Born: Francis Possenti on March 1, 1838 in Assisi, Papal States (now Italy)
Died: Feb. 27, 1862 – at the age of 23, of tuberculosis
Feast Day: February 27
Patronage: Students, Youth, Clerics, Seminarians, the region of Abruzzo (in central Italy)
The feast day of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother falls during the season of Lent. The date is very apt, for Lent is a time set aside by the Church to help us prepare for the Easter celebration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. During these 40 days, we engage in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Our goal is to purify ourselves in order to become more like Christ, “to leave Lent a stronger and more vital person of faith than when we entered.”1
A traditional Lenten devotion is to pray the Way of the Cross. As we meditate on Jesus’ Passion and Death, we reflect on the suffering our Lord endured for our sake and on the victory over sin that He won for us through His Death and Resurrection. It is a powerful meditation that can transform our lives if we open ourselves up to God’s power and grace – a meditation that is necessary if we hope to one day become saints ourselves. For St. Alphonsus Liguori tells us that no saint ever reached the heights of spiritual life without meditating frequently on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He wrote, “All the saints cherished a tender devotion towards Jesus Christ in his Passion; this is the only means by which they sanctified themselves.”2 St. Bonaventure echoed this truth, writing, “There is no practice more profitable for the entire sanctification of the soul than the frequent meditation of the sufferings of Jesus Christ.”3
This truth is nowhere more powerfully illustrated than in the life of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother. St. Gabriel had three great loves: the Passion of Our Lord, the Blessed Sacrament, and our Sorrowful Mother. His devotion to these three holy loves transformed his life from a pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification to one of great sanctity in a very short period of time. His life is a source of great inspiration to us; for through his example, St. Gabriel shows us that it is possible for each one of us to fall deeply in love with Our Lord.
Francis Possenti – now known as St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother4 – was born in Assisi on March 1, 1838, the 11th of 13 children born to Sante Possenti and Agnes Frisciotti. Named “Francis” after St. Francis of Assisi, he was baptized in the same font used to baptize the saint more than 600 years earlier. The Possenti family were respected members of the community, and they were known for their piety and Christian virtues. They were also quite well-to-do. Sante was a lawyer and important government official, and young Francis grew up with every possible material and social advantage.
In 1841 – when Francis was just three years old – the family moved to Spoleto, a town about 50 kilometers south of Assisi. His father had been appointed to be the new magistrate, and Francis led a very happy life there. His parents and siblings doted on him, and though he could be a difficult child – he had a tendency to temper tantrums and was perhaps a bit spoiled – his tender heart and loving apologies made him a family favourite.
Francis was popular with everyone. He had a warm and outgoing personality, and he always had lots of friends. His appearance was very important to him, and he could be a bit of a fop. He was always dressed in the latest fashion and was known to spend hours getting ready for parties. He particularly loved spending time with pretty girls, and oh, how he loved to dance! Nicknamed “il damerino” (the ladies’ man), he became entangled in more than one romance. In fact, up until the day he left for the monastery, some townspeople still held out hope that he might become engaged to a local girl.
Francis was privileged to receive a wonderful education; he began his formal studies with the Brothers of the Christian Schools and later continued at the Jesuit College in Spoleto. A lively and engaging student, he could also be careless, stubborn, disobedient, and wilful at times. But Francis excelled in his studies – especially mental philosophy, public speaking, and Latin – and he graduated at the top of his class.
Outside of school, Francis enjoyed hunting with friends and was apparently a very good shot. He was also fond of reading novels, loved music, art and the theater, and acted in many theatrical productions. Later, however, he would tell friends that these kinds of pleasures “almost cost him his soul.”5
Charming, handsome, intelligent, and articulate, Francis had everything going for him. Everyone expected that he would go on to have a brilliant career in the world. Chosen to give the valedictorian speech at his class’s commencement ceremonies, one of his friends left us the following description:
“His clothes,” he says, “were unusually elegant; a matchless and richly folded shirt-front adorned with jewels; bright buttons on his cuffs; a silk cravat around his neck; his hair studiously parted. Add to these his white kid gloves and patent-leather shoes, and we have a pen picture of young Francis Possenti as he stood, smiling and serene, facing his many friends and the distinguished audience about to be pleased spectators of his triumph.”6
Yet there was another side to Francis. He was also known for his charity, and he had a great concern for the poor. He was a champion of the weak and persecuted and was a warm-hearted sympathizer to those who were suffering in any way.7 He never neglected his morning and evening prayers, and he assisted at Mass at the Cathedral every day. What was it that inspired this kind of devotion in him?
