Gerard Majella came to be invoked particularly as patron saint of pregnant women, for reasons hard to discern. He was only a humble Redemptorist lay brother. Yet he did have a strong spiritual influence on women as well as men, something unusual for one who was not a priest.
Gerard was born at Muro Lucano in southern Italy. He grew up a very pious child. Perhaps because of his goodness he was often ill-treated by the fellow craftsmen with whom he studied tailoring, and even by the choleric Bishop of Lacedogna, in whose service he spent some time.
Actually, Majella aspired to join a religious order, but when the Capuchins rejected him as too young and of too uncertain health, he returned to his fatherless family and set up on his own as a tailor. Meanwhile, he devoted an increasing amount of time to prayer and self-denial. He earned enough, but two thirds of his earnings went to the poor or to Masses for the souls in purgatory.
Around 1749, when he was 23, the young tailor was deeply impressed by a mission preached by priests of a new religious order, the Redemptorists. He asked that community if he might join them as a lay brother. The Redemptorists, too, hesitated because of his poor health, but finally they accepted him. The founder of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, was impressed by the young man, and shortened the required novitiate. Gerard made his profession as a lay brother in 1752, adding to the three usual vows one that bound him always to do what seemed most pleasing to God.
His career as a lay brother was brief but brisk. For the first three years his chief tasks were tailoring and working in the infirmary. But he also became noted for the spiritual contacts that he made while he accompanied the missionary fathers on their rounds. It seems that he had unusual charismatic abilities. Thus he could read the hearts of people, and brought a score of them back to God through this insight. He had the gift of prophecy. He had the gift of levitation as well: he could be lifted into the air in the midst of ecstatic prayer. Most extraordinary of these gifts, however, were his “bilocations”. He could be, or seem to be, in two places at the same time.
Not only did the Redemptorist superiors recognize Brother Gerard’s singular gifts, they even named him spiritual director to several communities of nuns – an appointment seldom given to a non-priest. He also carried on correspondence with priests and religious superiors, giving them sound advice. Furthermore, he won a reputation for working miracles. When the crowds seeking cures became too great at one house where he was stationed, he had to be transferred to another house. There he was appointed to tend the door, but soon he was feeding and clothing countless beggars. Nobody knew where the food and clothing came from, except him.
We have mentioned Brother Gerard’s illness that had twice deferred his admission to a religious order. It was tuberculosis, and it overtook him after only three years as a Redemptorist. He announced that he would die on the night of October 15-16, 1755, and he did precisely that.
Pope Pius IX would call him “a perfect model for lay brothers.” In 1904 Pope St. Pius X canonized this “most famous wonderworker of the 18th century.”
It was shortly after his death that St. Gerard became the popular patron of the pregnant. A story is told that suggests why this patronage may have developed.
On one occasion a young woman named Neria Caggiano, whom Gerard had befriended but who was of wanton disposition, accused him of immoral behavior. St. Alphonsus, incredulous, summoned Brother Gerard to Nocera for questioning. In keeping with his vow to do the more perfect thing, the Brother neither affirmed nor denied the charge. St. Alphonsus, therefore, punished him by forbidding him to receive Holy Communion and to have further dealings with outsiders.
This situation went on for several weeks. Then Neria confessed that she and her accomplice had lied in preferring the charge.
“Why didn’t you protest your innocence?” Liguori then asked Brother Gerard. “Father, Gerard replied, “doesn’t our rule forbid us to excuse ourselves?”
–Father Robert F McNamara