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St. Gabriel Possenti CP
Young Francis Possenti arose to speak to the distinguished audience. This was the final academic program of the school year. Francis was chosen to give the principal address of the evening. The archbishop of Spoleto was in attendance, as also gentlemen and ladies of the "better" families as well as monsignors and canons. Francis was at his eloquent best. As he concluded everyone rose in prolonged applause.
The archbishop leaned over to the Grand Assessor, Signor Sante Possenti, who was sitting next to him. He heartily congratulated him on the brilliant address of his son. The elderly Possenti graciously thanked the archbishop but he could hardly refrain his tears. For his son, his Francis, would be taking the early morning coach for the Passionist novitiate at Morrovalle.
Sante Possenti had worked so hard all his life for such a day as this. His long career in the civil service of the papal states had made this possible. A brilliant future was before his son Francis - in government, in business, yes, even in the church, perhaps as bishop or cardinal. All that Sante Possenti had hoped for, Francis was giving up. Sante never could or would understand the choice his son was making.
Francis Possenti's story, lived out in the final decades of the Papal States, becomes part of the story of the Passionists in Italy and throughout the world. The hero of that evening in Spoleto would become known as St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother. Shortly after the return of Pope Pius VII to Rome, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Consalvi secured for the Holy See all of its occupied territories, except Parma and Piacenza in Italy and Avignon in France. Consalvi improved the civil government of the Papal States, by abolishing some feudal privileges and re-organizing the "delegations" or administrative districts and he also sought to increase the role of laymen in civil governmental offices. Pope Pius VII approved of these improvements by papal decree on July 8, 1816.
Three months later Sante Possenti. a young doctoral graduate from the University of Rome was appointed "governor" of the city of Camerano in the "delegation" of Ancona. He fulfilled his none too difficult duties with dedication for twenty-five years. His health was not good and he frequently asked to be moved to another town or district with a better climate and also with an increase in salary.
In 1823 he married a much younger woman named Agnes Frisciotti. During the eighteen years of their married life Agnes gave birth to thirteen children. As the children grew older and needed an education, Sante needed a much better salary to meet these expenses. By 1838 the Possenti family was living in Assisi. There on March 1 his eleventh child, Francis was born. Agnes was unable to nurse this baby so Francis spent his first year away from his family with a nursing woman. When he returned, his mother was occupied with another baby, Vincent, and a year later with yet another, a baby girl, Rose. Francis hardly knew his mother.
By this time deep depression settled in upon Sante. Life was becoming just too much for him. His family had grown so large. He could not find sufficient support from the papal government, nor a better paying position. His own health was poor. He decided that he needed a complete rest. He went alone to his home town of Terni. In November he was offered the office of "civil assessor" or magistrate to the papal legate of Spoleto. This gave him some stability but not a larger salary. Sante brought his family together to Spoleto, only to experience further tragedies.
Agnes' health was failing. Her last child, Rose, who was born weak and ill, had to be put with a nurse in another town, where she died six months later n December 1841. One month later nine-year old Adele died after a short sickness. Already grieving that Francis has spent so much time away from her, Agnes could endure no more. She died in February 1842, when Francis was just four years old.
Tragedy continued to strike the family. In 1846 an older son, Paul joined the Piedmontese Army in the first war for Italian independence against the Austrians. He died at a military hospital in Venice. Another son, Lawrence, had entered the seminary, but left to study at Rome. He became involved with the Masons, and mysteriously committed suicide in February 1853.
Fortunately for Francis. the family remained in Spoleto during his formative years. He attended the school of the Christian Brothers, and then the Jesuit college. He did well in his studies. He was an attractive young men with a lively disposition. But he took the family tragedies to heart as he pondered the deeper meanings of life. Deep in his heart he felt a call to serve the Lord.
In 1854, at the age of sixteen he experienced serious sickness and was even in danger of death. He prayed to the newly beatified Jesuit martyr, Andrew Bobola, promising to become a religious. He was cured but soon forgot his promise! Father Bompiani, a Jesuit, was his director at college. He later testified: "Francis felt that he was called to the religious state, but for some time he hid any signs of a vocation. At first he was inclining to our Society, but then grew cold. Then taken by the thought of doing penance, he turned his heart and thoughts to the Passionists."
