What Do You Know About the Inspiring Life of St. Gemma Galgani?
There was nothing exteriorly extraordinary about her, but upon the publishing of her writings after her death, the world came to know Gemma as an extraordinary woman. She wanted to join a religious order, but her poor health prevented her. People that knew her were shocked to learn that the kind, quiet girl they knew was also a mystic and stigmatist.
Gemma was born on March 12, 1878, the middle of eight children. She lived nearly her entire life in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. If her life could be narrowed down to a short description, it would be her progressive immersion in and love of Jesus’ Passion. Gemma’s mystical experiences began as a little child and continued her whole life, all centered on the Passion and redemptive suffering. She had visions of Jesus, Our Lady, and her guardian angel. Gemma may have been reserved in public, but she was never reserved with her heavenly friends. She spoke with a boldness to them as well as to her spiritual directors, occasionally incurring their wrath.
She led a happy life as a child and was part of a loving family, but tragedy struck Gemma’s family on a few occasions. Her mother passed away when Gemma was only 8 years old. She lost her closest brother when she was 17, and her father passed away when she was 19. The loss of her mother was especially difficult but not without consolations. First, at Mass, a voice asked Gemma if her mother could be taken; it was one of the first offerings she gave to Our Lord. Like all sufferings, they at once hurt us and also open our hearts to great amounts of grace. Second, rather than dwell on the negative, she embraced Jesus’ gift to humanity of His Mother. The Galgani family celebrated Christmas on a much somber note that year, but it was Gemma who took the role of cheering up the rest of the family. Her mother’s medical bills had a drastic effect on her father’s finances; when he passed away, the children were orphaned. Their extended family took on the care of the children with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
One of her early encounters with the Lord set the tone for the rest of her life: her first communion. She received the Holy Eucharist for the first time on the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1887. That she received first communion at nine years old was uncommon at the time—unlike the present day, the age at which children could receive first communion varied by region, country, and diocese. The current practice of receiving at seven years old wasn’t set until several years after Gemma’s death, by Pope St. Pius X. Gemma’s pastor only relented in admitting her to the sacrament out of exasperation, saying she would otherwise die of grief.
Her time in school was interrupted on a couple of occasions due to poor health. In her autobiography, Gemma describes herself as a troublemaker in school, neglectful of her lessons, and full of pride. Her spiritual director for the last three years of her life disagreed. He found her to be exceedingly humble—so much so that he had to be creative about how to get her to open up about mystical experiences. Or he simply placed her under the obligation of obedience and compelled her to share. Fr. Germanus, her spiritual director starting in 1900, insisted that she write down an autobiography of her life up until that point. It’s not as well-known as other spiritual autobiographies like The Story of A Soul, but it’s incredibly insightful. In her writing, we see a portrait of an ordinary girl who experienced the same human weaknesses as any of us—like pride, selfishness, obstinacy—but who responded to grace in an extraordinary way.
She became very sick with spinal meningitis in 1899, catching the disease just after it had claimed her brother’s life. She was miraculously cured from it after a few months. The cure didn’t convince everyone, however. The doctors that examined her considered the sickness to be nothing more than hysteria. Her original confessor, Msgr. Volpi, agreed with the doctors and thought her to be a fake. Fr. Germanus stepped in at a crucial time for Gemma, noted after this cure that “about this time Gemma began to lead that heavenly and singular life which finds a parallel in very few lives of the Greatest Saints” (Fr. Germanus of St. Stanislaus, C.P., Saint Gemma Galgani).
From then on, Gemma prayed a holy hour every Thursday evening. The first time she did that, on Holy Thursday night, she had a mystical vision of Jesus crucified. She felt a deep sorrow for her sins. Over the next few years, she experienced some portion of all of the wounds of Christ’s Passion: the nail marks in the hands and feet, the spear in the side, the pain of the weight of the cross on her left shoulder, the crown of thorns, and the scourging. Her spiritual directors as well as Passionist priests all examined Gemma’s wounds; Fr. Germanus noted them in great detail in his biography of her. In addition to the physical suffering of the stigmata, Gemma endured scorn and ridicule. Her original confessor, Msgr. Volpi, didn’t believe in the supernatural origin of what happened to Gemma.
Her home life continued to be a mix of consolation and suffering. Gemma was given the gift of a new family: the devout Giannini family. She was welcomed as another daughter. Even while she stayed with the Gianninis, her own family did not fully support her. One brother and one sister ridiculed her for her ecstasies. Her sister Angelina brought friends over for the purpose of laughing at Gemma during her mystical experiences.
