St. Gemma Galgani: Sanctified by Suffering

Maria Troutman

St. Gemma Galgani: Sanctified by Suffering

The life of St. Gemma Galgani, though short—she was twenty-five years old when she died—was marked by great suffering. Like many great saints, she bore physical pain for much of her adult life. Gemma was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis and was gravely ill for over a year and a half, losing her ability to hear and to move her limbs, until she was miraculously healed. For good reason, she is regarded as the patron saint of those suffering from back pain and spinal injuries. More notably still, Gemma was a stigmatist who for several years received the Wounds of Christ in her hands, feet, and side every Thursday evening until the following Friday around three o’clock in the afternoon—that is, for the duration of Our Lord’s passion. The wounds she sustained regularly in her body caused her such intense suffering that Gemma described the reception of the stigmata in her autobiography by saying that she thought she would die from the pain. But as with the stigmata she temporarily experienced and the constant pain in her back, it is clear from the reports of witnesses who testified to her sanctity that Gemma abandoned herself to all of this suffering and accepted it as a means of atoning for her sins and growing in holiness; she did not complain, but rather surrendered to and accepted the pain with holy indifference.

Arguably, the interior disposition that prepared Gemma for and facilitated her acceptance of this physical suffering was shaped by the loss of her mother when she was only seven years old. Gemma was the fourth of eight children and the eldest daughter of Enrico Galgani and his wife Aurelia. When Gemma was two years old, her mother contracted tuberculosis and her condition gradually worsened over the following five years. It was a painful five years for Aurelia, both physically and spiritually, for she knew that she would be leaving her children behind soon and she was greatly concerned for her children’s spiritual well-being. Gemma herself recalled in her autobiography that her mother would often cradle her in her arms and weep, saying, “I prayed so long that Jesus might send me a daughter. He has consoled me, it is true, but too late. I am sick and I must die and leave you." Gemma, in turn, anxious to remain close to her mother always, began to desire Heaven above all else and hoped that she too would die so that she would be able to join Aurelia there soon thereafter. In her autobiography, Gemma wrote that during Mass one day, she heard a voice asking if she would sacrifice her mother to the Lord. She responded that she would—on the condition that she could go with her. But it was not the will of God that she should accompany her mother to Paradise just then: she was instead called to remain with her father and brothers and sisters and join her mother in heaven later on.

Gemma’s biographer notes that she showed great understanding and tender compassion towards her mother, and as Aurelia approached her death, Gemma greatly desired to be close to her and would cling to her neck as often as she could. But when the time for her mother’s death came, Gemma made the sacrifice that had been asked of her wholeheartedly, submitting everything to the will of God: she did not cry, but only insisted that her mother was in heaven and hoped for the day when she would join her there. 

St. Gemma is a patron of those who have suffered the loss of parents, but in this regard she is not alone among the communion of saints. At only four years old, Kateri Tekakwitha lost her mother, father, and younger brother to smallpox. Therese of Lisieux was the same age when she lost her sainted mother Zelie to breast cancer. Into adulthood, all three women experienced great physical suffering. But the knowledge that the physical, emotional, and spiritual trials they were undergoing were a means of sanctifying them and atoning for their sins gave a sweetness to the pain that made it not only endurable, but even desirable. For Gemma in particular, suffering brought her closer to the Lord, Whom she had learned to love at the feet of her mother Aurelia—without a doubt, it was through suffering that she learned to love. 

To learn more about St. Gemma Galgani’s life, please visit; the resources that are available there informed and shaped this short biography.