Gemma Galgani: a Modern Medieval Saint
by Raphael Amrhein, C.P.
The Voices of Gemma Galgani, The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint, a recent book by Rudolph M. Bell and Cristina Mazzoni. (University of Chicago Press, 2003; cover shown at right) offers a fascinating picture of St.Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), a saint in the Passionist galaxy of saints. Bell is professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Mazzoni, a literary critic, is associate professor of Romance languages at the University of Vermont.
These two scholars "found" Gemma and each other while researching books they independently authored; Bell, Holy Anorexia; Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism and Gender in European Culture. These somewhat ominous titles belie both these authors' fondness for and belief in Gemma, which drew them to collaborate on The Voices of Gemma Galgani. Bell authored Part One of the book, the historical section; Mazzoni, Part Two, the interpretative section.
The book is a scholarly work, replete with the requisite substantiating footnotes. It is also a fascinating "read" for it discloses a fascinating character.
Some of Gemma's fascination arises from the fact that she explains herself in her own words. When her well-known Passionist spiritual director, Fr.Germano Ruoppolo, came into Gemma's life just three years before her death (they met in person only three times), he instructed her to write an "autobiographical confession." This dealt with recollections of her life up to the autumn, 1899. Subsequently, again under Germano's direction, she kept a diary from July 19 to September 1900. Besides her recollections, the historical part of "The Voices" also contains eyewitness accounts of some of Gemma's ecstasies and a representative section of her prolific correspondence.
Gemma emerges from this documentation as an interesting, multi-faceted person: pious, penitential, pliable, obedient, surrendering...cagey, conniving, coquettish, manipulative, self-willed. She is both modern and medieval, the first person who lived into the 20th century to be canonized: she was beatified in 1933 and canonized in 1940. Yet she resembles saints like Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Catherine di Ricci, Margaret Mary Alacoque and Mary Magdalene di Pazzi rather than contemporaries like Francis Xavier Cabrini and Katherine Drexel.
Gemma grew up in a very religious Italian family in the small Italian city of Lucca. She was a highly emotional woman, scarred by the tragic circumstances of a dysfunctional family. Her pious mother died of tuberculosis when Gemma was eight. Her pharmacist father, having spent most of his resources caring for his ailing wife, died when she was 19, leaving the family destitute. Her siblings were a "mixed bag." The most eccentric of them was her sister, Angelina, three years younger than Gemma. She delighted in tormenting Gemma, especially by bringing friends to mock her during her ecstasies. Angelina's testimony during the beatification/canonization process was judged "dubious and useless," her behavior during the liturgies of beatification and canonization was "undignified." She spent some time during those events selling Gemma's effects for relics and souvenirs.
Like other mystics --- Teresa of Avila, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and Therese of Lisieux --- Gemma experienced a miraculous cure. In the spring of 1899, bedridden and almost paralyzed by a back condition, she was apparently cured after making a novena in honor of the then Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. During and after this novena, there were dream appearances of the Passionist seminarian, then Venerable Gabriel Possenti. The two became fast friends.
Gemma's mystical familiarity extended to Jesus, Mary and her Guardian Angel. An occasional playfulness marked these relationships. Occasionally, too, Gemma dueled with the devil.
Gemma's cure deepened her devotion to the Sacred Heart, a devotion promoted by Margaret Mary. On the vigil of the feast of the Sacred Heart, in June 1899, the stigmata appeared on Gemma's body for the first time. This phenomenon appeared intermittently, in several variations, for the next several years, usually between Thursday evening and Friday afternoon.
Gemma's cure and stigmata were greeted by incredulity in medical circles and by her long-time confessor, Monsignor Volpi. The physician he brought to observe Gemma during one of her ecstasies concluded that the stigmata were due to hysteria. When his evaluation became public knowledge, Gemma was discredited.
At the end of June 1899, the season for parish missions began and Gemma attended on at the Church of San Martino, in Lucca. She was delighted to discover that the preachers were dressed like her protector-friend, Gabriel Possenti. The Passionists and Father Germano (right) entered into the Gemma saga and remained her greatest advocates.
