Gemma is a modern mystic, whose brief life bridged the beginning of the twentieth century. Hers was a hidden life in which she was in constant pain, yet also in constant communication with the Christ who had suffered so much for us.
Perhaps her spinal tuberculosis was congenital. The doctors despaired of a cure, but she was instantaneously healed when St. Gabriel of the Sorrows, a Passionist saint to whom she had much devotion, appeared to her.
Gemma wanted to become a Passionist nun, but, miracle or not, the Passionist community declined to receive her because of her health record. She was therefore destined to live at home in prayer and atonement. It was her policy never to say “No” to any trial God wanted her to submit to.
An added penance came in 1897 when her pharmacist father died, leaving his eight children penniless. Gemma, then 19, had to be the mother of the family for some time. Then she went to live with a married aunt. She was kindly treated there, but feeling the atmosphere in this prosperous household too worldly, she was happy to return home. She had declined two offers of marriage, wishing rather to serve God totally.
Gemma’s remaining life was on two levels. In her ordinary life she kept busy about her usual tasks, which included care of the poor. She was widely known and deeply respected for her piety and sweetness of disposition. On the supernatural level, she was in frequent ecstasy, when she saw and conversed with the saints and her guardian angel, and carried on a dialogue with God in low, gentle tones. Much of what she said was copied down by her confessor and her aunt.
In June 1899, the young woman received an interior warning that she was about to receive an unusual gift. One Thursday evening after that she received the stigmata–the marks of Christ’s five wounds. Thereafter, the wounds would bleed every Thursday and Friday, and at times even up to Saturday. Then the bleeding would stop, leaving only white marks where the wounds had spurted forth. This continued until the last three years of her life. Her spiritual director then forbade her to accept the phenomenon any longer. At her prayer, therefore, it was withdrawn, although the white marks remained until her death.
Most of Gemma’s sufferings and penances were unknown to those who knew her. Only a few knew that she was the recipient of special spiritual gifts. There was in her none of the play-actor. She was simple and candid and sweet in her relationship with others.
In January 1903 she was given one last cross, a galloping tuberculosis. When she died after much silent suffering on April 11, it was with a smile on her lips.
The cause of Gemma’s canonization was initiated as early as 1917, and she was canonized on May 2, 1940. This was most unusual in those days: it was only 37 years after her death.
During the process that led up to her being declared a saint, the authorities raised questions about several of the more unusual spiritual phenomena that had been reported to her. In framing the declaration that she had practiced heroic virtue, the official Vatican decree carefully pointed out, as usual, that the Holy See passed no judgment on whether these phenomena of her were truly supernatural. It was her heroism that counted.
St. Gemma was given to us, it seems, because in spite of her sufferings she retained a true Christian joy. As she once explained herself, “There is neither cross nor sorrow when we are tightly united to Jesus.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara