St. Gabriel and Devotion to Mary
Confrater John Baptist C.P.
Heroes are wonderful to two classes of men: those who helped them become what they are, and those who cherish the ambition of becoming like them. God’s heroes, too, are no less wonderful, both to Holy Mother Church who fostered them and to her generous children who strive to follow in their footsteps.
Scarcely above twenty-five years ago, a youthful Passionist was proclaimed such a hero of Holy Church for distinguishing himself in his devotion to the Sorrows of Mary and doing it in the short space of six years. That fact is wonderful in the same sense that a miracle is wonderful — something extraordinary the cause of which is not apparent. But for this very reason it merits greater attention and consideration — at least from those whose mode of life is the same as his, and who feel that their own devotion to the Mother of God might thereby wax the stronger.
There is no doubt that St. Gab-riel’s characteristic devotion was his compassion for the Sorrows of Mary. In her Mass for his feast-day, Holy Mother Church marks him in this devotion as one taught by God Himself and thereby raised to the glory of sanctity and miracles. Pope Leo XIII extolled him as one meriting to stand at the foot of the Cross along with the beloved disciple St. John because of this devotion. And that eminent prince of the Church, Cardinal Parocchi, after reviewing St. Gabriel’s life story, declared him the equal of all the saints most devoted to the august Virgin Mother of God. What praise! A galaxy of Mary’s children, champions, and troubadours from the beloved disciple down the ages is conjured up by that sentence: St. Iraneus, St. Augustine, St. John Damascene, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Dominic, St. Alphonsus, and a numberless host of others. But St. Gabriel in these latter times takes his place with them all. How did he do it?
The means St. Gabriel employed to attain perfection will seem commonplace; but the story of his life as compared before, during, and after his Novitiate points to but one explanation. After the grace of God, it was the Passionist rule and life that implanted, fostered, and developed St. Gabriel’s sanctification along the lines it took. If St. Gabriel were questioned on the matter, he could answer in the well-known words: “Praeceptis salutaribus moniti et divina institutione formati”.
When St. Gabriel was only Francis Possenti to the world at large, his devotion to the Virgin Mother of God could not be called notable. It was in fact such as might be expected of a boy reared in a devout Italian household. To be sure, he said the rosary daily; but that was a family affair with the Possentis and, for that matter, a custom common enough throughout a land age-old in its Catholicism. It is of record, too, that Our Lady’s Shrine in the Cathedral of Spoleto on numerous occasions saw the growing Francis kneeling before it in prayer; but neither could that be viewed as extraordinary. Catholics everywhere find it easy and fitting to honour Mary and beseech her mediation in their recurring necessities. On the face of it, then, Francis was as yet no more than one of many of the Virgin’s clients. He was not altogether lacking in paying his respects to the glorious Madonna but neither was he a singularly ardent devotee.
Such as it was, however, his recourse to Mary should not be underrated, for it was a providential disposition for greater things to come as time and occasion would soon offer. Moreover, it was a source of grace that stayed him up not only in his boyhood days but also in his collegiate years, years that marked the greatest crisis of his short life and one in which the Mother of God played so dramatic and decisive a part. For that reason, those critical years will bear their telling in some detail.
When Francis passed his 17th summer, he was, by all counts, well on his way to becoming a dilettante of the fashionable world. Not that he went out of his way to seek it; rather it seemed to claim him by the happy disposition of things about him. Was not his father the highest official of the province? It was only fitting, then, that the aristocracy of the countryside should press him with invitations to their balls and soirees. For his part Francis took dutiful care to dress with the elegance becoming his station. Clothes of formal cut, starched shirts, fancy cravats, glistening patent-leather shoes — all afforded him a cool, delicious sense of satisfaction. Who would impute it a fault that his indulgence in horse riding, the hunt, and other sports, endowed his lithe body with supple grace and strength, with easy dignity and poise? What need for excuse that his face in the full bloom of new manhood was uncommonly handsome? What grounds for complaint that the debonair Francis — courtly in manner, jocose in humour, clever in comment, accomplished in music and graceful in dancing — proved a right popular guest? It is a virtue to be sociable; and if this youth found it so much to his liking, all the more reason for rejoicing. Nor was that all. With this sanguine sociability went a new-found “joie de vivre.” The drama and the opera began to attract him ever more to the theatre and concert hall. His reading developed a sudden penchant for the light literature of his day. It was all so dashing gay, so really stimulating, so zestful. Throughout it all be it said to Francis’ honour, he was maintaining a rigid adherence to the code of a Christian gentleman. Honestly, there seemed no incompatibility in the combination — until Francis found himself overtaken by a serious and very unexpected sickness.
