The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Blessed Gabriel of the Mother of Sorrows

detail of a stained glass window image of Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, artist unknown, date unknown, Brioux-sur-Boutonne, France; swiped off Wikimedia CommonsSaintly youths are a great joy to the Church. Prominent among those of the nineteenth century is the Blessed Gabriel of the Mother of Sorrows, a member of the Congregation of the Passion. Leo XIII used to call him “the Saint Aloysius of our days.” His family name was Francis Posenti. His father was a well-to-do civil official of renowned Assisi in Umbria. Here Francis was born on 1 March 1838, the eleventh of thirteen children. To facilitate the higher education of his children, the father moved to Spoleto in 1842. Unfortunately, however, the mother died soon after. But the father was a deeply religious man. He spent an hour in prayer every morning and then went to Mass, bringing the children with him. Every night he questioned his children to learn where they had been that day and what they had done, then he said prayers in common, always adding some instruction and admonition. What he most insisted on was the avoidance of bad companions.

Francis received his elementary training from the Brothers of Saint John Baptist de la Salle, and made his higher studies in the college of the Society of Jesus at Spoleto. From his early years he showed generosity and self-control, he was docile and obedient and had a great liking for spiritual things. But his character had also some dangerous leanings. He was very impulsive and inclined to anger. It was not bad will, however, and whenever his temper carried him away, at once there came repentance and each time he humbly asked his father’s forgiveness. Another tendency might have been still more dangerous. He made rapid progress in his studies, was proficient in all branches and won great applause when he appeared in public Besides, he had agreeable manners and a cheerful temperament, so that he was beloved by all and was known only as “the genial Francis.” All this tended to foster his vanity and to end in a desire of pleasing men. Shoes, clothes, cravat, the cut of his hair had all to be of the latest fashion. He eagerly sought after lively and witty society, and delighted in novel-reading, hunting, and theater-going. In the latter he was always accompanied by his father and in all there had been nothing that passed the bounds of innocence. His particular delight was in dancing, and every one knew this. So when he unexpectedly entered the cloister, his professor announced the news to his classmates with the words: “Have you heard what has happened to the young dancer? Who would have thought it: He has left all and has entered the novitiate of the Passionists.” In spite of his inclination toward vanities, however, he had avoided bad companions on principle, and if any one dared utter an immodest word in his presence he was sure to get from Francis a sharp reproof. Still there is little doubt that in course of time the siren song of the world would have proved dangerous to him.

Francis had fallen sick and feared that he was going to die. He prayed fervently for health and promised to consecrate his life to God in a Religious Order. His prayer was heard, but it did not occur to his mind that he must fulfil his promise. A second time God cast him upon the sick-bed and a serious malady of the throat brought him near to death. In his distress he called on the martyr Andrew Bobola, S.J., who had just been beatified, renewing his promise to become a Religious. Again he was healed, this time consulting his confessor on the execution of his promise. But he kept putting the matter off and fell once more into the vanities of the world, although they now no longer left him at ease in conscience. Then, while hunting, he was dangerously wounded. Within a few days death robbed him of his dearest sister. This seemed to end his wavering and he made known his promise to his father. The latter, however, could not believe that his son was destined for the cloister and tried to drive the thought out of his head by engaging him in visits to the theater and in evening parties, and by expressing his desire that Francis should think of marrying a girl of respectable family.

At this moment the Blessed Virgin interposed. On the octave of the Assumption there is carried in solemn procession through the cathedral of Spoleto an ancient and much venerated picture of Mary. When it passed Francis it seemed to him that the Blessed Mother looked sharply at him while an interior voice spoke distinctly: “You know that you are not made for the world. Why, then, do you still remain in it? Enter soon into some Religious Order.” He was conquered and hid in a corner of the church to conceal his excitement and his tears. His confessor, Charles Bompiani, S.J., to whom he revealed his secret, approved the genuineness of his vocation and his intention of joining the Passionists. But Francis said nothing of his interior change to his friends.

At length, on 10 September 1856, he arrived at the novitiate of Morovalle, near Macerata. What had happened to Saint Aloysius now happened to him. As soon as he crossed the threshold of the cloister he was overwhelmed with a flood of joy, convinced that he was now in the place where his soul would find rest. On the feast of the Mother of Sorrows, the third Sunday in September, he was given the habit of the Order and the name, Gabriel of the Mother of Sorrows. He now wrote to his friends, taking leave of them and begging pardon for not having given them a better example. His separation from the world was now complete. He would work at his own perfection and the things of the world could no longer have interest for him. In return for this complete surrender God granted him such fulness of consolation and enlightenment that the empty joys of this world became a disgust to him. This great contempt he had conceived for the world excited the wonder of all. To his father, who had expressed some fear for his perseverance, he wrote: “It is impossible to desert so lovable a lord as Jesus Christ and so loving a lady as Mary.” It would be a mistake to think, however, that our cheerful young man had suddenly become pessimistic and melancholy. The serenity of his soul had in reality become far more pure and undisturbed. He had found all that his noble mind could long for. The charm of his genial, friendly character had a kindly influence on his brethren and on all who met him. Strangers who had made their retreat in the monastery, frequently would not leave without a talk with the friendly Gabriel. Young people asked for entrance into the religious state on the ground that they had seen a young religious from whose countenance there shone a heavenly gladness. Whenever Gabriel met with boys, he conversed in a friendly way with them and skilfully mingled with his talk some pious exhortation. After a year of noviceship he made his religious vows with a joyous heart.

The young religious made his philosophical and theological studies in Pievetorina and in Isola, near Penne. His religious fervor never relaxed but continually increased. He was not without trials, however. God permitted him to suffer violent temptations against faith and confidence and he experienced a great dryness in prayer. But his firmness remained unshaken during such assaults, his virtue struck only deeper root and soon heavenly consolations came again in manifold ways. “Meditation,” says his director, “always so kindled his fervor, that he would have done many things injurious to his health if he had not been so obedient and I had not carefully watched over him. I had no reason to urge him to virtue; on the contrary, I had often to moderate him. During the last days of his life I was obliged to forbid him the usual meditation because he would become so absorbed in the eternal truths that it was an effective hindrance to his health.” Love of the Crucified Saviour, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and of the Blessed Virgin were his chief virtues.

While Gabriel’s years of study were coming to their close, so, too, his earthly pilgrimage was nearing its end. When he was twenty-three years of age he was stricken with consumption. His strength rapidly declined and February 27, 1862, he died a holy death at Isola. His last words were to the Blessed Virgin. Remarkable miracles occurred at his tomb. The deaf, dumb, blind, and lame were cured in so surprising a way that the like is hardly to be found in the records of the saints. The decree of his beatification declares that “the miracles which glorified the beginnings of the Church one could behold renewed at his grave.” At the beatification, which took place on 31 May 1908 a brother of the Beatified was present. Since then the miracles at the grave of Blessed Gabriel have not ceased and application for his canonization has already been made. May he be a mighty protector of our youth, whose faith and morals are exposed to gravest dangers!

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916