Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows
Feast Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows was granted by Pope Pius XI to the Universal Church by a decree of April 13, 1932. The same decree ordered this Feast to be inserted in the Universal Calendar, beginning from 1934. Saint Gabriel modeled his life on that of Christ and Our Blessed Mother, committing himself to embody every virtue and shun every sin.
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, was born Francesco Possenti at Assisi, Italy on March 1, 1838. Francis was the eleventh of thirteen children. Both father (Sante Possenti) and mother were distinguished, not only by birth and position, but also for their piety and Christian virtues. The child was baptized on the day of his birth, at the same font where, over six hundred years before, another Francis, the great patriarch of the city and glorious saint, was baptized. Before he was quite four years old Francis lost his pious and beloved mother. Signor Possenti entrusted the management of his household, as well as the care of his nine children, to a responsible and experienced lady named Pacifica.
The education of Francis was begun by Pacifica, a tutor, and his pious father. On the whole, he was a good boy, but in these early years he manifested very few signs of the sanctity for which he was to be so distinguished in after years. A proneness to anger, levity, and disobedience was his principal fault. In his childhood Francis was changeable and fickle. At one time he would be full of fervour at his studies and religious duties, and at others careless and indifferent. His tender sympathy, however, and his loving kindness made him a great favourite with his brothers and sisters at home, and with his playmates elsewhere. Hardly had he come to the use of reason before he began to show a marked thoughtfulness and friendship for the poor. The charitable Pacifica could not always satisfy the demands he made upon her for those in need. To her objections Francis would answer: “Why! Father wants us to be charitable; we ought not to despise the poor, for we don’t know what we may one day be ourselves.”
The education of Francis was continued by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and finished by the Jesuit Fathers at Spoleto. At school Francis quickly made himself a favourite with both companions and teachers. He was brave and outspoken. To the suffering he was a warm-hearted sympathizer; to the weak and persecuted, a fearless champion; to companions, a staunch friend; and to masters, a willing and talented pupil. In those days few prizes were given at school, but Francis was the winner of more than one. Francis finished his public school course at the Jesuit College at the age of eighteen years.
The fickleness of mind that had manifested itself in his childhood appeared again from time to time in his early manhood. It was revealed by his manner of dressing. For a time he would be so fastidious in dress as to become almost foppish, and then again he would take little heed of style or fashion. He indulged rather freely in novel-reading and theatre-going dangerous pastimes for one of his years. He was fond of music, and could always contribute a fair share to the evening’s entertainment. He was fond of the dance. Handsome in person and graceful in movement, he was always an acceptable partner. He was fond of the theatre, and could always take a leading part in private performances. Everyone said that he would be successful in whatever he undertook, and that a brilliant career lay before him in the world. Yet neither Francis brothers and sisters, nor his companions at school, ever saw anything very reprehensible in his conduct. He was regular in his religious duties, never neglected his morning and evening prayers, and assisted daily at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The day that closed his college course was a day of triumph for Francis. Handsome appearance, graceful address, expressive gesture, command of language, and good voice had gained for him first place among the young men of the Jesuit College. He was chosen to deliver the opening discourse at the commencement exercises. A brilliant audience of learned and aristocratic men and women were assembled in the large hall. The audience was delighted with his address. They loudly applauded and cheered when he was presented with a gold medal for excellence in all his studies. None of the audience, except his father, suspected that he was about to turn his back on the pomps and pleasures of the world to give himself entirely to the service of God in a monastery. None of them knew that he was going to cast off all that finery of dress to clothe himself in the poor habit of a Passionist. None of those who so joyfully cheered and applauded knew that the day of his triumph was the eve of his departure from them. When Francis parted with his friends that night, and said good-bye to them, they thought that he was only going for a holiday. The next day he left home and set out for the Passionist Novitiate at Morrovalle, in the province of Macerata.