What disease thus laid him low in his prime does not appear in the record of Francis’ life, but this much is astonishingly clear. As he lay in his bed, distraught with fever, his thoughts turned repeatedly to the ideas of death and eternity. In their inexorable light he saw the trifling worth of his former pastimes and laughed a low, sardonic laugh at his own disillusionment. Then with a determination begotten of contrition and hope he turned in prayer to God. If in His boundless mercy, if through the intercession of Blessed Mary, God would see fit to cure him, he, Francis, promised to consecrate his life to the service of religion. Peace followed upon his prayer; sleep, on the heels of peace; and health, in the wake of both. Francis took the remarkable charge as an answer to his prayer and straight away dispatched a letter to one of his former Jesuit Professors, asking advice about his vocation. In answer, the kindly priest encouraged him and among other counsels gave him this one: “Place all your trust in Mary and do not waver.” If his words impressed Francis, the impression soon wore off. The ardour of his resolution gave way to old habits and inclinations that soon drew him to his familiar, carefree pleasures.
Again, therefore, the “Designer infinite would char the wood to limn with it.” In a short time an acute throat infection visited Francis and in his supine condition he recalled with horror his broken promise. The disease seemed like an avenging angel come to throttle him for his perfidy. Burning with shame and confusion, stung with remorse, he would yet sue for mercy. “Oh God, though I don’t deserve Thy pardon, still spare me this time and I will yet fulfil what I promised. See, Lord, I had written to my teacher. I tried to be true to my word. Now, be patient with me, and I will pay Thee all.”With some such piteous words, the sick youth pleaded his poor cause before the Father of mercies, and the God of consolation acquitted him of his deferred fealty and throat trouble to boot. But alas! Neither this second time did Francis get into religion, though he did write for permission to enter the Jesuit Novitiate. Before long, however, he stopped even thinking about it. But God had not done thinking about it, and His designs were not to be frustrated.
In the year 1856 — Francis was now 18 — strange and terrible things came to pass in Spoleto. Some dire sickness visited a number of families. At first its appearance looked casual. Soon, however, it became general. Finally, all the citizens realized with consternation that they were enveloped by an epidemic of cholera! Deaths increased day by day! Burials multiplied no end! The stern angel of contagion did not spare the home of even the city’s Grand Assessor. Signor Possenti saw it lay a rude relentless hand on his oldest daughter. Her passing affected Francis deeply. She was his favourite sister, exercising more influence on him than did any other member of the family. A second time he seemed bereft of a mother. Only this time he was old enough to count his loss and lament his bankruptcy with silent tears. Apparently — and this was nothing new in God’s dealings with his chosen souls — God wanted Francis to feel the abysmal emptiness and insufficiency of the human heart before He would fill it with the precious fullness of His own glorious Virgin Mother even now approaching to aid Francis and the entire populace.
In their desperate plight the stricken people turned to the Mother of God. Gathered in the cathedral before a venerable picture of the Madonna originally presented to the city by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1115, the people “made a vow to Mary that if she would obtain from her Divine Son the cessation of the devastating plague, the whole city would hold a solemn public procession in her honour.” Then the holy archbishop took the renowned image in his hands and having mounted to a balcony overlooking the city, traced the sign of the cross in its direction. It was more than just a coincidence that not a single death occurred thereafter; no, nor a single new case of cholera. Certainly the citizens thought so as they gratefully prepared for the promised procession which was set for the feast of Mary’s glorious Assumption.
