Gemma Galgani should have died unnoticed, for she left no children or family, no hospitals, schools or any human achievement bearing her name. Often sickly in her 25 years of life, disappointments marked her life at every turn. She never got her wish to enter the Passionist Nuns or any other religious community.
Yet, at the news of her death on Holy Saturday, 1903, in the city of Lucca, Italy, neighbors gathered quickly in the city’s ancient streets proclaiming “A saint has died.” Today we’re celebrating her feast.
Gemma died appropriately on the eve of Easter, for she lived a life of intimacy with the Risen Jesus and shared in his passion and death. The young woman spoke familiarly with him in prayer and bore his wounds in her body. Many think the spiritual world faraway; for Gemma it wasn’t faraway at all– saints and angels, Jesus himself, were ever at her side.
“Poor Gemma”, she called herself; but she was not poor. Frail in body and mind, she was no failure. In declaring her a saint, Pope Pius XII said that Gemma experienced what the great apostle Paul experienced: “I have been crucified with Christ and the life that I live is not my own: Christ lives in me.”
Gemma said of herself: “Often I seem to be alone; but really I have Jesus as my companion…I am the fruit of your passion, Jesus, born of your wounds. O Jesus, seek me in love; I no longer possess anything; you have stolen my heart.”
In Gemma’s time, “enlightened” thinkers like Freud and Jung saw only human answers to the mystery of the human person. Little concerned about God’s presence in human life, they would probably have dismissed Gemma and her spiritual experiences as delusional. Some of Lucca’s “enlightened” people had that same opinion of her.
But Gemma’s Passionist spiritual director, Father Germano, saw God working in her, and the church concurred in his judgment by declaring her a saint in 1940.
As humanity today defines itself increasingly in human terms and sees success here on earth as our ultimate goal, Gemma is a strong reminder of God’s presence in ordinary people, even in unsuccessful, imperfect people. Devotion to the Passion of Christ gave Gemma a deep sense that Jesus loved her and lived in her. She saw her life fulfilled in him and his promise of life beyond this.
You can get St. Gemma’s Autobiography or a The Life of St. Gemma Galgani by writing to the Passionist Nuns, 1151 Donaldson Highway, Erlanger, Kentucky 41018
“Then one day I became very discouraged because I saw that it was impossible for me to become a Passionist, because I have nothing at alI: all I have is a great desire to be one. I suffer much seeing myself so far from realizing my desires. No one will be able to take this desire away from me. But when will it come about?” Letter to Germano
Gemm’a buried at the Convent of the Passionist Nuns in Lucca, Italy. The house where she lived before she died has been turned into a museum honoring her. Both places worth a visit.