Francis had been a fancy dresser and a noted dancer. He was a superb horseman and an excellent marksman. He was reportedly engaged to two girls at the same time and a great partygoer, so it was a shock to some of his family and friends when he announced after his graduation that he was going to become a Passionist. While he had been pondering his vocation, his 26 year old sister Teresa, died of cholera in June 1855. Teresa was like a second mother to him. Her death stirred Francis profoundly. His father noticed at once that Teresa's death had changed Francis. He spoke of this to his son. To his great amazement he learned that Francis wanted to enter the Passionist community!
This was too much. Sante had dreamed of Francis being his comfort and support in his own declining years. Besides, the lad was not cut out for the life of a monk! This thought was just a passing whim. It was his duty as a father to drive this futile idea out of his son's mind. He decided upon a course of action that many fathers have followed - he would make Francis feel the attractions and pleasures of social life.
Michael, who became a doctor and lived to see Francis beatified, testified: "Our father deliberately took him out frequently to the theatre and other respectable gatherings." Henry, another brother, adds: "When our father 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 attend...and this sort of thing went on until the eve of his departure. He then explained to his father that the year granted to him as a trial was over; he was of the same opinion, and he wanted to leave the world, so he asked his permission and blessing."
On August 22 1856 the sacred icon of Our Lady was carried in procession through the streets of Spoleto. When the statue passed Francis he heard the voice of Mary calling to him: "Francis, the world is not for you. The religious life is waiting for you." A few days later the final "Academia" of the school year was held. It was a night of glory for Francis, but also a night of painful family farewells. The next morning he left for the Passionist novitiate.
Sante Possenti, however, did not give up easily. He had arranged for his Dominican son Louis to accompany Francis. On the way they would visit two uncles, one, the vicar general of Loreto, the other, a Capuchin at Morrovalle. Both tested Francis. But as Henry concluded: "He came forth victorious over all the difficulties set before him."
Francis entered the novitiate and received the Passionist habit in September 1856, in the little town of Morrovalle in the Marches on September 21, 1856, which that year was the Feast of the Sorrowful Mother. He was given the name: Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother. A year later he took his vows.
Under the leadership of the general, Father Anthony Testa, the congregation was growing in Italy. The general chapter of 1851 decided to form a new Italian Province, made up of the communities along the eastern coast. It was this new province of the Pieta that Gabriel joined as he became a Passionist.
These were difficult years for Italy. The election of Pope Pius IX in 1846 had at first stirred up hopes in many people for reform in the Papal States, and perhaps even a united Italy. Many were disappointed when Pius IX refused to "bless" the war against Austria early in 1848. Even Sante Possenti had accepted the republic of Rome in 1848 when the Pope had fled to Gaeta. By 1859 conditions were worsening. The revolutionary and republican leader, Garibaldi, was defeating the Neopolitan forces of the Bourbon king. Garibaldi was about to claim the eastern provinces of the Papal States as part of a new republican government at Naples. Cavour, the prime minister of Victor Emmanuel, decided to send troops into the Marches and Abruzzi to assure that the territory would be annexed, not to Garibaldi's revolutionaries but to the new kingdom of Italy.
The new Italian government soon issued decrees closing religious orders in these two newly annexed provinces of the Papal States. The new Passionist province of the Pieta, to which Gabriel belonged, was in the midst of this turmoil, for three of its houses were in the former provinces of the Papal States, two others in the kingdom of Naples. Travel and communication between the communities were quite difficult.
There was always danger that a house might be closed by the anti-clerical government of the new kingdom of Italy. The Pieta Province when Gabriel joined was a small but fervent and apostolic community. Young men were joining and each community was engaged in apostolic missions which usually lasted two weeks or more and frequently were given to an entire small town. In 1852 five missionaries gave the mission in Perugia at the request of the bishop, Cardinal Joachim Pecci (later Pope Leo XIII). 1854 was the "boom" year when 13 missions and 10 public spiritual exercises and 28 private retreats (to clergy or religious) were conducted. This is a goodly number, considering that there were very few religious free to engage in mission work. By the year 1860 all apostolic work had to stop. The times were too difficult. Such was the environment in which Gabriel lived his Passionist life.
Gabriel was sent to the monastery at Isola in territory belonging to the kingdom of Naples. His superiors arranged for him to receive minor orders, but fear of bandits or government troops made travel to a safer place for ordination impossible. There is a story told of Gabriel, a slim figure in a black cassock facing a gang of mercenaries. He had just disarmed one of the soldiers who was attacking a young girl, had faced the rest of the band fearlessly, then drove them all out of the village at the point of a gun. It is suggested that his courage that day not only saved the girl, but led the townspeople to see Gabriel as ‘their man’, something they particularly did after his death, regarding him as ‘their saint’.