Twice Francis had been seriously ill, and seemed in danger of death. On both of these occasions he had promised God in his heart that, if he were spared, he would enter a Religious Order. The promises were evidently accepted, for each time they were made the ailing youth quickly recovered. After the second of these illnesses and extraordinary cures, he went to the Father Provincial of the Jesuits, and asked to be received into the Society. His request was granted, but he dilly dallied with his vocation. He did not refuse to fulfil his promise to God, but again and again deferred its fulfilment. Whilst thus hesitating to answer his vocation, and delaying to make use of the permission given him by the Father Provincial of the Jesuits, Francis began to think of becoming a Passionist. In his doubt and difficulty he asked the advice of Father Peter Tedeschini, S.J. This holy priest told him to wait and pray for further guidance.
In the year 1856 the terrible ravages of cholera had been suddenly stopped at Spoleto through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. In public gratitude for this miraculous favor, her statue was carried in procession through the streets of the city. Francis watched the procession rather through curiosity than devotion. As the statue was borne past, he raised his eyes, and, through the eyes of the statue, Mary cast upon him a glance that pierced his inmost heart as with a dart of fire. At the same time, deep within his soul, he heard the words: “Why! thou art not made for the world! What art thou doing in the world? Hasten, become a religious!”. The procession passed on, but Francis remained kneeling in prayer at the roadside. No one but he had seen or heard anything extraordinary. He cried out with gratitude for the signal favor bestowed upon him. He thanked the Blessed Virgin again and again for her loving warning. From that moment he was a changed boy. He no longer thought of anything but of fulfilling his vocation. He determined to become a Passionist. That resolution was made less than a month before the brilliant closing of his college career. Within that time he revealed his determination, first to his spiritual director, and then to his father. He answered all objections against his choosing so hard a life, and completed arrangements with the Father Provincial of the Passionists for his entrance into the novitiate.
The news of his son’s determination was a double grief to Sante Possenti. It grieved him to lose so beloved and talented a son, and it grieved him that he should choose so rigorous a life. He was an aged man now, and few of his family remained at home. His eldest son, Aloysius, had joined the Dominicans. Another son, Henry, had begun his studies for the priesthood. He had lost two daughters since the death of his wife one had died, the other had married and gone to a distant province. And now his beloved Francis the son that gave promise of bringing him so much honour the son who might have been the light and comfort of his old age was going to leave him. The aged father and his relations tried to persuade Francis to change his mind. They told him that the life of a Passionist would be too severe for him; that the plain food, coarse habit, and strict discipline would not suit one of such delicate tastes and refinement as he was. They reminded him of the honour that the world offered to one of his position and ability. They asked him, if he would not alter his intention of becoming a priest, to choose an easier rule than that of the Passionists, or to become a secular priest and stay nearer home. But Francis was firm. The desire to serve God and sanctify himself overruled every other desire. He dearly loved his father and his relations, but he loved God above all. As soon as Sante Possenti was convinced that his son was called by God, he at once ceased to oppose his wish. Father and son embraced each other and wept at parting. The man of years and honour bowed his head it seemed as if the sunshine were passing out of his life there was a void in his heart, tears fell from his eyes; but he made no complaint. There was no rebellion; his pious prayer was: “Thy will, O God, not mine, be done.”
Francis entered the Passionist Novitiate at Morrovalle in September, 1856. After living there in his secular dress for a short time, and making a retreat for ten days, he was clothed with the religious habit, and received the name of Gabriel, with the title of Our Lady of Sorrows. We shall, therefore, no longer call him Francis, but Gabriel. This change of name is made in signification of authority over the person whose name is changed, and of the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new, according to the advices of St. Paul. Here is the letter that he wrote to his father on the day that he was first clothed as a Passionist: “My Dear Father: The day has come at last. The Almighty had been calling me for a long time, whilst I ungratefully turned a deaf ear to His voice by enjoying the world and displeasing Him; but His infinite mercy sweetly disposed all things, and today, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, our Mother and Protectress, I was clothed in the holy habit, taking the name of Confrater Gabriel, of Our Lady of Sorrows. Up to the present, my dear father, I have not experienced anything but pleasure, whether as regards this religious congregation or my vocation to it. Oh! Rest assured that whosoever is called to the religious state receives a grace that he will never be able fully to comprehend. My excellent Father-Master and Vice-Master send their kind regards together with my own. My greetings to the Jesuits and Oratorians, as well as to all inquiring friends. Begging your blessing, dearest father, I remain, your affectionate son.”
