Saint Gemma Galgani
In the small town in northern Tuscany, a radiant soul named Gemma Galgani was born into a devout Catholic family on March 12, 1878. The fourth child of eight children to Enrico Galgani and Aurelia Landi, Gemma lived a life marked by extraordinary sacrifice and suffering. But amidst her experiences of pain came powerful spiritual experiences that would forge a remarkable devotion to prayer and a burning desire to unite herself entirely with Christ.
As a young girl, her mother fell victim to tuberculosis, enduring a long battle with the illness. Gemma had learned her first lessons of Christian piety from her beloved mother, and grappled severely with her looming death. Gemma received the sacrament of Confirmation on May 26th, 1885, and with it came the first of her heavenly communications that would continue throughout much of her life.
According to Gemma, a voice in her heart spoke up following the Confirmation Mass, asking, “Will you give me your Mamma?” Gemma replied, “Yes, if you take me as well.”
“No,” the voice replied back. “Give me your Mamma without reserve. I will take you to heaven later.” Gemma could hardly bring herself to respond, but still answered “Yes” before running home in tears. Her mother died a few months later. Gemma was eight years old.
Shortly after her mother’s passing, Gemma was sent to the school of the Sisters of St. Zita in Lucca. It was here that she developed a greater understanding of prayer and a devotion to the Passion of Christ that she began to meditate on daily. Her school life would be brought to an abrupt end though by a painful illness. A small injury to her foot, which she thought little of, resulted in a severe infection that caused her to be bedridden for months. An operation was necessary, but Gemma refused any anesthetics – fixing her eyes on the crucifix and enduring the surgery silently, amazing the doctors.
This illness was followed by an even graver one – spinal tuberculosis, which left her bedridden once again. But despite her repeated physical ailments, Gemma’s spirit remained indomitable. Her love for the Eucharist was unmatched, as she often spent hours in adoration, immersing herself in the presence of her beloved Jesus.
In February of 1899, the doctors pronounced Gemma’s health as hopeless and she received her Last Sacraments. Her pitiful condition drew friends and family members to her bedside, and one of them left her the book titled “Life of Venerable Gabriel Possenti”. She read the book several times, developing a special devotion to him. It was Gabriel himself who would appear to Gemma in March of 1899, and ask her, “Do you wish to be healed?” Gemma answered in her heart, “Whatever You will, O Jesus!” and she was miraculously healed.
With her health restored, Gemma’s spiritual life flourished, growing in intensity and fervor. She had more intense visions and ecstasies, many of which filled her with an intense desire to suffer with Jesus, and become a victim for the salvation of souls. On June 8th, 1899, while praying with Jesus in His sufferings, she received the stigmata, coming out of the vision to find blood flowing from her hands, feet and side. The wounds would appear every Thursday evening, with Gemma continually pleading for mercy for sinners as her own blood darkened the bandages on her body.
As she grew older, Gemma desired to become a nun, but was met with immediate opposition. Upon asking for admission to the convent in Corneto, Italy, the Reverend Mother there turned her away, having heard about Gemma’s illness and cure, and the reported extraordinary graces that surrounded her. Convinced that such a mystic would not be suitable for their contemplative community, she denied Gemma’s admission.
Additional attempts were made by her spiritual director and confessor, without any effect. Nonetheless, Gemma began to live the life of a nun as much as she could, outside of the cloister. She had already made a vow of chastity previously during her illnesses, and now added vows of poverty and obedience to her life. She wore the Sign of the Passion on her heart underneath her clothing, and recited the Divine Office every day.
Even with the wounds of the Stigmata appearing weekly, Gemma found this opportunity to be the greatest sacrifice of her life – the sacrifice of her vocation. One morning after receiving Holy Communion, she heard Jesus speak to her, “But, do you know, My child, that there is a life still happier than that of the Convent?” She let these words lead her for the remainder of her life, humbly serving everyone around her in love.
On the feast of Pentecost in 1902, Gemma was suddenly stricken with another severe illness, which would be the final one for her to endure. She prayed unceasingly, offering up her suffering as pains racked her body. Nearly two months later, on Holy Saturday, she passed away at the age of 25. So joyous and peaceful did she appear to those present that they found it difficult to convince themselves that she was actually dead.
Gemma Galgani was beatified by Pope Pius XI on May 14th, 1933, and canonized by Pope Pius XII on Ascension Thursday, May 2nd, 1940.
Despite dying without being clothed an official Passionist, her life still greatly furthered the order. In one of her first letters to her spiritual director, Passionist Father Germanus, she had written in extreme detail the establishment of a Passionist convent in Lucca, following her denial from the convent in Corneto. There was not even the thought of such a project at the time, but Gemma repeatedly prayed for the coming of nuns to Lucca. She even searched the town of Lucca more than once for a suitable location for a potential convent.
Despite minimal traction being made during Gemma’s life, she remained hopeful, telling those close to her that the foundation would occur after her passing, in the year of the Beatification of St. Gabriel.
Just two years after her death, a group of Passionist Sisters arrived in Luca and established a new convent in 1908, just two months after the beatification of St. Gabriel. Today, Saint Gemma’s relics are housed at the Passionist monastery located in Lucca.
Saint Gemma lived an extraordinary life of holiness and virtue, embracing suffering rather than running from it. She stands as a powerful intercessor in heaven, ready to assist those who call upon her for help, and she calls us to deepen our relationship with Christ, to embrace the cross in our own lives, and to strive for holiness.