ST. GABRIEL FRANCIS POSSENTI of Our Lady of Sorrows:
Patron of Clerics and Youth
1838 – 1862
Did you know that you too can be a saint? You don’t need to have visions, or undergo extraordinary forms of self-torture. It doesn’t matter if you’re fastidious or unusually vain about your dress and personal appearance. Do you love fun, parties, reading novels, theatre and even dancing? Not to worry. Our saint of the day and even his namesake St. Francis of Assisi was all of these in their youth.
His Early Years
Born on March 1, 1838 at Assisi, Italy our saint was even baptized at the very font where six centuries ago St. Francis was christened. It’s no wonder he was given the name Francis.
Though he was only four years old when his beloved and devout mother Agnes died. Francis – the 11th of 13 children – was lovingly brought up by an elder sister Maria Louise. His father Sante, a famous Italian lawyer was a former governor of Assisi. A deeply religious man, he took time out from his busy schedule to instruct his children about the catechism of the Church, the lives of Christ and his Saints.
When his father was assigned supreme court judge in Spoleto Francis continued his education at the Jesuit college there where he excelled in his studies.
But Francis’s childish mischievous love of fun continued to his teens. Although a diligent student he became obsessed with and attended endless rounds of parties, dramas, operas and concerts. Because of his cheerfulness he was popular, lovable and vivacious. Because he was handsome his friends called him damerino or a “ladies man.”
However again like his namesake Francis would often experience an inner emptiness and vacuum within himself even in the midst of all the fun and gaiety around him. Something was missing.
Under the tutelage of a young cleric his impetuosity was gradually replaced by a resoluteness of character. He also continued his prayers and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary begun in his early childhood.
Then Francis became very seriously sick to the point of dying. Desperately he begged the Lord and his blessed mother to please make him well. Should this happen he promised to devote himself entirely to God. However when he miraculously did recover he forgot entirely his promise.
After a year or two when he once more became dangerously ill he again renewed his promise – this time vowing to become a religious if he got well.
Only at this time someone came and showed him a relic of St. Bobola who was a Jesuit martyr. Interpreting this as a sign that he should become a Jesuit he promptly applied to the Society of Jesus who readily accepted him. But because he was not yet of age to be one, as he was not yet seventeen, once more Francis procrastinated about taking the final step.
In the meantime his favorite sister, the one who lovingly took care of him when he was young died during an outbreak of cholera. To stop the dreadful plague the people of Spolero promised the Madonna a great procession carrying her ancient image given to the city by Emperor Barbarossa in 1115. This centuries old Byzantine icon of the Sorrowful Mother was according to tradition said to have been painted by St. Luke himself. When the epidemic did stop and the procession was under way she seemed to be looking straight at Francis who was kneeling by the wayside. Her gaze seemed to penetrate his soul sternly asking him why he was tarrying in this world which was not for him.
This time Francis felt really strongly pulled to become a religious and to fulfill his vow to God he had made earlier. Only maybe – not the Jesuits – but a stricter order with a more penitential life. With the Blessed Mother’s aid and the full approval of his Jesuit confessor he decided to apply to the Passionists, a very strict order in Morrovale.
However his father refused to grant him his permission even if it was a contemplative and missionary congregation founded in 1720 by St. Paul of the Cross. In fact besides asking everyone to help dissuade his son he hid from Francis his acceptance letter from the Passionists.
This time our determined Francis went in person to apply to the Passionist Monastery at Morovalle, He was accompanied by his brother Aloysius who was a Dominican priest. Imagine his shock and surprise when the door opened and the novice master warmly welcomed him saying, “We had practically lost all hope of seeing you, Francis.”
Thus it was that on September 1856 at the age of eighteen he finally became a novice and was given the name in religion of Brother Gabriel of our Lady of Sorrows. Maybe it was because of the picture of the Sorrowful Mother that finally pushed him to make his promise to become a religious a reality.
A Modern Novitiate
While Gabriel impressed everyone with his joyful submission to the daily humdrum convent life doing all his tasks with great patience and kindness, still he did not do anything extraordinary. He led a very normal life except for the fact that he was always asking permission for self abnegation or self-mortification which were beyond his strength.
In exasperation his director told him that instead of wearing a chain with sharp points next to his body he should wear a chain on his will. Finally giving in to his request his director required him to wear it but on the outside of his habit. He did accept the fact that he became a laughing stock.
If Gabriel lived such a normal childhood and life how could he be considered a saint?
Maybe it was because his life paralled that of his contemporary Therese of Lisieux. Both sought holiness by doing little things lovingly, cheerfully and perfectly. Thus no matter how trivial the tasks they were asked to do they did it cheerfully doing their best to meticulously obey every rule. They impressed everyone with their deep spirit of prayer, consideration for others, charity and ever-willingness to do extra tasks. They are remembered for their great humility and readiness to deny themselves of many small pleasures. Yet in the face of all this they remained bright, cheerful and was supremely happy.
In his notebook Gabriel wrote, “I will attempt day by day to break my will into little pieces. I want to do God’s holy will, not my own.” To his father he wrote, “My life is one of unending joy.”
After His Novitiate
It was after his novitiate that Gabriel was sent to the monastery at Isola de Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi to continue his studies to be a priest. The fact that he was exceptionally studious and had a prodigious memory helped him a lot.
It was here that his devotion to Mary started as a boy deepened and he became a “veritable Apostle of her Sorrows.”
Besides being conspicuous for his particularly strong devotion to Mary he was also extremely devoted to the Lord’s Passion and to the Blessed Sacrament.
Once more like his counterpart St. Therese of Lisieux Gabriel at a very young age contracted tuberculosis. Because he was always so cheerful and smiling inspite of the growing intensity of the suffering caused by the disease, the people around him never realized the gravity of his situation. It was tragic that his health even further deteriorated after receiving the tonsure and minor orders. However because of his deep interior union with God he was able to turn his life of severe pain into a life of continual prayer all the while offering himself as a victim for sinners. Shrinking from being admired thus he even went to the extent of burning his notebooks where he had acknowledged all the blessings he had received from God.
His Death and Canonization
So after a mere six years as a Passionist Gabriel died at the tender age of almost 24 years on February 27, 1862 in just the year he was to be ordained a priest.
It is interesting to note that while Gabriel did not perform any miracles in his lifetime after his death a great number of conversions and miracles happened through his intercession at his tomb in Isola di Gran Sasso, Italy which has since become a place of pilgrimage.
He was beatified in 1908 and canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. He is the Patron of Clerics and Catholic Youth especially of novice and seminarians. Joy has always been a trademark of this saint for modern times and his noted strengths have been his devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Sorrowful Mother.
Sources of Reference
ST. GABRIEL of OUR LADY of SORROWS
1838 – 1862
Butler’s Lives of the Saints Vol. I pp 429 – 431
The Book of Saints p. 59
Pocket Dictionary of Saints p 417
A Calendar of Saints p 42
Saints for Everyday pp 76 – 77
Lives of the Saints pp 84 – 85
Illustrated Lives of the Saints Vol. I pp 91 – 92
Saint Companions pp 84 – 86
Saints for Our Time pp 70 – 71
Lives of Saints Part I pp 357 – 362
Voices of the Saints pp 652 – 653