, on the direction of Gemma. Germano, when discussing matters with the Bishop, would insist on the correctness of his own judgments, but when counseling Gemma, he would advise her to obey the bishop, In February, 1902 Germano told Gemma to pray to be freed of the external signs of the stigmata. Gemma did pray and she no longer bore the external markings.
Gabriel continued to tell her that she would become a Passionist Nun. In February of 1902 Cecilia Gianini was invited to make a retreat with the nuns, but she was explicitly told not to bring Gemma! Mother Victoria was adamant. That Gemma not only did not become a Passionist, she was not allowed even to visit the convent at Traquinia.
Gemma died, on Holy Saturday, April 11, 1903. After her death she was clothed in a religious habit, and the Passionists Sign which she had so much desired to wear was place over her heart. Pope Benedict XV said of her “If not by habit and profession, undoubtedly by desire and affection, Gemma is rightly numbered among the religious children of St. Paul of the Cross”.
After her death Father Germano obtained a letter from Pope Pius X, authorizing the foundation of the convent. This was the permission to found; now he needed the financial means to realize it! When all was finally settled two nuns, Mothers Josepha Armellini, and Gabriel Cozzi, left Tarquinia in 1905 to found the convent at Lucca. A year later in 1906 Euphemia Gianini entered, taking the name Gemma Magdalena. Others soon entered and the community began to grow. Sister Gemma Magdalena Gianini later left the convent to form a new community called the Sisters of St. Gemma.
In 1923, Gemma’s body was transferred to the shrine at the Passionist Convent in Lucca. Her spiritual father, Germano Ruoppolo is also buried there. On 2nd May 1940, Pius XII declared her life to be one of heroic virtue and proclaimed her a saint. are buried in the chapel of the new convent at Lucca.
Gemma Galgani was a spiritual daughter of St. Paul of the Cross. She has a message for every Passionist. Her life reveals the most fundamental reality of the Passionist charism, being “on the Cross with Jesus” . The Original Rule calls Passionists “to suffer many things, to be mocked, despised, and to bear willingly afflictions and vexations”
Paul of the Cross left the Passionists with a profound mystical spirituality of the Passion. He himself lived this Passion mysticism throughout his life. He asked those who would follow him, both men and women, to “desire only to be on the Cross with Jesus.”
To be called to be a Passionist is a calling “to suffer many things,” like the suffering servant of Isaiah, like Paul of the Cross who endured a dark night for over forty years, like Jesus himself who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for the people. God gave to the Passionist family an outstanding model of this Passion mysticism in the person of Gemma Galgani. In fact she is an extraordinary and almost unique model, one marked with the very wounds of Christ in her body. Her life repeats the frequent advice of St. Paul of the Cross: “put on the wounds of Christ.”
What is even more amazing is that this young woman of twenty-five years was not a Passionist – at least in the canonical sense. She was not allowed even to visit the convent at Tarquinia nor to make a retreat there. During the final years of the nineteenth century, many Passionists were concerned about external fidelity to the written rule of the founder. God raised up this young woman who was not a canonical Passionist, to show the charism of St.Paul demands an inner conformity to the Passion.
Wounded as Jesus was, Gemma also reminds Passionists how they are called to keep the “memory of the Passion, Memoria Passionis” before the people of God. In word and preaching, but also in example and suffering, the Passionist must proclaim the memory of the Passion.
The original rule states, Passionists are called “to suffer many things,” not only for the glory of God and for their own salvation, but also “for the salvation of others.” These “many things” also include sufferings missionaries experience in their apostolic ministries, even martyrdom. The present Constitution, formulated at the Renewal Chapter of 1968 and 1970 after the Council, states succinctly this mission of the Passionist: “We seek the unity of our lives and our apostolate in the Passion of Jesus.”
Finally, we must remember that Gemma remained a lay person “in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life” (Church #32). Even though she wanted to enter the convent, she was not a religious. In this condition as a lay person she was called to the fullness of Christian holiness. “Under the influence of the Holy Spirit” to use the words of the Council, she undertook to practice the evangelical counsels “privately…to produce in the world a shining witness and model of holiness” (Church #39).
St. Gemma Galgani is needed in our times to be this witness and model. For “it is evident to everyone,” the Council concludes, “that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (#40).
All powerful God,
you made Saint Gemma Galgani
a living image of your crucified Son.
Through her prayers,
may we suffer with Christ
and so share in his glory,
for he lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever. Amen