Gabriel loved the religious life from the moment he entered upon it. He fulfilled the rules of the Congregation with the greatest fervour and exactness, and was professed on the twenty-second of September, 1857. Be sides the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a Passionist makes a particular vow to spread devotion to the passion of our Lord; hence, he is called a Passionist.
The Sunday after his profession Gabriel wrote to his father as follows: “Through the grace of God and the protection of Our Lady of Sorrows, and to my unspeakable joy, my desires have been fulfilled, and I have made my holy profession. Such a grace can never be valued adequately, and therefore, as I have been favoured by Almighty God with such a privilege, I feel bound by an ever-increasing obligation to correspond thereto. I leave it, therefore, to your own judgment whether or not I stand in need of the prayers of yourself and others".
After his profession Confrater Gabriel remained five months in the retreat at Morrovalle. Then, under the spiritual direction of Father Norbert, who had been his Vice-Master in the novitiate, he went with other students to Pieventorina in the Marches. Here he remained about eighteen months, before Father Norbert took his class to the retreat at Isola, in the province of Abruzzo, where Gabriel, after a residence of about three years, died.
The life of a Passionist at home is a continual round of prayer and study, with short intervals for manual work, solitary walk, and recreation. Except during the time of recreation, silence must be kept throughout the whole day. Students are not allowed to speak to anyone, even of their own number, without their director s permission. They fast and abstain from meat three times a week, and during the whole of Lent and Advent. Their bed and pillow are of straw. Twice a week they are allowed to go beyond the enclosure of the retreat for a walk, under the guidance of their director. In Italy, once a religious lays aside the dress of a secular, he never puts it on again, but always wears the religious garb wherever he goes. To one of the world that seems a most monotonous life. To one called to it by God it is the happiest life on earth. This was the life that Gabriel led for nearly six years. There was only one miraculous occurrence in his secular life, the warning given him by the Blessed Virgin through her image at Spoleto. There was nothing miraculous in his religious life. It was remarkable, not for great or extraordinary deeds, but for a complete change of life, a wonderful correspondence with God’s grace, and a marvellous exactness in every detail of his duties. In a letter to his brother, describing his daily duties, he says: “With joy, swiftness, and goodwill each day comes to an end. Oh, how pleasant it is to lay one’s self down to rest with the consciousness of having served God (however unworthily) during the whole day!”. The religious life of Gabriel was made up of trials, and Gabriel was aware that they were trifles. But he was striving for perfection, and knew that trifles make perfection.
His aim was perfection; his model was Christ Crucified; his patroness was the Mother of Sorrows; his guide was St. Paul of the Cross; his motive was the love of God. He gained his end, not by vainly longing to do great things that might never be given him to do, not by waiting for opportunities that might never occur, but by doing with all his might whatsoever his hand found to do. He wished to prolong his fasts, but his director told him to be satisfied with those imposed by the rules of the Congregation. He desired to practise great austerities, but was forbidden to attempt them. The rules of the Congregation were to him the expression of God’s will, and he fulfilled them to the letter as well as in the spirit. The sound of the observance bell was to him the voice of God calling him to his duty, and he hastened immediately to answer it. In the person of his superior he saw the person of Christ, and he humbly complied with his slightest wish. He ennobled the simplest act by the purity of his intention. What was trifling he made great by using it for an end. His constant occupation was the cultivation of the interior life by always subduing the defects of nature, by always corresponding with God’s grace, by always remembering God’s presence, and by always communing with Him in prayer. Charity is the bond of perfection, and Gabriel’s soul was aflame with charity. No one can judge us so well as our companions. One of Gabriel’s most intimate companions in religion said: “I was never able to notice in him any wilful defect or imperfection.” Father Norbert, his vice-master and spiritual director said: “Such was his hunger and thirst for all virtues, such the assiduity with which he laboured for their acquisition, that he never lost an opportunity of practising them.”