Suffering and Sorrow
While it might seem that Francis led a charmed life growing up, his family experienced their share of suffering and sorrow. Soon after the family moved to Spoleto, Francis’ youngest sibling died at the age of 6 months. A month later, his nine-year old sister, Adele, also died after a brief and serious illness. His mother would pass away just a few days later. Francis – who was only 4 years old at the time – was a very sensitive child, and these experiences had a great impact on him. But there was more sorrow to come. Six years later (in 1848), Francis’ brother, Paul, died while fighting in the Italian war with Austria. And a few years after that (in 1853), another older brother, Lawrence, committed suicide after becoming involved in a scandal.
Francis was so affected by these tragedies that when he came down with a fever at the age of 12 (in 1851), he was convinced that he would also die. Although the doctor assured the family that his illness wasn’t serious, Francis prayed passionately, asking the Lord to save him. He promised God that if He would only spare his life, he would enter a religious order. After Francis recovered, he put the promise out of his mind; but he never completely forgot it. When a bullet grazed his head in a near fatal hunting accident, Francis was reminded of his pact with God. But though he once again contemplated a life of religious devotion, he again set the idea aside.
In 1853, Francis became very ill with a throat abscess, and his family feared for his life. Terrified that he would die, Francis was filled with guilt because he hadn’t kept his promise to God. After a night spent in prayer, the danger passed and he began to recover. But this time, Francis was determined to make good on his vow.
As soon as he had regained his strength, Francis applied to join the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits). But though his application was accepted, his father refused to give his permission. Francis was still at school, and Sante believed that Francis was too young to make this kind of a decision. He encouraged him to give up the idea and to return to his carefree, social life. It would be two more years before Francis would finally be able to convince his father that his call to religious life was authentic.
A Vision from Mary
In 1855, Spoleto was stricken with an epidemic of cholera. Many people died, including Francis’ older sister, Mary Louise. She had taken on the role of mother to Francis after his mother died, and her death was a great blow for him. It was a terrible time of suffering and sorrow for everyone who lived in the town.
When the epidemic finally died out a year later – in August 1856 – the people organized a religious procession to thank the Madonna for saving them from the disease.8 As they processed through the town with the ancient icon of the Virgin Mary from the cathedral in Spoleto, Francis was standing by the side of the road. He had come to watch – perhaps more out of curiosity than devotion – and when he saw the painting, he had a vision. He clearly saw Our Blessed Mother look at him, and he heard her ask why he had waited so long to answer the call to enter religious life. From that moment, his life was transformed.
Francis decided that he wanted to join the Passionist Congregation, a strict religious order who lived a life of silence, solitude, poverty, and prayer. The order has a special devotion to the Passion of Christ, seeing in it the greatest work of Divine Love. In addition to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Passionists make a particular vow to spread devotion to Jesus’ Passion – to foster an awareness of its meaning and significance in the life of each person and the world. Yet though Francis’ father was a pious man, he opposed his son’s decision. Sante even enlisted the help of friends and relatives to try to help dissuade him. But Francis was undeterred, and in September of 1856, he entered the Passionist Novitiate at Morrovalle.
Soon after he arrived, Francis discovered two classics of Marian literature that made a great impression on him: The Glories of Mary by St. Alfonsus Liguouri and The Love of Mary by Dom Robert. Inspired by their message, Francis developed a deep devotion to our Blessed Mother, imitating her virtues and meditating on her sorrows. His devotion was so great that when it came time for him to make his profession, Francis took the name, “St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother.”
