Gabriel smiles again
Sunday 26 February was a day of great celebration for the Passionists at the monastery of St Gabriel in Munich. Guest of honour and guest preacher was none other than the vice-director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr Ciro Benedettini, also a Passionist, who had flown to Munich from Rome for the occasion. He had come to preach the sermon at the Mass and to bless a statue of St Gabriel Possenti who was being ceremoniously transferred from the monastery to the nearby church now under the care of the Passionist Congregation. The statue has an interesting story to tell. It was discovered by chance in September 2004 in the pretty Cotswold village of Broadway, England, by the Passionist Provincial of South Germany and Austria, Fr Gregor Lenzen and myself. My husband and I were on holiday there at the time and were showing Fr Gregor round the Broadway church and the large Victorian house next door that used to be the Congregation’s novitiate in England. Neither of us knew of the existence of the statue until a resident of the large converted house, who happened to be breakfasting in the garden on this beautiful warm late summer morning mentioned that there was a Passionist statue stored in a dark, damp and dusty cellar at the rear of the house. He took us round to investigate. Fr Gregor was visibly upset both by the condition of the statue (which by coincidence was of St. Gabriel after whom his monastery in Munich was named) and by its situation. He began to reflect on how much he must have previously been treasured and prayed to and I began secretly to wonder what I might do to rescue him. On my next visit to Munich I was talking to a member of the Congregation’s confraternity and somehow the conversation turned to the damaged and abandoned statue. The lady’s husband, a painter and artist, offered to restore the statue if I could manage to get it to him. This I did and in October 2005 on October 19, the Feast of St Paul of the Cross, the Congregation’s founder, the newly restored statue was presented to Fr Gregor at the monastery. This came as a great surprise and he immediately decided that on the Feast of St Gabriel (27 February) the statue would be ceremoniously transferred to his final resting place in the church where the congregation might honour him and pray to him again. I was invited over for the occasion. If Fr Gregor’s surprise had been the unexpected arrival of the beautifully restored statue at his monastery, then it was no greater than mine at the wonderful day that had been planned for the solemn transfer of Gabriel to the monastery church of Maria Geburt. Four bearers carried the statue up high and we walked in procession (in the middle of a snowstorm!) from the monastery, around the park and into the little church. Gabriel was then placed to the left of the altar next to the painting of St Paul of the Cross, the father of his Congregation. This was followed by a beautiful concelebrated Mass at which Fr Ciro spoke about St Gabriel’s life. He was born on 1 March 1838 in Assisi, Italy, attended primary school with the Christian Brothers, then secondary school with the Jesuits where he excelled in most subjects, but especially in literature. He was a lively and high-spirited young man who loved parties and dancing but nevertheless apparently lived a model life balancing the world and God. While watching a procession on the octave of the Assumption in 1856, an image of Our Lady appeared to come to life and to speak to him, saying “What are you doing in the world? Religious life is awaiting you”. Immediately afterwards and to everyone’s surprise he entered the Congregation of the Passion where he learned to contemplate the Passion of Jesus in the sorrowful heart of Mary. At his clothing ceremony he took the name of Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother. He died of tuberculosis on 27 February 1862 aged 24 shortly before he was to be ordained. Beatified in 1908 by Pope Pius X and canonized in1920 by Benedict XV, he is one of the patrons of youth.
The placing of the statue in his final resting place is not the end of the story. In fact, it is just the beginning since the congregation already seems to be showing an increasing devotion to the saint. It is difficult not to detect a smile on the face of the young saint as I sit and look at him, surrounded by white lilies and roses, cared for as once he must have been in the little village church in Broadway.
St Gabriel, pray for us!