Finally, Gemma was recognized. During the processes of her beatification and canonization, other professional medical personnel vindicated Gemma; her mystical experiences were carefully discussed and her authentic holiness upheld.
We 21st Century Christians can be grateful to Rudolph Bell and Cristina Mazzoni for this modern study of St.Gemma. She is a fascinating, complex figure, whom they situate within the secular and religious culture of her day.
What Lessons Does Gemma Teach?
Someone insightfully described spirituality as "faith, lived within a given culture." What was the spiritual culture of Gemma's time? For one thing, women were increasingly pursuing an apostolic spirituality emerging from the creative practicality of Vincent De Paul/Louise de Marillac and the theological reflection of Francis de Sales/Jane Frances de Chantal. That spirituality produced busy "doers" like Elizabeth Ann Seton and Catherine McCauley in the early 1800's and Frances Xavier Cabrini and Katherine Drexel who were contemporaries of Gemma. Her time, as our own, favored a strong active spirituality.
Yet Gemma yearned for the cloister, first with the Visitation nuns and then with the Passionist Nuns. She resembles saints like Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Catherine di Ricci, Margaret Mary Alacoque and Mary Magdalene di Pazzi who advocated separation from the world, hiddenness, prayer and penance more than the apostolic activity of her sainted contemporaries. In fact, Gemma never attained her dream of entering a cloistered religious community; instead she spent her days in the household of the Giannini's, a family who took her in.
Spirituality: a Union of Love
To put Gemma's life in perspective, we have to keep in mind something more important than what spiritual path one takes. The core of spirituality is the union in love initiated, sustained and manifested as God chooses. It is the grace to be in accord with Jesus' teaching and destiny: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15,13)
How that love is concretely expressed depends on one's time and circumstances, but the model of Christian love always remains the same. The modes of Christian love change, but following Jesus always must express his Passion and death.
I think this explains why phenomenon like the stigmata and other manifestations of the physical sufferings of Jesus are present in every era, at least since the time of St. Francis of Assisi. Perceivable signs of Jesus' suffering are the starkest, attention-getting, mind-focusing demonstrations of his love and self-giving. One implication may be this: stigmata, ecstasy, and similar phenomena may not be as "medieval" as we think!
Yet should all those devoted to Jesus manifest or strive after these extraordinary signs? No. God chooses how our relationship with Jesus is actualized. In the last year of her life, Gemma Galgani asked God to remove the physical signs of stigmata; apparently, her request was granted.
Sharing in the Passion of Christ
At the same time, all Christians can receive mystical graces associated with the Passion of Jesus in different forms. Contemporary spirituality, which offers us a "psychological model," recognizes that graces connected with the Passion of Christ touch people and their relationships. For example, how many today in various circumstances are "crucified," bearing the invisible wounds of the psychological sufferings of Jesus?
Every Christian has his or her unique way of being configured to Jesus and partaking of his Passion. For some, it may be a way largely cerebral, ideational, cognitive, intellectual, volitional; for others, it may be largely affective, emotional, experiential, corporeal, and sensate. For the latter especially, Gemma Galgani may be a welcome companion on the journey.
Within the past decade, I have met several people who resemble Gemma Galgani. One is a woman so seized with the meaning of the shed blood of Jesus that she thirsts for the Eucharistic blood of Christ. The option of the cup is not offered in her parish, so several times weekly she drives 28 miles to the nearest parish that offers that option.
She is drawn to the five wounds of the crucified and risen Christ, and seeks refuge in them in times of stress. In the Passionist tradition we recognize this as one of the spiritual strategies of St. Paul of the Cross.
Some time ago, I read of a man who spends an hour and a half making the Way of the Cross. He has been giving guided meditations long before that term was popular. At each station he presents a vivid re-enactment of that episode. Some of his prayerful reflections of profound; all are poignant. Gemma Galgani would find him a kindred spirit.
Gemma Galgani reminds us that holiness is perennial and that it comes in many sizes, shapes, and colors, in many times and places, in many modes and models. The Communion of Saints, celestial and terrestrial, is a galaxy of stars and superstars. Or perhaps, more appropriately, an array of sparkling gems.
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