by Fr. Roger C.P.
JOHN BEEVER’S Storm of Glory has attracted much attention. The story of St. Therese’s superior, Mother Gonzaga, now revealed for the first time, has proven almost sensational. Some may have suspected that all was not as it should have been in Lisieux’s Carmel; but few anticipated the state of things under Mother Gonzaga as described by Beevers.
The present study on St. Gabriel by no means pretends to be another Storm of Glory. But the reading of the Processes for St. Gabriel’s canonization seemed to us to give a new picture of his vocation. The statements made by members of his own family (and who better than they knew the story of those early years?) did not agree perfectly with the usual picture of his vocation. We decided to read further. The result is the present study, which offers a critical analysis of the years of St. Gabriel’s life before his entry to the Novitiate at Morrovalle.
Before we attempt a presentation of the vocation of St. Gabriel as seen in the Processes, let us first briefly recall the usual account given by some of the Biographers. Young Francis Possenti felt called to the religious life. In fact, several times sickness indicated to him that God was calling. But Francis was young, attracted by the world, given to pleasant living.
Some day he would bid farewell, but for the present he would continue his worldly, frivolous life. Even his sister’s untimely death in 1855 did not give him the strength of will to follow God’s call we read in the Life by Hyacinth Hage and Nicholas Ward.
But alas! from day to day he deferred the fulfillment of his promise, until truth to say, Francis was once more under the spell of the secular world with all its works and pomps. He did not indeed positively contradict God’s inspirations; not for a moment did he doubt his vocation but he was ever putting off to a future day the execution of his design. But perhaps Father Camillus gives us the classic picture of young Francis toying with Divine Grace.
The world he had driven from him when death hovered near, he now permitted to approach closer still. And once more it spread out before him its thousand sparkling toys and with caressing voice, coaxed him to return to the enjoyment of them. At first, he trifled lightly with the temptation and then gradually succumbed to its seductive power. The glamour of the stage, the elegancies of the drawing-room, the fascination of the opera, the excitement of the dance, the romance of the novel, again became his delight; and it was not long until he was once more the gay and frivolous youth he had been before.
At last Our Lady appeared to him, as her image was being carried through Spoleto in thanksgiving for the end of the plague. Mary called and this time Francis heeded. This is the picture of the young Francis now urged on by grace, now wavering. We are all familiar with this aspect of his life. And yet, is it entirely accurate? Is this the complete picture of St. Gabriel’s vocation? Is it possible that his reluctance to accept God’s call may be over-painted? Let us see ….
God planted the seed of a vocation early in St. Gabriel’s life. This seed was greatly nurtured by the two illnesses he underwent. St. Gabriel realized the seriousness of this question, for he wrote to the learned Jesuit, Father Tedeschini. We have the latter’s reply, dated May, 1855. This letter shows us that he was seriously considering his vocation, as is clear from the extract we quote:
Remember that this project you have in mind (the affair of your vocation) is a thing to be treated of more by prayers and tears before God than by anything else. Place all your trust and confidence in Mary, and do not waver.
St. Gabriel took these counsels to heart. He even planned to become a Jesuit. But he was not sure. He waited. Deep in his soul there was arising a new attraction, strange and unexpected in the son of the Governor, an attraction for penance, for a more austere religious group. Another Jesuit, Father Bompiani, has told us of this phase of his vocation:
He felt that he was called to the Religious State, but for a while he dissimulated. At first he was inclining to our Society, but then grew cold, and then he was taken by the thought of doing penance, and turned his heart and thoughts to the Congregation of the Passionists.
How did this attraction to penance arise? It would be interesting if we knew, but we can only conjecture. At this time there was living on Monteluco near Spoleto a holy hermit, called the Hermit of Cesi. We know from two letters which St. Gabriel wrote as a novice that he had consulted this hermit in regard to his vocation. Perhaps this acquaintance stirred up in young
Gabriel’s heart a desire for a more austere order than the Society. This is possible. Another question arises here: how did he become acquainted with the Passionists? Even his own brother Michael was unable to answer this question.
I cannot explain how he came to choose the Passionists ; all the more so since there were no Passionists in Spoleto, and as far as I know it seems to me that he had no contacts with them.
