NOTHING has been said in the life of Gabriel of marvellous powers, of great deeds, or of astounding miracles; yet he was a hero of sanctity. We have four proofs of his heroism his life proves it; his fellow-men proclaim it; God testifies to it, and the Church defines it.
Gabriel’s life proves him to be a hero. Victory makes a man a hero, but self¬conquest is the greatest of victories; therefore, Gabriel is a great hero, for he conquered self. There was not a fault, not an evil inclination in his nature, that by the grace of God he did not subdue and conquer. By nature he was impetuous and strongly inclined to disobedience; he conquered self by humble submission and blind obedience to superiors. By nature he was inclined to levity; he conquered self by a wonderful recollection at work, and by great constancy and fervour in prayer and meditation. By nature he was inclined to vanity, and was fond of dress; he conquered self by assuming the poor and humble habit of a Passionist. By nature he was much inclined to seek social pleasures, and the world promised him a brilliant career; he conquered self by burying himself in a monastery. The constant self-denial and sacrifice required to be present punctually at every act of the monastic observance, to fulfil exactly every point of rule, and to comply obediently with every wish of superiors, are, in the opinion of many, equal to martyrdom. Gabriel was punctual to the minute, and exact in every point, even the least. He was a hero of faith, for in all things he saw the will of God, and united himself to it by blind obedience. He was a hero of hope, for he looked to no one but to God for his reward, and never ceased to strive for it. He was a hero of charity, for he renounced self, he renounced home, he renounced the world, and did all for the love of God.
Gabriel’s life proves his heroism, and his fellow-men proclaim it. Nothing is more miraculous about Gabriel than the rise and propagation of devotion to him after his death. He was almost a stranger to the people of the Province where he died. He had been in their midst only three years. Their only opportunity to see and hear him was when he served Mass in the church, or sang in the choir. He never left the monastery except in the company of his fellow-students, and then he would not speak to strangers without permission from his director, who always accompanied him. The least frequented roads and the most solitary places are chosen for these walks beyond the monastery walls. Gabriel did not work a miracle, nor he did nothing extraordinary before his death. The people had seen little of Gabriel, but that little had deeply impressed them with a firm belief in his sanctity. The year after his death our religious were driven by iniquitous laws from the monastery where he was buried. For years the monastery was used by the Italian Government as barracks for soldiers, and for years it was abandoned and left without a caretaker. Yet, after thirty years, when a community of our religious returned, and once more took possession of the place, they found the people still frequenting the old church, and praying at the tomb of Gabriel, whom they called “The Holy Religious.” They gathered together and opposed an attempt to remove his body. They held meetings, and angrily asked why he was not proclaimed a saint. What gave these people so firm a belief in the sanctity of Gabriel? Who inspired them to visit his grave and to pray to him as to a saint?
It has been my happy lot to dwell for a few days in the retreat beside the tomb of Gabriel, and I shall never forget what I saw and heard there. Gabriel had lived and died there; Gabriel had stood there; Gabriel had gazed upon these scenes as I gazed upon them. I seemed to feel his presence; I seemed to hear his voice. The church and monastery stand alone on a low hill, and face an amphitheatre of the highest peaks in the Apennines. About two miles off stands the town of Isola, called Isola, or Island, because it is almost surrounded by two little rivers that meet there. At the head of the valley, five or six miles away, stands the Gran Sasso of Italy. This is a mighty peak of bare rock, with a face almost as perpendicular as a wall. It tapers as it rises, and, reaching thousands of feet into the heavens, towers over every other peak in the Apennines. At each side of this huge and lofty rock the other mountains fall away in a semicircle until they become undulating hills. One day in the autumn of 1903 it was a Saturday I stood at the window of a cell in the monastery, and gazed upon this magnificent panorama. It was a beautiful day. Now and then a few clouds floated over the clear heavens from the sea, and gathered to form a fleecy canopy over the high head of the Gran Sasso. Round the neck and over the shoulders of this mountain giant, where he unites with his fellow-peaks, lay a glistening white collar of purest snow. Dark, olive coloured pines grouped in forests in the lower ridges of the mountains and climbed up their sides. Their sombreness was relieved by the bright green firs that grew in their midst. Lower down the great beech forests were lighted up with brilliant autumn tints; the sunbeams slanting on them down the mountain sides gave them the appearance of a forest on fire. Between the sunshine and shadow of the hills and on their tops the herbage gleamed with a sheen like that of silver and gold. The grandeur and beauty of the scene enraptured me; green fields and waving forests, dark valley and glimmering hills, beetling cliffs, snow-capped mountain, and glorious Italian sky held me entranced. I could not tear myself away from them. My eyes feasted with raptured delight upon the lovely grandeur of Nature; I could not give them their fill. There was but one thing wanting a voice to praise the Creator a voice to cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, the earth is full of Thy glory!” And lo! even as I gazed and drank in the wonderful beauties of the Creator s works, I heard the music of voices growing louder and louder, and drawing nearer and nearer. They sang the praises of God, and chanted His litanies.
There are no railways and few coaches running over those hills and mountains. Travellers mostly go on foot there. Along the roads, and by the paths leading to the monastery and church, little bands of people, sometimes five or ten, sometimes twenty or thirty together, were approaching. There were grandfathers and grandmothers with a staff to help them, and with grandchildren, that ran before them on the way, and then sat down to await their coming. There were boys and girls; there were young men and their wives, all dressed in quaint and picturesque Italian costumes. Some had a mule or an ass laden for the journey; others carried their provisions and extra clothing in a bundle on the head. Almost everything is carried that way. The baby peeps out of a basket carried on the mother s head. There, poised in the air, it is swayed to sleep, or gazes wonderingly at the heavens above, as the mother walks along, knitting as she goes. Who were these people? What brought them to the monastery? They were Gabriel’s fellow¬countrymen; they were pilgrims to his tomb. Some of them came from the valley, others had come from beyond the mountains. Some of them had been a day, others two days on the way. They sang hymns and chanted litanies as they came. As soon as they entered the monastery grounds they took off their hats, and walked bareheaded to the front of the church. There each band of pilgrims grouped together, and finished the litany or hymn they were singing before entering the church to kneel at Gabriel s grave and kiss his tombstone. Some came merely out of devotion to him; some came to beg his intercession for them with God; some came to do penance for their sins. These would make their way on their knees from Gabriel’s first resting place, near the door of the church, to his tomb at the other end near the altar, or would remain for hours in prayer beside the body of their “Holy Religious.” The simplicity and lively faith of these devout pilgrims brought tears to my eyes, and stirred my faith as it had seldom been stirred before. One could feel, and seemed almost able to touch, the supernatural in their midst. All that Saturday I stood at the window gazing at the scene before me. All day long the pilgrims continued to come. They came until the church, the sanctuary, and the sacristy were packed; until the large shelter built be side the church was overflowing, and until hundreds were camped in the fields outside. They stopped there all night. Ten of our Fathers heard confessions from early morning till late in the evening. Several times that night I was awakened by the tramp of feet and the singing of hymns beneath my window; more pilgrims were streaming in. The priests arose at two o’ clock, and began again to hear confessions and celebrate Mass. Masses were celebrated until noon on Sunday, and confessions were heard until late in the afternoon. After going to confession, hearing Mass, and receiving Holy Communion, the pious pilgrims again gathered into bands, and started on their way homewards, joyfully singing and chanting as they went. That is a common sight at the tomb of Saint Gabriel during the months of summer and autumn.