Saint of the Day – 27 February – St Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows CP (1838-1862) Passionist Religious and student preparing for the Priesthood. Born as Francisco Giuseppe Vincenzo Possenti on 1 March 1838 at Assisi, Italy and died on 27 February 1862, just before his 24th birthday, at Abruzzi, Italy of tuberculosis. Gabriel was known for his great devotion to the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. He is also known as Francesco Possenti, Francis Possenti, Gabriel of the Blessed Virgin, Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother, Gabriel Possenti, Gabriel Marie Possenti, Gabriele dell’Addolorata. Patronages – Students, youth, seminarians, novices, clerics, Catholic Action, Abruzzi, Italy.
Francisco Possenti was born in Assisi on 1 March 1838, the eleventh child of thirteen children, to Sante Possenti and Agnes Frisciotti. The family were then resident in the town of Assisi where Sante worked for the local government. Francisco was Baptised on the day of his birth, in the same font in which Saint Francis of Assisi and St Clare had been Baptised and he was named after St Francis.
The first year of his life was spent away from his family with a nursing woman who cared for him because his mother was unable. In 1841 Sante, his father, moved the family to Spoleto where he was appointed Magistrate. In that same year, the youngest Possenti child died at just six months old; Francis’ nine-year old sister, Adele, soon followed. Just days later, his heartbroken mother was too called to eternal life. Francis had lost his mother at just 4 years old.
Tragedy continued to plague the family during his youth. In 1846 Francis’ brother, Paul, was killed in the Italian war with Austria. Another brother, Lawrence, later took his own life. Such events, however, did not rob Francis of his spirit and cheerfulness. During his formative years, Francis attended the school of the Christian brothers and then the Jesuit college in Spoleto. He was lively, intelligent and popular at school. At sixteen, he suffered a life-threatening illness. Praying for a cure, Francis promised to become a religious. With recovery, however, Francis quickly forgot his promise. But God’s call would not be denied and Francis soon turned his heart to the Congregation of the Passionists.
Sante Possenti was less than pleased with his teenage son’s decision. Determined to show Francis the joys of a secular life of theatre and society parties, Sante continued to hope Francis would find pleasure in a social life. But the young man was not to be dissuaded. Immediately after completion of his schooling, accompanied by his brother Aloysius, a Dominican friar, Francis set out for the novitiate of the Passionists at Morrovalle. During their journey they visited several relatives who had been enlisted by Sante to encourage Francis to return to Spoleto but this was to no avail. He arrived at the novitiate on 19 September1856. In the novitiate, he cultivated a great love for Christ Crucified.
Francis received the Passionist habit on 21 September 1856, which that year, was the Feast of the Sorrowful Mother. He was given the name: Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother. Gabriel proved an excellent student and his excellence in academic life was only outdone by the great progress he was making in his spiritual life. At the same time Gabriel began to display the first symptoms of tuberculosis. The news did not worry Gabriel who was, in fact, joyful; he had prayed for a slow death so as to be able to prepare himself spiritually. Throughout his illness he remained cheerful and kept up all his usual practices. He was a source of great edification and inspiration to his fellow students, who later, would seek to spend time with him at his deathbed. Gabriel had proved himself an exemplary religious and a perfect follower of the Passionist Rule, being especially devoted to the Virgin Mary. A year later he took his vows. His monastic life preparing for the Priesthood, made Gabriel a secluded, non-public figure. His writings reflect his close relationship with God and His mother.
These were difficult and tumultuous times in Italy. The new Italian government issued decrees closing religious Orders in certain Provinces of the Papal States. The new Passionist province of Pieta, to which Gabriel belonged, was in the centre of this chaos. By 1860, the Passionists had ceased apostolic work due to the growing threats surrounding the community. During this period, various Italian Provinces were overrun by soldiers, who robbed and terrorised the towns with little mercy.
The people of Isola would always remember him as “their Gabriel.” Struck with tuberculosis at the age of 23, Gabriel died on 27 February 1862, before his Ordination to the Priesthood. His fidelity to prayer, joyfulness of spirit and habitual mortifications, stand out in his otherwise ordinary life. Pope Benedict XV Canonised Gabriel on13 May 1920 and declared him a patron of Catholic youth. His patronage is also invoked by the Church for students, seminarians, novices and clerics. Thousands of divine favours are attributed to his intercession with Christ Crucified and the Sorrowful Mother Mary.
Gabriel was buried o the day of his death. His companion in the novitiate, Blessed Bernard Mary of Jesus (1831-1911), exclaimed:
“Tears come to my eyes and I am filled with shame for having been so far from the virtues that he attained in such a short time.”
Millions of pilgrims visit St Gabriel’s Shrine in Isola del Gran Sasso d’Italia near Teramo each year, to venerate St Gabriel at his burial place and to visit the monastic house in which he lived out his final years.
There is an ongoing tradition every March, when thousands of high school students, from the Abruzzo and the Marche regions of Italy, visit his Tomb 100 days before their expected graduation day and pray to him in order to achieve success in their final examinisations.
Every two years, from mid-July to the beginning of October, the Italian Staurós ONLUS foundation hosts at St Gabriel’s Sanctuar,y a celebrated exposition of contemporary religious arts. With an average of 2 million visitors per year, this is one of the 15 most visited Sanctuaries in the world.
Many miracles have been attributed to the Saint’s intercession; Saint Gemma Galgani proclaimed, that it was St Gabriel, who had cured her of a dangerous illness and led her to a Passionist vocation.