But what is surprising is that two other young men left Spoleto at this very same time for the Passionist Novitiate at Morrovalle. Had the Fathers given a mission in or near Spoleto? Or had the recent beatification of Paul of the Cross called the attention of these young men to the Congregation? We do not know.
But we must continue with our story. St. Gabriel deferred entering the Society because of the new attraction for penance and for the Congregation of the Passion. And while he was evolving these ideas in his mind, his sister Teresa died of the cholera. Her death had a profound influence upon him. Let us hear Fr. Bompiani’s account:
In the meantime the cholera came to Spoleto in 1855. The young Possenti loved his sister very much, and felt it deeply when she was stricken and died. This death wounded him to the quick, and his thoughts and urgings for his holy vocation were greatly enlivened. He gave himself more to prayer and interior recollection, although his external conduct did not vary much.
His brother Henry also noted the change in Francis:
I remember that his resolution to leave the world and become a religious received a great impulse by the death of his older sister which occurred on June 7, 1855, when he was seventeen.
There was also another who noted the effect of Teresa’s death on Gabriel—his father. One day he asked Francis what was on his mind, and to his great amazement and sorrow he learnt that Francis wanted to enter religion. Now Signor Possenti was a good man, a faithful Catholic; but at his age, he felt that he had done his share for God. His oldest boy, Aloysius, was a Dominican. Henry was studying for the priesthood. Michael was planning on Medicine. Teresa was dead in the bloom of young womanhood. Surely God would permit Francis to remain with him—to be his comfort and joy in his old age. Besides, Signor Possenti was sure that Francis was not cut out for the religious life. He had none of the characteristics of the monk or friar. This thought of his could be only a passing whim.
The elder Possenti felt it his duty as a father to drive this futile idea from his son’s mind.
Thereupon Signor Possenti determined upon a course of action which we would call imprudent, but which many other fathers have followed in similar circumstances. He decided to make Francis feel the attractions and pleasures of social life. He even sought to interest him in the young daughter of a respectable family. He insisted on his going to the theatre. He took him to social gatherings. This was to be the “year of trial.”
All this seems clear from the Processes. For example, Father Norbert briefly relates:
During his last year in the world, favored by his father, he gave himself to diversions, but he soon tired of them. More to the point are the testimonies of his two brothers. Michael is brief, but decisive:
In fact, his father suspected that he wished to leave the family for the religious life. He deliberately took him more frequently to the theatre and other respectable gatherings.
Henry gives us the fullest account, which admits of little doubt:
My brother Gabriel began to go to entertainments more than ever, but his father always accompanied him, for when he learned that he wished to become a religious, he wanted his son first to know the life of the world as a proof or not of his tenacity of purpose in this matter … In 1855 he seemed to love parties even more, but it was his father who asked him to go . . . and this sort of thing went on until the eve of his departure; at that time, he explained to his father and said to him that the year granted to him as a trial was over; he was of the same opinion, and he wanted to withdraw from the world, and he asked his permission and holy blessing.
What was St. Gabriel’s reaction to this plan of his father? We have already quoted Fr. Bompiani as saying: “He gave himself more to prayer and interior recollection, although his external conduct did not vary much,” Henry implies that he spent an hour in his room each day, according to the earlier counsel of Father Tedeschini. Elsewhere Henry tells us that he found a leathern belt with points of twisted steel in Francis’ room, which on one occasion Henry hid for him. He was certain Francis wore this instrument of penance. Of Francis’ theatre-going he gives us the following interesting account:
On going to the theatre in the evening, he asked leave of his father to make a visit, and instead he went out of the theatre to go under the portico of the Cathedral to pray to Mary, if the doors of the Church were closed. Then he would return to the theatre, to return home with his father.
Thus the year went by: the father thinking to thwart the vocation of his young son; Francis striving to keep its flame alive amid the attractions of social life. His chief fault during this “year of trial” seems to lie, not in his refusal to grace, but in over affection for his father. He did not want to hurt him. It was his weakness. His brother Michael remarks on this:
I know that he had to overcome many difficulties to carry out his proposal. Some of the difficulties were interior: these came from the great affection he had for his own, separation from them would be most painful; others were external, as the opposition from his own father.