That memorable day dawned in all the jocund splendour of beautiful Italy at its midsummer best. With more than usual flamboyance and pageantry, the procession filed slowly through the thoroughfares. Again and again with jubilant acclamation the words went up “Viva Maria! Viva Nostra Madonna!” Amid that exultant crowd was Francis. He too had come to proffer thanks. Just as the resplendent image passed him by, he sank to his knees and directed his gaze to her face. Suddenly, those about him ceased to exist. Those vivid eyes of the Madonna were quick with life, he thought, so fixedly did they peer into the depths of his soul. Why, her lips were moving and he could hear her say, with chiding insistence, “Francis, why dost thou tarry in the world? Arise, make haste, and become a religious.” Arise he did — a changed man. Hasten he would to become not only a religious but also a saint, her peculiar saint. In three weeks Francis had bidden farewell to his family and was on his way to a Novitiate —but a Passionist Novitiate. On the way he allowed himself a day of grace to be spent at the Holy House of Loreto, his arrival taking place on the vigil of Our Lady’s Nativity.
Two weeks later, Francis was invested in the Passionist habit on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows and took the name of Confrater Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. The gay gallant who trod the primrose path of dalliance would now assault the kingdom of heaven with violence and, wonderful to relate, swiftly bear it away.
For the novice Gabriel the novitiate year was what every true novitiate must always be: a death and a resurrection. In the light of faith he would chart life’s course. Then, painfully but persistently, he would uproot the bad or idle habits of the years to supplant them by diligent conscious effort with those modelled after Christ. Nowhere as in the seclusion of an austere cloister and the peaceful, pensive atmosphere of prayer and meditation could he come to know himself and his God. Then, one day, he found in the Crucifix the symbol of both: God, Whose love moved Him to become man, and sin —his sin — which did Him to death. Henceforth Gabriel resolved to occupy himself with naught save love to requite God’s love; with penance, too, to compensate for his failings and those of others.
Beside the Cross — so close as to be almost one with it — Gabriel found something else; at once his life, his sweetness, and his hope; his model and inspiration, his tower of refuge and strength, his way to Christ, his joy and crown and all after Christ Himself —MARY THE MOTHER OF JESUS. He did not find her all at once, though. But once found, she led him on and on to speedy perfection.
Mary’s interposition to send Gabriel peremptorily to the cloister was but the first advance of her predilection. Gabriel must have come to see it that way as he lived from one happy day to an-other in the unearthly peace and joy that makes the religious life. As he recited twice daily her rosary and litany, he found new fervour springing from gratitude and love. The usual Saturday meditations on the Sorrows of Mary struck him with singular poignancy. They were for him the hour of grace to see with astonishing clarity what he had long since known after a fashion but never felt with such profound and penetrating affection. Thus he found it sweet and easy to compassionate Mary, who though absolute in sinlessness because full of grace, yet sustained in her soul tortures transcending all the cruelties and afflictions of the Martyrs. His multiplied acts of love and contrition easily carried their fervour into his reception of the Sacraments, his assistance at Mass, his recitation of the Five Wounds and Seven Dolor Beads, the singing of the Stabat Mater. A special font of intimacy with Mary was opened to him in the daily recitation of the Divine Office. Her hymns terminated every hour; her peerless canticle, every Vespers. Her feasts in their enchanting liturgical cycle were ravishing revelations of love and loveliness. Such lights were not to remain sterile. They begot a consuming love. In a thousand different ways Gabriel would tell Mary that he loved her. For her sake he would confidently grapple with the impossible, yea, and get the better of it. He was eager to tell others too of her goodness. In a letter written to his father at this time he says: “Be assured, dearest father, that I would not exchange one quarter of an hour spent with Blessed Mary, our hope and consolation, for a whole year, or any length of time, spent in the frivolities and diversions of the world.”
