There’s been a lot of talk on social media lately of simply cancelling 2020 altogether, and it’s not hard to see that those who post such comments are only half joking. Whether we’re people of faith or not, most of us started the year with plenty of plans and ideas about how it would look. There were places we wanted to go, things we wanted to achieve, people we wanted to see. When the New Year rang in with the usual fireworks, kisses and good wishes toward our families and friends, Coronavirus was still a distant problem in a country most of us would never visit. How little we knew.
Now there’s a palpable sense of life being ‘on hold’. Weddings, birthday parties and well-loved yearly public events have been cancelled. A whole generation of young people won’t get to properly enjoy graduating from high school or university. People who’ve poured life savings into businesses are in the heart-breaking position of watching their livelihoods waste away. Calling these first world problems isn’t helpful because it invalidates the very real sadness, worry, frustration and disappointment that is currently being experienced by so many.
If you’re sitting at home, reading this blog post, you might well have an idea of where you were supposed to be on this particular day. For me, this should have been my first week as an aspirant at Stanbrook Abbey. But perhaps we need to change the way we look at this. After all, God saw all of this coming and factored it into His plans for our world before the beginning of time. It would be quite accurate to say that we’re not ‘supposed’ to be anywhere other than exactly where we are – even if that place is a painful and difficult one.
Today’s saint knew a thing or two about life not turning out the way we might want or expect. Known as ‘the Passion Flower’ or ‘the Flower of Lucca’, Gemma Galgani was born in 1878 to a traditional and very devout Catholic family in the Italian village of Camigliano. Gemma lost her mother at the age of seven. When she was sixteen her brother Gino, to whom she was especially close, also died following a long sickness. Other members of the household, including Gemma herself, also suffered sickness during this time, which left the family financially exhausted. Gemma’s father was forced to sell both his holiday home and the family home. Three years later he, too, would die at the age of fifty-seven.
Gemma showed extraordinary piety from a very early age; as a teenager she was reproved by her family for the intensity of her religious practices. They tried to persuade her to stop going to church both morning and evening and to live a more ‘ordinary’ life, to dress more fashionably and to go out more. Gemma, however, was inflamed with love for Christ and wanted nothing besides Him. She had an immense love for the poor and would frequently give away any money, clothes or food she had, being quite happy to leave herself with nothing more than a single dress to wear.
After her father’s death, the remaining Galgani children were left destitute, with bailiffs coming to the house and taking every penny they had, even making the children empty their pockets. However, Gemma never lost her confidence in God’s provision:
"Say the Rosary of five decades with these words: 'Providence of God, have mercy on me.' When you have said that ten times, add: 'Providence of God, You have provided for me,' or, 'Providence of God, You will provide.' "
God did provide, and Gemma was sent to live with her aunt and uncle. She was by all accounts a remarkably beautiful young woman and two men proposed marriage to her. Gemma refused them both, desiring a life of silence, solitude and prayer – whatever the cost.
It was around this time that Gemma became seriously ill with meningitis, a sickness which caused her to suffer blinding headaches and back pain. At the same time her spine became curved, she lost her sense of hearing and her hair fell out. She suffered from spinal abscesses which had to be repeatedly lanced and injected with medicated glycerine – an extraordinarily painful procedure during which she didn’t utter a single word of complaint. She spent her days and nights lying in the same position, unable to move unless somebody helped her.
Gemma was miraculously cured after making a novena to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who made popular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was graced with a vision of Christ, which she described as follows:
He said to me: "Gemma, do you wish to be cured ?" I was so overcome with emotion that I could not speak. . . . Poor Jesus! The grace was granted; I was cured. . . . That morning I wept with Jesus, and Jesus, always good, always tender, was saying: "I shall always be with you, my daughter. I am thy father," and, pointing to Mary the Mother of Sorrows, " she will be your mother. A father's help will never be wanting to whoever puts himself in My hands. Although I have taken away from you every support and consolation on earth, nothing will ever be wanting to you."
In spite of this, Gemma’s overall health remained poor. She wished to become a Passionist nun, but was rejected on these grounds. She offered the disappointment up to God. At the age of twenty-one she received warning, in prayer, that an unusual grace was about to be granted to her. She then experienced pain and blood coming from her hands, feet and heart – the wounds of Christ, or stigmata. Every Thursday evening she would fall into rapture and the wounds would appear.
In early 1903, Gemma was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She suffered greatly until her death on Easter Saturday of the same year. Her parish priest later testified that she had died with a smile on her lips.
I wanted to write about St. Gemma today because her life shows that the Christian truly has nothing to fear in either, sickness, death or poverty. A life that appears tragic by worldly standards can actually be one of incredible sanctity and even joy when the soul desires God above all things and is able to trust in Him. As we wait for lockdown to end and wonder what life will look like on the other side of the pandemic, Gemma’s story can, I believe, provide us with reasons to hope. Ultimately, our security rests not in our jobs, health or finances but in the changelessness of God.
Gemma was canonised in 1933 and is the patron saint against temptations (especially those against holy purity), against the death of parents, against tuberculosis, of students and of pharmacists. I’m sure she would be happy to walk with us through these days of trial and uncertainty.
St. Gemma Galgani, pray for us!
by Lucy Stothard