While trying to get the courage to renew his request to his father, he attended the Procession with the Image of Our Lady. Mary turned to him and spoke. At once he received strength of soul. With Mary’s help he was able to overcome all his weaknesses, and withstand the opposition. He went to his director, Father Bompiani. This good Jesuit tells us of the visit, of the Saint’s resolution to become a Passionist, of his own reaction to it:
I was delighted with his resolution, but I wondered. A frail youth, brilliant, sociable, one who enjoyed somewhat a good time (but according to all the norms of propriety). I considered his proposal for a while. I saw that it was not caprice nor a movement of fantastic fervor, nor ignorance of the difficulties which that state of life would bring to him. I ended by approving his plan. I was glad, and left the affair up to his father, whose permission was needed.
Francis lost no time. At once he wrote to the Provincial of the Passionists. In the meantime he spoke to his father about his plans, one evening after the family Rosary. Old Signor Possenti was disappointed. He played for time. It even seems that he did not give Gabriel the first reply from the Provincial. Finally, he had his oldest son, Father Aloysius, the Dominican, speak to Gabriel. The Processes tell us that Aloysius was home for a vacation. However, since vacations are rare amongst religious in Italy, we are tempted to suspect that the anxious father ‘arranged” this vacation for his older son, in order that he might talk to young Francis and dissuade him from his foolish idea. But after speaking to Francis, Aloysius was won over to his side, and approved of his younger brother’s resolution.
Signor Possenti reluctantly gave his permission, but on certain conditions. Aloysius accompanied him to Loretto, there to have his vocation examined by the Vicar General,
Msgr. Acquacotta, our maternal uncle, a letter explaining the matter to the prelate. Francis came forth victorious from this trial. He stayed at Loretto for a day, and I understand that he remained all day long in the Chapel of our Lady. The next day, if my memory is not bad, he left for Morrovalle, and there he had to face another testing from another maternal uncle. Father John Baptist, Capuchin. Here too he came forth victorious over all the difficulties set before him.
This is the testimony of Henry, his brother.
Thus St. Gabriel won out against his father. He entered the novitiate in September 10, 1856. In less than six years he was a Saint of God.
As we can see from the above account St. Gabriel had to fight to become a religious. It was no light matter. The idea of being a religious had been in his heart for years, yet it was something that he realized only after a hard struggle.
But this struggle was not without its fruits. The trial made St. Gabriel pray harder, made him appreciate the more his vocation. It deepened within his heart his love for God and Our Lady. Above all, it enabled him to reach perfection in a short time. Gabriel was not perfect in the spiritual life when he entered the novitiate. At the very beginning his prayer was a matter of surprise and wonder to his companions and superiors. His soul had been stripped in this trial, prepared for the practise of virtue. Filled with generosity and humility, Gabriel was able to soar aloft to the heights of holiness. Under the direction of Father Norbert he was to become a Saint.
Before closing we ought to observe that St. Gabriel’s one weakness had been his love for his father and family. It was from his father that there arose this opposition to his vocation. Now each visit from relatives meant for St. Gabriel a renewal of this opposition, a remembrance of his affection for his own. Each visit became as it were a new temptation against his vocation. No wonder then that he tried to avert these visits, especially during the year of his novitiate .In closing we might ask : how did the usual account of his dallying with grace arise? where did we get this view of his vocation?
We would answer that this “traditional” picture is due to two things. First, St. Gabriel himself in his humility blamed himself for his delay in responding to grace, while at the same time in his charity he covered over his father’s opposition. He did not wish to put the fault upon a father he loved so dearly. Secondly, the “traditional” picture is drawn chiefly from the testimonies of witnesses who did not know St. Gabriel during the critical years of his life at home.
Their accounts of the early years are chiefly from hear-say, and, we believe, should give way before the testimonies of those who knew him personally during these years. Our picture is based upon the most reliable witnesses—the members of his own family. They better than anyone else knew the opposition their brother had to face. We believe that their testimony is to be preferred to that of others who knew him only as an outsider or in later years. Our picture is, we think, the one to be found in the official Processes for his beatification and canonization. We conclude that it is the only one that is complete and accurate.