Months of his novitiate passed and all the while Gabriel’s sole concern was to put off the old man and put on the new. How else could he prove the sincerity of his love for Jesus and Mary? Accordingly, as was to be expected, Gabriel passed the nine months ‘chapter and was given a copy of the Holy Rule. With reverence, with eagerness he studied its every cherished line and the explanations that accompanied them. Though he thrilled to the history of their composition, he valued them most for their Papal Approbations. With particular pleasure he noted the repeated mention of Mary’s role in those sacred and sublime specifications of a true Passionist. It is to Mary, after God, that the vows are made, a fact bespeaking a special efficacy to confirm the will in its good resolve to follow Christ. As proof pluperfect against attacks on chastity, all are enjoined to “cultivate a pious and ardent devotion towards the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, strive to imitate her sublime virtues, and to merit her seasonable protection amidst so many dangers”. As an infallible channel to perfection, all are again exhorted — this time in the incomparable chapter on prayer —“to honour with due devotion the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God; have her for chief patroness, constantly commemorate the most bitter sorrows which she suffered during the Passion and Death of her Son, and pro-mote her veneration both by word and example.” It was probably this last injunction which suggested to Gabriel what seemed to him a magnificent idea. Forthwith, he betook himself to his confessor and in all the magnanimity of his love begged leave to take a vow to become “Our Lady’s Champion” by defending her honour and by propagating devotion to her. For various untold reasons, however, the confessor judged it prudent to deny Gabriel’s request. Good religious that he was, Gabriel bowed his accustomed consent. Nevertheless, five years later, when he had proved his fidelity, he would have his way.
One more consideration must have given impetus to Gabriel’s devotion to Mary in the Novitiate. As the time of his profession approached, he faced — like every novice before him and since — thievery serious problem of perseverance. What assurance was his that he could abide by; the austere exactions of the rule until death? What temerity, not to say presumption, for him to take perpetual vows after a single year’s trial! But in Mary, Gabriel found a total and adequate solution to the problem. His sure hope would be as ever-present and easy of access as any “Hail Mary” he had recited: “Holy Mary . . . pray for us . . . now and at the hour of our death.” To the Mediatrix of all grace he would turn for help in the duty of the present moment. Tomorrow, he reasoned, may not be his. Who, then, would think it difficult to love God for a day, and that his last? And in the Novitiate ‘tis likely he was not “ignorant of this one thing, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). In peace Gabriel placidly awaited the day of his profession. It came, a heavenly joy unfathomed. It passed, of all days, the most memorable. Then Gabriel was on his way to Pievetorino to study Philosophy.
Logic and the consistencies of thought occupied Gabriel now, but equally so did the consistency of his devotion to Mary. His love, forsooth, out reasoned reason and ran, or flew, by arguments more convincing than the strictest syllogism. “Jesus loved Mary. Why shouldn’t I? Jesus came to us through Mary; we should go to Him through her.” Was it an enthymeme? Was it induction or deduction? At the moment, Gabriel probably could not answer; for the Holy Spirit was revealing to him the interior beauty of the fair Daughter of the King in a way surpassing the ordinary. Long ago Aristotle, the philosopher by pre-eminence, stated that the mind becomes what it knows. Confrater Gabriel may or may not have acquainted himself with that dictum of the sage but he too was being more and more assimilated to her whom he contemplated so assiduously. And his contemplation really was assiduous. Mary became his easy habit of recollection. At the stroke of the hour he would recite an Ave. Betweenwhiles, when engaged in study or work, he would call on her name. In some unguarded moments, his fellow-students could hear an audible “Maria Mia.” With the characteristic exuberance of love, Gabriel actually besought his Director for permission to burn or carve Mary’s name over his heart and — oh blessed patience of Directors! — was plainly told no. Thus the time of a year passed and time, as Gabriel recently learned, was the measure of change. This time — the year 1858 it measured his change to Isola del Gran Sasso, where he entered upon his formal course of Sacred Theology.
By the light of divine revelation and supernatural faith, Gabriel now scrutinized sedulously, piously, and soberly all the mysteries of the Creed and by God’s gift came to some knowledge of them and that, a most fruitful one.
