Hagiographers make sanctity seem impossible for us when they tell fanciful stories about a saint’s early life. How little saint so-and-so was always rapt in prayer, worked miracles, undertook severe mortifications, never had a sexual thought, and so on. Thank God for St. Gabriel Francis Possenti and his biographers, who report that he had a normal childhood. The 11th child of a famous lawyer in Spoleto, Italy, Francis was characteristically cheerful. Although a diligent student as a teenager, he also enjoyed reading novels and attending plays. And his friends called the handsome youth damerino, a “ladies’ man.”
As a teen at the Jesuit school in Spoleto, Francis felt a call to the priesthood. But he procrastinated deciding to act on it. Twice when he was ill he promised to become a priest if he recovered. But still he delayed. Finally in 1856, motivated by the death of a favorite sister, he entered the Passionist novitiate, taking the name Gabriel-of-Our- Lady-of-Sorrows.
Everyone who met Gabriel was impressed with his joyful submission to the humdrum routine of daily circumstances. No great achievement marked his short life, except that he did all that was expected of him with extraordinary patience and kindness. The following prayer displays the tenor of his bright spirit:
Behold me at your feet, O my Lord, begging your mercy. What will you lose by granting me a deep love for you, a profound humility, a great purity of heart, mind and body, a brotherly charity, a sincere sorrow for having offended you, and the grace to offend you no more? What will you lose by enabling me to receive worthily your beloved Son in Holy Communion? By assisting me to act through love for you in all my thoughts, words, penances and prayers? By bestowing on me the favor of loving most tenderly the holy mother of your Son? By giving me the grace of final perseverance in my vocation and of dying a good and holy death? I am a beggar covered with wounds and rags, asking for alms. Behold, O Lord, all my wretchedness! See my proud intellect, my stony heart! See my mind filled with worldly thoughts, my will disposed to evil and my body rebellious to every good work. Help me, O my God, to correct myself. This grace I beg through your own infinite goodness and mercy. To obtain it, I offer you the merits of your Son, Jesus Christ, our redeemer. I have no merits of my own. I am destitute of all good, but his wounds are my hope. Had I shed my blood for love of you, like your Son, would you not grant me this favor? How much more ought you hear me now, since he shed his blood for me.
Gabriel’s Passionist superiors wisely restrained his youthful eagerness for self-abnegation. Once when he asked permission to wear a chain with sharp points, his director refused. “You want to wear the little chain!” he said. “I tell you what you really ought to have a chain on is your will.” When Gabriel repeated his request, the superior required him to wear the chain outside his habit. Such curbs helped the saint maintain a healthy piety.
Before he reached ordination, Gabriel contracted tuberculosis. He died in 1862 at the age of twenty-four.
Gabriel Possenti’s life paralleled that of his contemporary, Thérèse of Lisieux. Both had normal childhoods, displayed cheerful dispositions, sought holiness in doing little things lovingly, and died young of tuberculosis. Had Gabriel not destroyed all his personal notes just before his death, we may have had the male counterpart of I.