Friday, February 27, 2009

The Dancer and the Saint: A Young Man in Love

"It happens to everyone at least once.
You discover inside yourself a surprising ability to be happy and to make others happy.
You fall in love.
Someone once said that only then do you really begin to live.  Before that, you are not able to give yourself completely because you have not yet savored the real taste of things.
And then it is over; but it has made you a are able to go on because you have learned what it means to be alive.  You have understood that the meaning of life consists in loving and in being loved.
This is what happened to him, as was normal.
But there is a difference.
For him, the falling in love of his youth never ended.
There was no time for it to end, because his life was fully spent in this context, ending in his twenty fourth year...
Herein lies the explanation of the popularity of Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows..."  (Saint Gabriel Possenti, Passionist, by Gabriele Cingolani, C.P., translated by S. B. Zak)

There are technically two liturgical commemorations on February 27, the date of my birth:  George Herbert (in the Anglican/Episcopal calendar), about whom I've written below, and St. Gabriel Possenti, a member of the Congregation of the Passion (in the Roman Catholic calendar).  I say "technically" because in actual fact, Herbert's commemoration usually gets displaced because of Lent, and because Gabriel's commemoration didn't even make the cut in the Vatican's last major shuffle of saints' feasts.  But that doesn't dampen my devotion to both gentlemen, especially on my natal day!

Gabriel was born, March 1, 1838, in Assisi with the full name of Francesco Giuseppe Vicenzo Pacifico Rufino, son of Sante Possenti and Agnese Frisciotti.  In the spring of 1841 the family moved to Poggio Mirteto, where his father was named governor, and in the fall, to Spoleto, northeast of Rome and just southeast of Assisi, where Sante Possenti became the legal assessor of the Papal delegation.  Then began a series of incredible losses for Francesco, extending over the next 14 years: his seven month old sister, Rosa, in December, 1841; his seven year old sister, Adele, in January, 1842, of a cerebral hemorrhage, followed by his mother, Agnese, in February, of meningitis; his 21 year old brother, Paolo, in October, 1848; his 27 year old brother, Lorenzo, in February, 1853, by suicide; and his 26 year old sister, Maria Louisa, in June, 1855, of cholera.  

Francesco began his elementary education in 1844 with the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and his secondary studies at the Jesuit school in Spoleto in 1850.  It seems that he excelled academically all through his life. A serious and devout, though very normal boy, he came down with a serious throat illness the next year and made a promise to enter religious life.  The promise was quickly forgotten once he recovered and resumed his many activities, particularly hunting which he loved.  In 1854 the throat abscess recurred a second time, and Francesco repeated his promise to enter religious life if he recovered.  He did follow through this time by applying to the Jesuits who accepted his application. But Francesco couldn't bring himself to take the step. He was very much a part of the social scene in Spoleto, earning for himself the nickname of "the dancer".   

In August, 1856 Francesco seems to have had some sort of deep religious experience during a procession with the image of the Virgin Mary, and began to come to a decision about entering religious life.  Sante, his father, was dead-set against his decision, and right up to the time Francesco entered the Passionists, he enlisted help from a number of family and relatives to dissuade Francesco.  Francesco had had several romantic involvements, and up to the night he left for the monastery there were still hopes that he might become engaged to a local girl, Maria Pennacchietti. Nevertheless, Francesco's confessor confirmed  that he believed his vocation to be authentic, and so Francesco Possenti, in the company of his brother, Luigi, a Dominican priest, set out in September, 1856 for the Passionist House at Morrovalle.  While on the way he had another, more intense, inner experience which seemed to convince him that he was making the right decision.  After an eleven day retreat at Morrovalle, Francesco entered the novitiate on September 21, 1856.  He was vested in the Passionist habit and took the religious name "Brother Gabriel of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows", to whom he had a great devotion.  A year later he professed vows as a Passionist.  

At age 20 Gabriel was on his way to ordination as a priest, beginning his philosophical and Latin studies in 1858. That summer he was transferred to the house at Pievetorina, where his brother, Michele, now a medical student in Rome, visited him in September.  Toward the end of the year, the bothersome throat ailment began to plague him once again. The next year he began theological studies, leaving Pievetorina in July for Isola del Gran Sasso.  Two years later, in May, 1861, Gabriel took the first formal steps toward the priesthood, receiving the tonure and minor orders.  

During the sixth months following, his health began to seriously deteriorate, and when he began coughing up blood the evidence of tuberculosis became more and more evident.  Gabriel continued the observances of the Passionist rule until he was ordered to bed in mid-February, 1862.  Even at that, he continued to wear the full Passionist habit, despite terrible fevers, again until he was finally ordered not to do so.  His spiritual guide, Fr. Norbert Cassinelli, was completely honest with Gabriel about the seriousness of his illness and his eventual death.  Gabriel was completely realistic about the situation and was determined to make the best of every moment in preparation for life beyond this world.  He accepted the fact that he would never experience the laying on of hands in ordination.  Surrounded by his community he died early in the morning on February 27, 1862, peacefully, his face luminous and smiling.

In 1868 Father Paul Bonnacia, a canon in Spoleto and a former classmate, published the first biography of Gabriel Possenti's life.  In less than 30 years Gabriel's cause for beatification was introduced, culminating in the official declaration sixteen years later, by Pius X, that he was "Blessed" Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows.  Benedict XV canonized him a saint of the Church on May 13, 1920.  Pius XI proclaimed him co-patron of Italian Catholic youth in 1926, and John Paul II dedicated the crypt of the new shrine in his honor at Gran Sasso in June, 1985. 

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