His confessor gave him permission to do everything he could to spread devotion to Mary, and in a letter to one of his brothers, Francis wrote, “Love Mary! … She is loveable, faithful, constant. She will never let herself be outdone in love, but will ever remain supreme. If you are in danger, she will hasten to free you. If you are troubled, she will console you. If you are sick, she will bring you relief. If you are in need, she will help you. She does not look to see what kind of person you have been. She simply comes to a heart that wants to love her. She comes quickly and opens her merciful heart to you, embraces you and consoles and serves you. She will even be at hand to accompany you on the trip to eternity.”9
Although many would later attest to his great sanctity, Gabriel’s life in his religious community was not extraordinary in any way. He was not a mystic or given to states of ecstasy, nor did he work any miracles during his lifetime. His life was, however, remarkable in another sense: “for a complete change of life, a wonderful correspondence with God’s grace, and a marvellous exactness in every detail of his duties.”10 Fr. R. Lummer, C.P. writes, “His aim was perfection; his model was Christ Crucified; his patroness was the Mother of Sorrows; his guide was St. Paul of the Cross; his motive was the love of God. He gained his end, not by vainly longing to do great things that might never be given him to do, not by waiting for opportunities that might never occur, but by doing with all his might whatsoever his hand found to do. He wished to prolong his fasts, but his director told him to be satisfied with those imposed by the rules of the Congregation. He desired to practice great austerities, but was forbidden to attempt them. The rules of the Congregation were to him the expression of God’s will, and he fulfilled them to the letter as well as in the spirit. The sound of the observance bell was to him the voice of God calling him to his duty, and he hastened immediately to answer it. In the person of his superior he saw the person of Christ, and he humbly complied with his slightest wish. He ennobled the simplest act by the purity of his intention. What was trifling he made great by using it for an end. His constant occupation was the cultivation of the interior life by always subduing the defects of nature, by always corresponding with God’s grace, by always remembering God’s presence, and by always communing with Him in prayer. Charity is the bond of perfection, and Gabriel’s soul was aflame with charity.”11
Illness and Death
Four years after he entered religious life, Gabriel began to exhibit signs of tuberculosis. Although everything possible was done for him, the disease progressed rapidly, and he suffered a great deal during the final two years of his life. He was so patient through it all – never complaining and always happily resigning himself to the will of God – that his religious brothers always looked forward to spending time with him. He died peacefully at the monastery at Isola del Gran Sasso on February 27, 1862. With his last breath, he commended himself to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. “Oh, my Mother,” he prayed, “make haste, make haste!”
St. Gabriel died just a few days short of his 24th birthday, and he had not yet been ordained a priest. But as Scripture reminds us, God is gracious and merciful, watching over His holy ones. “Being perfected in a short time, he fulfilled long years; for his soul was pleasing to the Lord.” (Wis 4:13-15).
Although St. Gabriel did not work any miracles during his life, since his death, many people – including St. Gemma Galgani – have been healed by means of his powerful intercession. Perhaps part of the reason for the efficacy of his prayers is due to his great devotion to Mary. In 1908, after reading the process of his beatification, Cardinal Parocchi wrote the following words to Pope Leo XIII: “Mary was the very soul of Gabriel’s life, the source and model of the sanctity to which he attained, so that it may be truly said that, in his devotion to the Mother of God he has scarcely been equalled by any, even the greatest saints.” Pope Benedict XV canonized St. Gabriel on May 13, I920.
– Sharon van der Sloot
Prayer to St. Gabriel12
Lord, You gave St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows a special love for your Mother and a compassion for her sorrows. Through her, You raised him to the heights of holiness. Give us great devotion to her sorrows, that we may know her as our loving Mother. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
During his religious life, St. Gabriel made 41 resolutions that became his rule. Simple yet profound, they offer us a glimpse into his soul and have been a source of great inspiration to me. They are as follows:
St. Gabriel’s 41 Resolutions13
- I will keep my rule, even the smallest thing.
- I will not neglect any of my spiritual exercises.
- I will shun idleness.
- I will be punctual.