For some time Gabriel's health had been poor. The austerity of the Passionist life and Gabriel's own insistence on the strictest observance of the Rule were having their toll. He developed tuberculosis. He died on February 27, 1862. Four years later the monastery at Isola was closed. Gabriel was canonised in 1920 and along with St Aloysius he is a patron of youth. In 1959, Pope John XXIII named him the patron of the Abruzzi region, where he spent the last two years of his earthly life. Over two million pilgrims visit his shrine at Gran Sasso every year and it is the second most visited Catholic shrine in Europe.
We might ask what was special about his life? Obviously Gabriel Possenti did not become the general superior of the Congregation as two of his companions did. He did not become a missionary, a teacher, an author. He did not even become a priest. Nor had Gabriel made his novitiate in the hallowed monastery on Monte Argentaro where St. Paul had started the Congregation. Most likely he never visited Rome. It is certain that he never lived in the Roman retreat of Sts. John and Paul. His experience of Passionist life was not coloured by these traditional Passionist communities
We must also admit that few people knew him, that he had not attracted attention to himself. True, when he left Spoleto early in the morning of September 6, 1856, a few wondered how long he would stay in a religious congregation such as the Passionists. And it took six months for the notice of his death in isolated Isola to reach the generalate in Rome! And no one seemed to be perturbed that news about the death of an insignificant student was delayed so long. But some remembered. His vice-master and spiritual director as a student, Father Norbert Cassenelii, remembered, perhaps at first because it was his duty to be in contact with Gabriel's father. But really, from the very beginning Norbert was aware that Gabriel was a very special person.
We are told that in the years ahead he would retell the story of this young man in his mission and retreat preaching. Surprisingly, those who best remembered Gabriel were the people of Isola. When the Passionists tried to close the house at Isola and to remove the bodies of those buried there, the people kept watch and would not let "their Gabriel" be taken from them. They remembered him because his life had a message for the people, and for the people of the latter part of the l9th century in Italy especially. He was an ordinary person like themselves. They could identify with him. Yes, in an age of holy and mighty popes and bishops, of illustrious kings and rulers, of learned theologians, philosophers, and scientists, many Catholics felt closer to a St Therese of the Child Jesus, Dominic Savio, and Gabriel Possenti.
Gabriel had expressed throughout his life the vitality and warmth of a heart devoted to the Blessed Mother. At Isola people remembered how "their Gabriel" had taught them to pray to their Madonna. They felt close to a saint who loved Mary as they also did. St. Gabriel's life reveals that a deep love for the Mother of Sorrows is of the very essence of the Passionist charism. For it was Mary who appeared to young Paul Francis Danei, wearing the Passionist habit, and calling him to found the Congregation. Paul had a tremendous love for Mary. For example, he named his first retreat and convent, as well as the first two provinces, in her honour.
In his earliest rule he wrote: "Let the brethren have a most tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and in particular to her sorrows." He added that in the apostolate: "Let them take care faithfully to promote the devotion to the sorrows of Mary;". Devotion to Mary was dear to so many of the religious down through the centuries. We think of the Blessed Dominic Barberi of the Mother of God, and so many others. But greater than all the others was Gabriel's devotedness to Mary.
His love for Mary is truly unique in all of Christian hagiography. She was truly for him the "mother" whom he faintly remembered, the "sister-become-mother" who died when he was in his mid-teens. He was truly the "beloved disciple," the loving "son" of the sorrowing Mother. Gabriel loved Mary as his Sorrowing Mother, the woman who saw her own Son die on the Cross. Gabriel stood next to her on the Cross, to be a "son" to her in Jesus' place. He stood by her to show the many others how they too must become her sons and daughters.
The story of Gabriel spread throughout Italy and beyond at the very time Catholics were drawing new strength from Lourdes and La Salette, and the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. His devotion served as an example for the growing Marian spirituality of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gabriel's love for Mary would respond to the teaching of the II Vatican Council on Mary and the role that Council describes to be hers in the Church. Above all, Gabriel had become in the few years of his religious life the "sign" of holiness and dedication that each Christian is called to become. Through his struggle as a youth to commit himself to the Cross - and in so many other ways he has become the "sign" which the Second Vatican Council expects of every religious!
There have been many claims of people that they have ‘seen’ Gabriel. St Gemma Galgani is one. Even in modern times these claims continue and some seem remarkably believable.