Sometimes, it’s good to get a fresh perspective. When we’ve seen the same thing, the same way, over and over again, it can get stale and lose its impact on us. I’ve heard priests say that the best-known passages from Sacred Scripture are the most difficult ones about which to preach for precisely this reason. People immediately tune out, because they’ve heard them so many times before. Oh, this one again? I know what that’s all about.
This year, if you’re having a little trouble appreciating Our Lord’s Passion, for whatever reason, you might want to try viewing it through the eyes of St. Gemma Galgani, a young Italian mystic, stigmatist, and victim soul from the late 19th Century, who is known as The Daughter of the Passion. Indeed, she had no trouble appreciating Our Lord’s Passion. Gemma had an intense desire to suffer along with Jesus to the point of living out His Passion through her life. Let’s take a look at some of the events of her short life to see how they might give us a fresh perspective on these events as we approach Holy Week.
Confirmation and Loss of Her Mother
At just seven years old, Gemma was preparing for confirmation. Her mother, who had appreciated her spiritual gifts from a very young age, had taken on the role of spiritual director as much as mother, and had instilled in Gemma a love of the crucified Christ. However, mama was gravely ill. She had been wasting away for years from tuberculosis and spoke often of going to Heaven. Accordingly, little Gemma wanted to go, too.
In prayer following her confirmation, Gemma had her first visit from Jesus. This was just one of many visits she would have throughout her life, from Jesus, Mary, other saints, and her guardian angel. On this occasion, Jesus asked Gemma if she would give Him her mother. She replied yes, but only if Jesus would take both of them. This, however, wasn’t the plan. Jesus asked her to give up her mother without reservation, and told Gemma that He would take her to Heaven later. She assented, and Gemma’s mother died months after her confirmation, in September of 1886 at age 39.
That was Gemma’s Gethsemane moment, Not my will but Your will be done. This abandonment of self was characteristic of Gemma throughout her life.
Death of Her Father and Subsequent Poverty
Slowly, in the years following the death of her mother, the stability of Gemma’s upper middle class family unraveled. Gemma\’s father was a very charitable man, simple and incapable of deceiving anyone. His main fault was that he could not believe that anyone would deceive him. At the time of his death from throat cancer in November of 1897, when Gemma was 19 years old, the family was in financial ruin.
Upon learning of the Galgani family patriarch’s death, his creditors arranged with the authorities to send police and bailiffs to close his shop and seize all his furniture. But they didn’t stop there. They went so far as to search the children\’s pockets, making them hand over every last penny. The family was homeless and reduced to absolute poverty. Gemma accepted these latest misfortunes with the resignation characteristic only of a soul with a supernatural detachment from worldly comforts.
The lack of justice and due process was striking, like Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin. Gemma, like Jesus, mounted no defense, instead choosing to accept it as part of God’s plan.
Illness and Miraculous Cure
Gemma was eventually taken in by an aunt and uncle who lived some distance away, and thus separated from the rest of her family. They lavished every possible care on her in an effort to help her forget her sorrows, returning Gemma to her affluent upbringing. During this time, Gemma even received several marriage proposals, each of which she summarily rejected. Gemma already had given her life to her Crucified Savior, and her desires were simply not those of earth. She longed for the poverty of her own home where she would be free of such trappings. Gemma began to beg God for an excuse to return home, even at the cost of her health. Soon after, she began to fall ill, and her aunt and uncle grudgingly allowed her to return home.
Gemma’s condition worsened to the point of deafness, paralysis, and unimaginable pain. All, including her doctors, had given up hope she would survive. One of her visitors left her a copy of the biography of Passionist monk Venerable Gabriel Possenti. Gemma developed a devotion to him, and he began to visit her during her ecstasies. Gabriel prayed with her a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Following the final novena prayer, she received the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion. Jesus, along with Our Blessed Mother, came to her and said, “I shall always be with you, my daughter. I am thy father; she will be your mother.… Although I have taken away from you every support and consolation on earth, nothing will ever be wanting to you.” In that moment, Gemma was cured with the knowledge that more graces awaited her.
How much might this remind one of the Scourging at the Pillar and Crowning with Thorns? Like Jesus, Gemma had been brought to death’s door, but her life had been spared, albeit temporarily. This was simply a foretaste of what was to come.
Gemma had begun to long for religious life, where she could devote herself entirely to Jesus. Her spiritual director even arranged for a trial period at the nearby Visitation Convent. The sisters, however, eventually refused her, owing to her recent history of poor health. Now what? Gemma began to be consumed by a burning fire to suffer for Jesus. She took up the practice of mortification in the form a knotted rope around her waist under her clothes. When this was discovered, Gemma instead tormented herself with a hair shirt and other instruments of penance.
One the vigil of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, June 8, 1899, Our Blessed Mother and the crucified Christ came to Gemma in an ecstasy. Instead of blood, fire poured forth from Our Savior’s wounds. As Mary held Gemma under her mantle, the flames touched Gemma’s hands, feet, and heart. When Gemma awoke from her ecstasy, she felt intense pain in precisely those areas and realized that blood was flowing from them. By the following afternoon, the wounds closed. Sustained by a guardian angel and other caretakers, for about two years Gemma would continue to experience the Wounds of Christ weekly from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon, a time period coinciding precisely with Jesus’s suffering and death. On some occasions, she also received the wounds of the Scourging at the Pillar and Crowning with Thorns. On others, she would sweat drops of blood.
Gemma’s wounds were deep and numerous, and they oozed more blood than it seemed her body could hold. This was Gemma’s Way of the Cross; the long, slow, painful, suffering march to her final act.
Torment, Death, and Final Victory
Gemma’s life was drawing to a close. Her whole existence of 25 years had been marked by a most intense desire to belong entirely to Jesus and to live for Him alone. Gemma fell ill for one final time, but she would have to endure more than the sufferings caused by her sickness. During her last days, the Devil attacked her violently. Throughout her life, Gemma had a profound concern for the salvation of souls. She had the gift discernment of spirits and often prayed intensely for the conversion of specific souls to great effect. It seemed as if the powers of Hell were determined to make her pay dearly for all the victories she had gained over them. Her caretakers often witnessed these attacks, which sometimes left Gemma appearing to have been beaten.
Above all, the Evil One sought to drive Gemma to despair. Through her imagination, the Devil replayed all the saddest occurrences of her life, mocking her, “So this is the reward for all your sacrifices in the service of God.” In addition, due to fears of potential contagiousness of her mysterious illness, she was eventually removed from the home of the Giannini family, who had become her second family and so lovingly cared for her during her final years.
From the physical pains she suffered in her body and the anguish of abandonment she experienced in her soul, she seemed, according to the witnesses, an image of Christ dying on the Cross. Gemma lived a life of sorrow and died the solitary death of a martyr on the Feast of Feasts, Easter 1903.
In their sorrow and grief following her death, her family had forgotten that they had agreed to have her heart examined in hopes of finding any extraordinary marks. Twelve days following her burial, Gemma’s body was exhumed. Her heart was found to have no signs of incipient decomposition. Rather, it was fresh, healthy, and full of blood, precisely as in a living person. Also, it was found to have been greatly enlarged, which would not have been suggested by her pathology, to the degree that three of her ribs were bent to accommodate its size. In addition, the flesh surrounding the pectoral region appeared to have been burned. In death, just as in life, St. Gemma Galgani had a heart that burned with an unquenchable fire for God!
© 2014. Joel and Lisa Schmidt. All rights reserved.