In the end he still confessed —good theologian! — that they were mysteries and to be taken with an humble “Credo”. The tract on Our Blessed Lady must have held a particular attraction for him. It is worth noting that the year 1858 marked but the fourth anniversary of the dogmatic definition of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. It was a foregone conclusion that Gabriel would not only come to a correct understanding of the notion of Tradition and Papal Infallibility, but would also cherish with renewed love her who is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”
Joined to his formal studies and supplementing them were books of devotion which Gabriel took upon the subject of Holy Mary. Two in particular so took him, so kindled his love as to leave him for-ever after in the heroic cast of Mary’s most devoted servant. The first was entitled “Love of Mary “by Dom Robert, a Camaldolese hermit. The second was “The Glories of Mary” by the illustrious Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus de Liquori. This latter Gabriel is said to have used daily for six years — that is, to the end of his life. Mary became for her client a centre of uninterrupted recollection, for as Fr. Bernard, a classmate of St. Gabriel’s, testifies:“ After reading these two books Gabriel’s heart became a furnace of love toward the Queen of Heaven: his mind was in a manner transformed into Mary, so that he could no longer speak, nor think, nor act, without having her before his mind.”
As a tribute of honour to Mary and as a further aid to his own devotion, Gabriel drew up what he called “Our Lady’s Creed”—a collection of Marian praises culled from the great Theologians and Doctors of the Church. So well do they bespeak the inner spirit of the saint that they merit being quoted in full.
Our Lady’s Creed
I believe, O Mary, that thou art the mother of all men. I believe that thou art our life and, after God, the sole refuge of sinners. I believe that thou art the strength of Christians, and their help, especially at the hour of death; that following thee, I shallot stray; that praying to thee, I shall not be abandoned; that standing with thee, I shall not fall. I believe that thou are ready toad those who call upon thee, that thou are the salvation of those who invoke thee, and that thou art willing to do more good for us than we can desire; that even when not asked, thou dost hasten to our assistance. I believe that in thy name is to be found a sweetness like to that experienced by St. Bernard in the name of Jesus — that it is joy to the heart, honey to the mouth and music to the ears, and that, after the name of Jesus, there is no other name through which the faithful receive so much grace, so much hope, and so much consolation. I believe that thou are a co-redemptrix with Christ for our salvation, that all the graces which God dispenses pass through thy hands, and that no one will enter heaven except through thee who art rightly called the “Gate of Heaven.” I believe that true devotion to thee is a most certain sign of eternal salvation. I believe that thou art superior to all the saints and angels, and that God alone surpasses thee. I believe that God has given to thee in the highest possible degree, all the graces, special and general, with which He can favour His creatures. I believe that thy beauty and excellence surpass that of all angels and men. I believe that thou alone didst fulfill perfectly the precept: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” and that the very Seraphim of heaven can learn from thy heart how to love God. I believe that if all the love which all mothers have for their children, all that all husbands and wives have for each other, all that all the angels and saints have for those who are devoted to them, were united in one, it would not equal the love that thou hast for even one soul.
There is another aspect of Gabriel’s devotion to Mary to be mentioned in connection with his theological studies. In the tract on Christ the Redeemer, Gabriel the Passionist sought and found the answer to a cosmic question: Why did God freely choose to die on across for sinful man? As the amazing answer unfolded itself —as far as supernatural mysteries might be said to unfold themselves — he also found with breathtaking insight the “raison d’être” for Mary’s Sorrows. The Immaculate Virgin-Mother was a reflection of the goodness of God the Father Who “so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that those who believe in Him may not perish but may have life everlasting” (John 3:16). Mary was the most faithful reflection of her Son, of Whom it is written “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example tattoo may follow in His steps” (1Peter 2:21) and again “in that He Himself has suffered . . . He is able to help those who are tempted . . . and to have compassion on our infirmities” (Heb. 2:17) and 4:15). If the Holy Ghost “commends His charity towards us because when as yet we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom.5: 8, 9) then Mary by her sufferings is no less beforehand suing for our errant love. For Gabriel “who had already given all the substance of his house for love and despised it as nothing” (Cant.8:7) such lights were more than passing albeit penetrating reflections; they became a sort of confirmation in grace and love so that henceforth his detachment from creatures seemed absolute, his recollection ever more profound, his exercise of every virtue ever more perfect.