Gemma’s poor health and notoriety made it impossible to join a convent before death. In September 1902, Gemma fell ill with tuberculosis. Like her contemporary St. Therese of Lisieux, Gemma experienced spiritual desolation near the end of her life. She died on Holy Saturday, April 11, 1903. The attending physician left amazed that Gemma died with a smile on her lips and without tears. Gemma finally got her wish of being in a religious order, albeit posthumously. The Passionists claimed her as one of their own, and even buried her in one of their habits. She is buried in the Passionist convent in Lucca. She was beatified in 1933 by Pope Pius XI and canonized in 1940 by Pope Pius XII.
Quotes and Insights from St. Gemma
“I understood at that moment that the delights of heaven are not like those of the earth. I felt myself overcome by the desire to render that union with my God continual. I felt weary of the world more and more, and more disposed to recollection” (after her first Communion, from her autobiography).
“I want to follow you no matter what the cost in pain, and to follow you fervently. No, Jesus, I do not want to continue displeasing you by a tepid life as I have done up to now. That would amount to coming to you to bring you displeasure. Therefore I resolve to make my prayer more devout and my communions more frequent. Jesus, I want to suffer and to suffer much for you. Prayer will ever be on my lips. If even he falls often who makes frequent resolutions, what will happen to him who resolves but rarely.” (in 1896; from her autobiography)
Like so many of us, Gemma’s spiritual life was fervent at times and lukewarm at other times. The world offers many diversions that can catch our attention, and Gemma was no exception. The word “displeasing” may sound un-Christlike to our ears. We should remember the letter to the church of Laodecia, in the Book of Revelation: “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:15-16)
Regarding her miraculous cure in 1899: “From that day forward, I began to feel it impossible to live unless I went every day to Jesus.”
The same goes for us! She wasn't a saint when she said this; she was grateful for the miraculous cure, of course, but that merely opened something up in her—her love of Jesus didn't depend on the cure. She just realized how dependent she was on Him. How do we go every day to Jesus? Have your favorite form prayers (e.g. morning offering, Angelus, rosary, Anima Christi); reserve time before going to bed to examine your day; rise above distractions throughout the day to say quick prayers to Him, as if you were calling a friend or sending a quick text message. If daily Mass is available, go! If there’s an adoration chapel on the way to or from work, stop in for a visit. We don’t have to be perfected saints to live every day with Jesus.
“I came to myself with the wounds of Jesus so deeply impressed on my mind that they have never since left it.” This had two effects on her: first, “to love Him, and love Him to Sacrifice; the second was a great desire to suffer something for Him, seeing that He had suffered so much for me.”
More serious talk about Our Lord’s Passion, redemptive suffering, and the cross might be unsettling to modern ears. That isn’t surprising; the mystery has confounded humanity from the beginning. The teaching on the Passion was difficult for St. Peter at first (Matt 16:21-23), and St. Paul described it as a “stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). St. Gemma’s approach to the cross is a great way to look at redemptive suffering—not quid pro quo, not doing it out of guilt or obligation, but what a friend/beloved/etc. would say: “Let me join You. Let me be with You. You have done so much for me! Out of love, I want to do something for you!” This cannot be understood in the manner of earning our redemption (impossible!). It is offering to Jesus the very thing He desires: our hearts. Joining Him on Calvary and working toward the salvation of souls. Jesus left room in His sacrifice, which St. Paul tells the Colossians: “now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). Any suffering we undergo out of love for Him gets applied to the salvation of souls—even the most unworthy sinner can offer the smallest sacrifice and join it to the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus it takes on great power!
“And what great kindness this Heavenly Mother has always shown me! What would have become of me, if I have not had Her? She has always helped me in my spiritual wants; She has preserved me from countless dangers; She has freed me from the hands of the devil who was ceaselessly coming to attack me; She pleaded my cause with Jesus when I sinned, and She soothed Him when I moved Him to anger by my wicked life; She has taught me to know Him and to love Him, to be good and to please Him. Ah, my dear Mother, I will love Thee always and forever!” (Autobiography)
The world today is marked by strife, and violence consumes many parts of the world. Although we should work in the world and seek to bring it to Christ, we will never be able to find peace in the world. In troubled times as we have, seek the peace of heaven. Follow St. Gemma and turn toward the cross, embrace it, and get the assistance of Our Lady.
“I wish, oh Jesus, that my voice could reach to the ends of the world, to call all sinners and tell them to enter into Thy Heart….Oh, if only all sinners would come to Thy Heart!... Come! Come sinners, do not be afraid! The sword of Justice cannot reach you Here!”
This sounds as if it were straight from St. Faustina’s diary. Let us heed St. Gemma’s call to throw ourselves at the feet of the Divine Mercy. Jesus desires nothing more than for our sins to be washed away and for us to be with Him in heaven!
“Only one desire remains in me, to arrive at the salvation of my soul and to arrive there I am ready for everything.” (Letter to Fr. Germanus, 6/22/1902)
Many relate something like this sentiment on their deathbed: all the peripheries are swept away, and only the most important things remain. The salvation of our souls is the most important matter in our lives; don’t wait until your deathbed to attend to your soul!