Gabriel’s soul was a furnace of love for Christ Crucified. He could not love the Son without loving the Mother. He could not gaze upon the crucified Son without beholding the Mother at the foot of the cross. He could not meditate upon the sufferings of Christ without thinking of the sorrows of Mary. No one loved Christ as Mary, His Mother, loved Him. Gabriel tried to reach the heart of Jesus through the heart of Mary. No one fathomed the depth of Christ s sufferings as did his grief-stricken Mother. Gabriel tried to search those depths through her sympathetic eyes. It was through Mary that Christ came into the world, and it is through Mary that the greatest saints have left the world and reached Christ. Mary, through her image at Spoleto, had warned Gabriel to leave the world and fulfil his vocation. One of Mary’s titles the title of Our Lady of Sorrows was added to the name of Gabriel.
The Rule of St. Paul of the Cross advises all Passionists to “entertain a pious and ardent devotion towards the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God; let them strive to imitate her sublime virtues and merit her seasonable protection.” So well did Gabriel attend to this advice that Cardinal Parocchi, in his supplicatory letter to Pope Leo XIII says: “Mary was the very soul of Gabriel’s life, the source and model of the sanctity to which he attained; so that it may be truly said that in his devotion to the great Mother of God he has scarcely been equalled by any, even of the greatest saints.”
This wonderful love and devotion to his heavenly Queen and Mother manifested themselves by a thousand different acts. He begged, but was refused, permission to burn the name of Mary upon his breast, or cut it into his flesh. It was his constant pleasure to attend to the garden, that flowers might be cultivated to adorn her statue. He called to her in times of danger and temptation; he sang to her in times of joy and victory. Her name was ever on his lips. He was all interest and eagerness when she was the subject of conversation. She was often the subject of his long and fervent meditations. Sometimes, forgetting the presence of his companions, he would murmur in an undertone: “Maria mia!” and his face would light up with joy.
Illness and Death
Gabriel, although never very robust, enjoyed very good health for the first four years of his religious life. He then began to manifest symptoms of consumption. As soon as his director noticed these signs of weakness, he forbade his rising for the midnight office and prayer, and dispensed him from the fasts of rule and all its penitential severities. These dispensations were displeasing to Gabriel, and nothing but the virtue of obedience would have induced him to accept them.
Notwithstanding these precautions, and the attendance of a doctor, the deadly disease made rapid progress, and reduced its victim to a pitiable state of weakness. For months he suffered on a bed of pain, and was subject to violent haemorrhages. He bore all patiently, and without murmur or complaint. So cheerful was he that his fellow-students thought it a privilege to be allowed to watch at his bed side. When told that his end was near, he first manifested a little surprise, and then gladly resigned himself to the will of God. In his dying moments, after receiving absolution from his Father Director, he asked for an old picture of his, much worn by frequent use. It was a picture of the Crucifixion, with the Blessed Virgin standing at the foot of the cross. He devoutly kissed it, placed it on his breast, folded his hands across it, and began to speak in prayer. With indescribable love he began to say aloud: “Oh, my Mother make haste, make haste!” Commending his soul to God, he repeated the familiar ejaculation: “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I offer you my heart and soul. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, assist me in my last agony. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul with you in peace.”