While Gabriel’s thoughts were thus fixed on Jesus and Mary, God’s thoughts were also fixed on Gabriel with all the “depth of the riches of His Wisdom and Knowledge, with incomprehensible judgments and ways unsearchable” (Rom. 11:33). One more stroke to conform Gabriel to Christ and His Mother, one more jewel of grace and then — God would find him worthy of Himself.
About the beginning of his third year at Isola, Gabriel’s health suddenly collapsed. The physician was at once summoned and it was discovered that what had hitherto been taken for a slight catarrhal condition was actually tuberculosis. Accordingly, Gabriel was dispensed from the regular observance of the community and denied further application to his studies. It was more than a hard blow; it was, by the standards of medical science of that day, tantamount to a death sentence. When his first firm act of resignation had given way to peace, Gabriel began to look upon leisurely approaching dissolution as a merciful opportunity to prepare for heaven. He would put more love in each act of devotion, for these were to be his last— as though he had not done so all through his religious life. He would show greater cheerfulness and patience in submitting to all the injunctions of the doctor and infirmarian; it would be only for a short while longer. And so it was done, from day to day, from virtue to virtue. Others knew it, too, and said so, like Brother Sylvestro who observed with a Brother’s laconic eloquence, “If everybody in this house were as pleasant and agreeable and as easily satisfied as Confrater Gabriel, I might not be in such a hurry to get to heaven.”
Next came the jewel. It occurred to Gabriel that he might try again to get his confessor’s consent that he should take a vow to promote devotion to Our Lady. Gabriel was confident that the heart of Fr. Norbert like the “heart of the king was in the hand of the Lord: whithersoever he will he shall turn it” (Prov.21: 1). This time the Lord turned it Gabriel’s way, for Fr. Norbert heartily concurred with the plan. So, with much joy Gabriel secretly adorned a private chapel of Our Lady and there pronounced his vow at the hands of his confessor. Thereby, too, the august Queen of Heaven would confer her accolade on Gabriel, for thereafter he would be free from the least deliberate imperfection.
Lastly came his holy death. Late on February twenty-sixth, Gabriel began to fail noticeably. Holy Viaticum was administered. Then all through the night his confessor, Fr. Norbert, sat beside him to afford him spiritual comfort. The devil, conscious that his last opportunities for temptation would soon be over, was not absent .Again and again by his foul representations he agitated the dying youth’s imagination. Quickly Gabriel took refuge in prayer and called on Holy Mary. “O Mary, my Mother, chase them away; make them go”. “O my Mother, my Lady, drive her away”. From time to time the hand of Fr. Norbert would be raised in absolution and Gabriel would then lie easy.
As hour wearily succeeded hour, Gabriel continued to clasp his crucifix and picture of Our Lady of Sorrows. Almost uninterruptedly he kept repeating the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and a certain favourite ejaculation of his which ran: “O my dear Jesus, love for love, suffering for suffering, blood for blood. Thy wounds are my hope and salvation. O Mary, my sweetest Mother, thou knowest that I love thee and that I belong to thee”. Then as day drew on, Gabriel’s lips no longer moved in prayer. Serenely he fell asleep in God. It was the twenty-seventh of February 1862, the twenty-fourth year of Gabriel’s age, the sixth of his life as a Passionist — and the birthday of a saint into eternal glory with Jesus and Mary.
“O God, who didst teach blessed Gabriel diligently to ponder the sorrows of Thy most sweet Mother, and who hast exalted him to the glory of sanctity and the working of miracles; grant us, through his intercession and example, so to mourn with Thy Mother, that we may be saved through her maternal care.”