- I will obey the sound of the bell as though it were the voice of God.
- I will receive all things from the hand of God, as being sent by Him for my own personal benefit.
- I will profit by every occasion for mortification that may occur.
- I will fulfill exactly my ordinary duties, mortifying self in whatever would prove an obstacle to perfect obedience.
- I will mortify my eyes and my tongue.
- I will not leave my cell without necessity.
- I will not inquire after anything through curiosity.
- I will check my desire to talk.
- I will increase the number of such like acts daily.
- I will not take any food outside of mealtime.
- I am poor and I should act accordingly.
- I should be willing to put up with any inconvenience gladly.
- I will not eat with avidity, but rather with reserve and with modesty, subjecting my appetite to reason.
- I will mortify myself in ordinary things and whatever I feel inclined to do, saying in my heart: “O my God, I will not do this thing through mere inclination, but because it is thy will”.
- I will be reserved toward those to whom I feel most inclined, prudently avoiding their presence and conversation.
- I will not utter a word that might, in the least, turn to my praise.
- I will not take pleasure in any praise bestowed upon me.
- I will never excuse myself when I am blamed or corrected, nor even resent it interiorly, much less put the blame upon others.
- I will never speak of the faults of others, even though they may be public, nor will I ever show want of esteem for others, whether in their presence or in their absence.
- I will not judge ill of anyone.
- I will show the good opinion I have of each one by covering up his faults.
- I will consider everyone my superior, treating all with humility and reverence.
- I will rejoice at the good done by others.
- I will not permit myself to become interested in vain and useless things.
- I will rejoice at the success of others.
- I will practice charity and kindness, assisting, serving and pleasing all.
- I will shun particular friendships, so as to offend no one.
- Every morning and evening I will practice some act of humility, and gradually increase the number.
- I will close my heart against disquiet of any kind.
- I will suppress immediately all emotions of impetuosity and all affections that might cloud my mind, even lightly.
- I will obey the voice of the Superior as if it were the voice of God himself.
- In my obedience I will neither examine the why nor the wherefore.
- I will conform my judgment to that of my Superior.
- I will not employ time in conversing about purely worldly matters.
- “Faithfulness in little things” is the motto I will always follow in my efforts to reach holiness.
- I will try to reproduce in myself whatever I see edifying and virtuous in the conduct of others.
- I will give to God the best that I have — the entire affection of my heart.
1 “FAQs About Lent,” Catholic Online; available from http://www.catholic.org/clife/lent/faq.php; Internet; accessed 28 January 2015.
2 St. Alphonso Maria de Liguouri, Introduction to The Passion and the Death of Jesus Christ, ed. Rev. Eugene Grimm (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1887).
4 He is also known as St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Gabriel of Our Mother of Sorrows, or simply St. Gabriel Possenti.
5 Jacob, “February 27: Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows,” a year of prayer: 365 rosaries; available from http://365rosaries.blogspot.ca/2010/02/february-27-saint-gabriel-of-our-lady.html; Internet; accessed 26 January 2015.
6 R. Lummer, C.P., St. Gabriel, Youthful Hero of Sanctity,” reprinted at St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (blog); available from https://stgabriel.wordpress.com; Internet; accessed 29 January 2015.
7 Cf. Ibid.
8 The Icon procession has been repeated in Spoleto each year since the time of the 1856 cholera epidemic.
9 Jacob, “February 27: Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows,” a year of prayer: 365 rosaries; available from http://365rosaries.blogspot.ca/2010/02/february-27-saint-gabriel-of-our-lady.html; Internet; accessed 26 January 2015.
10 Lummer, St. Gabriel, Youthful Hero of Sanctity, available from https://stgabriel.wordpress.com/about/4-religious-life/.
12 “Our Passionist Charism,” Archive for 2010; available from https://passionistcharism.wordpress.com/2010/02/; Internet; accessed 28 January 2015.
13 Lummer, C.P., St Gabriel, Youthful Hero of Sanctity, available from https://stgabriel.wordpress.com/5/st-gabriels-resolutions/.