His director, his fellow-students, and many of the community were watching and praying in his cell beside him. So devoutly did he raise his eyes to heaven, so sweetly did he pronounce the holy names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, so tenderly did he call upon Mary to make haste, so lovingly did he supplicate his Divine Saviour, that all were filled with awe and moved to tears. Suddenly he turned his eyes to the left and above him. He gazed upon some heavenly vision. His eyes beamed with transports of joy, long, loving sighs came from his heart; and then, with a sweet smile in his lips, and without the least movement of his body, he ceased to breathe. The Reaper had stooped and gathered the little passion flower.
He did not rest until, by repeated requests, he obtained permission from his director to bind himself by vow to be Mary’s champion for life. Her image, as well as that of her Divine Son, was on the picture that he kissed in his dying moments, and pressed to his heart. Mary and Jesus, Jesus and Mary, were in his heart, and on his lips, until his soul took flight and left the body.
Gabriel was not yet a priest when he died, in the twenty-fourth year of his age, and in the sixth year of his religious life. His death took place on the twenty-seventh of February, 1862, and he was buried in our retreat of Isola di Gran Sasso, Italy.
Gabriel was a faithful servant in a few things, and now God makes him the dispenser of many graces and blessings. The miracles recorded are but a few of the many wrought through his intercession. By visits to his tomb, by prayer to him, and by the use of his relics, the sick have been cured, the blind have been made to see, the dumb to speak, the deaf to hear, and the crippled to walk. Not one-half the miracles worked by God through His servant are kept on record, and still up to the present over four hundred have been recorded. A large store-room, or treasure-house, has been erected beside the church at Isola to contain the votive offerings of those who have received favours from God through Gabriel’s intercession. The dying, restored to life through having recourse to him, have left there the coffins that had been prepared for them. Cripples have left there their chairs and crutches. Hundreds of immense wax candles are stored there. High cases with glass doors line the walls, and are stocked with costly church vestments, and all kinds of gold and silver church plate and ornaments. Some have left their earrings there, some their rings, and some their watches, bracelets and chains. These are numbered by the thousand; each is an offering in thanksgiving for something Gabriel has done for the giver. And this wonder-worker was only twenty-four years old when he died! He was less than six years in religion!
In 1892 His body is exhumed in Isola del Gran Sasso and the people successfully campaign for his remains to stay there. In 1897 we find on the register about ninety cases of complete and instantaneous cure.
Gemma Galgani: Since his death, numerous miracles have been reported via his intercession. For exmaple, Saint Gemma (1878-1903), a young woman with numerous ailments including deafness from meningitis, paralysis, abcesses, and curvature of the spine was miraculously cured after praying a novena to Saint Gabriel. In her own words, "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.” When she was approximately 20, and on her deathbed, Gemma began her novena to Saint Gabriel. While trying to sleep, she heard the rattling of a Rosary and he appeared to her, saying, “Do you wish to recover? Pray with faith every evening to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I will come to you until the Novena is ended, and will pray together to this Most Sacred Heart”. On the last night of the Novena, Gemma was miraculously cured of all her ailments, a scientific impossibility at the time. Saint Gemma went on to be visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary, and bore the stigmata throughout her prayerful life, committed to Jesus.
Mary Mazzarella: Mary Mazzarella, aged twenty, lived with her parents in the town of Isola. For nearly three years she had been suffering with serious complications affecting her lungs, stomach, and spine, with constant daily fever and headache. Her condition steadily became worse. In January, 1892, she experienced great pains all through her body, and six ulcerous wounds broke out. She became so weak that she could not stand on her feet, and was unable to bear the light. The summer heat inconvenienced her greatly, so that she could hardly breathe; then loss of sleep, joined with the constant oppression on her chest, so affected her voice that she could speak only with difficulty. The remedies used were of no avail, and she lost confidence in medicine. Finally, she turned to heaven for her cure, and, with all the confidence and tenderness of a loving child, besought her Blessed Mother to help her. Now, it happened that one day in October, having fallen asleep, she saw a beautiful lady with a child in her arms, and she was told to go and pray at the tomb of the young Passionist at the monastery, and use some of his relics that she might be cured. ”Towards the first dawn of the following day, Sunday (to resume Mary’s own narrative), I told my sister to recite the Litany, and to join me in praying to the servant of God. While I was saying the litany there came upon me a quiet sleep, such as I had not had for a long time. After a while I awoke full of joy, feeling that I was cured completely cured. My strength had returned, the sores were closed, and one of them, which was very large and about to open, disappeared altogether. Filled with delight, I say to my sister, “Get up! I am cured! Confrater Gabriel has done this miracle for me!” For well-nigh eight months I had been unable to wait upon myself; my people had to assist me in everything. Now, that morning I got up at once, dressed myself in haste, and went down to the kitchen. My sister would not believe her eyes; she kept by my side, afraid lest it all might be a delusion. But I went downstairs, and stood before my parents and the servant-maid, who were all in the kitchen. My mother was astounded when she saw me, but I said to her: “Mamma, don t be afraid; Confrater Gabriel has performed the miracle for me”.
