Today is the feast day of Saint Gemma Galgani. Ora pro nobis.
Gemma Galgani was born in a small Italian town near Lucca. She was the fourth of eight children and the eldest daughter. Her father Enrico was a pharmacist; her mother Aurelia a devout Catholic from whom she picked up her desire for holiness. A month after her birth the family moved into the city of Lucca. (3)
At a very young age, Gemma developed a love for prayer, and earned a reputation for both piety and humility. She made her First Communion at the age of nine, and continued her schooling at the school run by the Sisters of Saint Zita. There, she was loved by her teachers and peers. She was obedient, diligent, and kind, although quiet, shy, and reserved. It is remarked that Gemma was always smiling, regardless of task or difficulty. Although a good student, her chronic illness (developed as a young child) prevented her from continuing her studies, and she was forced to leave school. Instead, she remained at home and taught and cared for her sisters and brothers. (4)
Gemma’s mother died when she was eight and it was around this event that she first began to have mystical experiences. She had just received her confirmation and at the Mass she heard a voice saying to her: “Will you give me your Mama?” “Yes,” Gemma replied, “if you will take me as well.” “No,” the voice said, “Give me your Mamma without reserve. I will take you to heaven later.” She could only answer yes and ran home as soon as Mass was over. It was she who consoled her brothers and sisters after her mother’s death. “Why should we cry?” she said. “Mama is gone to heaven.” (3)
Gemma went to the School of the Sisters of St Zita in Lucca and was a good student, especially in Religious Knowledge. She developed a strong devotion to Our Lady and the Rosary. “If God has taken away my mother,” she said, “he has left me his own.” She longed to receive Holy Communion, even though at that time Communion was only given around thirteen or fourteen. (3)
Gemma continued at the school run by the Zitine Sisters until she was about sixteen. At this time a foot injury she took no notice of became painfully infected and she had to stay in bed for some months. In the end she had to have an operation for which she declined an anaesthetic, just fixing her eyes on the crucifix and enduring the pain. The doctors were amazed at her courage. (3)
When Gemma recovered, she stayed at home looking after the household, making altar linen for the church and clothes for the poor. She would also give religious instruction to children and visit the sick in hospital. Her brother Gino who was a seminarian died when she was sixteen and her father died when she was eighteen, leaving the family destitute. But she also developed a devotion to the passion of Jesus and often expressed the desire to share in his suffering. She did not have long to wait for soon she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. This illness lasted for almost a year. A friend brought her a pamphlet on the life of the Italian Passionist Saint Gabriel Possenti. She called his name in a difficult time and he appeared to console her. (3)
Throughout her life, Gemma was to be favored with many mystical experiences and special graces. These were often misunderstood by others, causing ridicule. Gemma suffered these heartaches in reparation, remembering that Our Lord Himself had been misunderstood and ridiculed. As a young woman, Gemma fell ill with meningitis, a painful disease of the spine. She was forced to wear a heavy iron brace around the clock that only left her arms free. Rather than feeling sorry for herself, her sole regret was the trouble that she caused her relatives. She demonstrated her care through cheerfulness, by never complaining, and by praying for her caregivers.
On June 8, Saint Gemma experienced pain in her hands, feet and heart and blood was coming from the places where she had pain. She received the marks of the stigmata. Each Thursday evening from that point forth, Gemma would fall into rapture and the marks would appear. The stigmata remained until Friday afternoon or Saturday morning when the bleeding would stop, the wounds would close, and only white marks would remain in place of the deep gashes. Gemma’s stigmata would continue to appear until the last three years of her life, when her confessor forbade her to accept them. Through her prayers, this phenomenon ceased, but the whitish marks remained on her skin until her death. At one time during her sufferings, she was asked: “If Jesus gave you the choice between two alternatives, either going immediately to heaven and having your sufferings disappear, or else remaining here in suffering to procure still more glory for the Lord, which would you choose?” She answered: “I prefer to remain here rather than going to heaven, when it is a question of suffering for Jesus and His glory.”
Despite her earlier sickness, Gemma maintained a strict life of penance and austerity, most of which she kept hidden from those who cared for her. In January of 1903, Gemma was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died quietly in the company of the parish priest, on April 11 at age twenty-five. By his report, “She died with a smile which remained upon her lips, so that I could not convince myself that she was really dead.”
Gemma Galgani was beatified by Pope Pius XI on May 14th, 1933, and canonised by Pope Pius XII on Ascension Thursday, May 2nd, 1940. Thirteen hundred of the citizens of Lucca headed by their archbishop attended, including the Giannini family who had so befriended her. Also her youngest sister Angelina sitting with the nun of St. Zita who had taught her as a child and guided her first steps in the path of heroic sanctity. (3)
Image: “La seraphique Gemma Galgani.” (7)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff