THE religious vocation of Francis, not known to his friends until after his departure, had been secretly hidden in his breast for some years. Though so gay in manner, and seemingly so thoughtless, he had been thinking seriously of the future. A secret impulse urged him to use his talents and spend his energy in the service of God and of His Church. “How many times,” writes his friend, Bonaccia, “do I remember seeing him during his thanksgiving after Communion, his head bowed in deepest reverence, his hands clasped, his eyes moist with silent tears, as if he were pondering over some great thought, and maturing with God some great design?”
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.
How wonderfully patient God is with us! He had twice cured Francis of his sickness, and now He gave the reluctant youth a more decisive call to duty.
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. No worldly consideration could move him, no family tie could hold him. 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.
As the soul of a traveller, dusty, wearied, and thirsty after crossing the hot and sandy plains, is delighted with the greenness and refreshed by the shade of an oasis, so the soul of Gabriel was delighted and refreshed with the peace and solitude of the monastery. No soldier was ever more truly proud of his uniform than Gabriel was of the habit that distinguished him as a soldier of Christ Crucified. 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.”