Anthony Mancini: One evening in June, 1893, there came from Acquasanta to the retreat of Isola a cripple named Anthony Mancini, who for many years had lost the use of his limbs in consequence of an obstinate arthritis. As the disease had crippled him in a frightful manner, the physicians attempted to straighten him by breaking the joints of his thighs and knees; but this only completed his ruin, and deprived him of all hope of ever being able to take another step. Besides, the poor man was wasting away through muscular atrophy, so that he could no longer move his body, and was forced to spend his days seated in an arm-chair, from which he had to be lifted into bed at night. Seated thus, and even bound to his chair (lest the motion of the wagon should throw him off), he arrived after a long journey, at the Passionate Church. The next morning he was brought in his arm-chair into the church to Gabriel s sepulchre. After the parish priest of Isola had heard his confession and given him Communion, the poor man continued his prayers to the servant of God. All at once, in the sight of all the people, Anthony arose from his chair cured, exclaiming: Gabriel, the servant of God, has granted me the favour! Leaving his chair behind him in the church, he got into his wagon unassisted, and joyfully turned his face homeward, blessing God.
Cajetan Mariani: Not less extraordinary was the case of Cajetan Mariani, of Arnatrice. In consequence of a stroke of apoplexy, he was paralyzed for twelve years in his whole body, so that he could barely drag himself around with the help of a stick. He was seventy-one years old, and entertained no hope of a cure; still less did he think of praying, for he had lived estranged from God for a long time. One day, by some unaccountable impulse, he desired to go to Isola. As he entered the monastery church he saw a priest hearing confessions, and asked to be heard himself. The bystanders were greatly astonished at this, because they knew him well. Greater still was their wonder when they saw the old man making his confession with an abundance of tears. A few days afterwards, continues the priest to whom we are indebted for these facts, as I returned to the church, the man came up to me quite joyfully, his eyes moistened with tears, and said: Oh, Father, this dear servant of God obtained three great graces for me; he touched my heart and brought me back to God. I have prayed and felt myself cured all at once of my paralysis, so that I am well and can walk about with ease, you see; besides, I was afflicted for many years with rupture ; this, too, has disappeared this very hour. What shall I do to show my gratitude to God for so many blessings?”
In 1908 Saint Pope Pius X declares Gabriel as Blessed. In 1920 Pope Benedict XV canonises Gabriel of Our lady of Sorrows on May 13 and declares him a pattern to young people.
Madonna's Credo by St. Gabriel
Closest possible likeness of Gariel Francis Possenti, obtained from painting over an old tintype. Original is hung in office of Passionist Bishop Batistelli, C.P., Teramo, Italy
The Icon Procession, which the people of Spoleto have performed each year since the cholera epidemic of 1856
Close up of the Icon Procession at the spot where St. Gabriel was kneeling when he looked into the face of the Madonna and she seemed to say: "Why do you remain in the world?"
Death of Gabriel of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows
Front entrance to the Basilica of St. Gabriel at Isola del Gran Sasso
View of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, during the canonization ceremony, May 13, 1920