ASSISI, THAT MEDIEVAL Umbrian hill town of crenelated walls, red tile roofs, narrow cobblestone streets and soaring church domes, can actually lay claim to a second St. Francis.
Francis Possenti was born there on March 1, 1838, 756 years after his namesake, and is better known today by the name he took when he entered the Passionist order: Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin. He died in a monastery founded by St. Francis at Isola Gran Sasso, nestled in a valley in the majestic Apennine Mountains, on Feb. 27, 1862, just two days before his 24th birthday.
The 11th of 13 children of a very pious couple, Sante Possenti and Agnes Frisciotti, Francis was a average boy in many respects and, in fact, one biographer describes him as “not at all a born saint. He was always on the run, forever getting into mischief, fighting, impetuous, head-strong.… He began to smoke, though he knew his father did not approve: he gave up this practice only when it led to his telling a lie.”
When his beloved mother died in 1842, Francis was only four. For a long period he was inconsolable, running throughout the house, calling for her in tears. No one seemed able to give him solace, except the little statue of Our Lady of Sorrows that he kept in his room. Throughout his boyhood years, Francis would turn more and more to Mary.
In his teens Francis was a good student, liked fancy clothes, dressed impeccably and loved sports, especially hunting, and dancing. Indeed, he was known as “the dancer.” He was also very religious and generous to a fault, two qualities instilled in him by his parents. The religious side was further nurtured in his early school years by the Christian Brothers and in high school by the Jesuits.
Slowly, he began to see that it was not what a person had in life, but what a person became, how one used one's life for others. In the midst of earthly pleasures, he somehow felt dissatisfied, and sought something that would give real meaning to his life. In fact, when he entered the Passionist novitiate at Morrovalle in 1856, he wrote: “If I had stayed in the world, I would surely have lost my soul.”
Francis repeatedly heard the Lord's call: “Sell whatever thou hast … and come, follow me.” Two serious illnesses made him promise the Lord he would indeed follow if he was healed. Twice the promise was not kept. The turning point came in August 1856 in Spoleto, where the Possenti family had moved several years earlier. There was a procession on the 22nd, bearing the icon of Our Lady enshrined in that city's cathedral, to thank God for having ended a cholera epidemic. As the image passed, Francis heard Our Lady's voice: “Francis, what are you doing here? This world is not for you. Be quick to enter the religious life.” On Sept. 10, guided by his great love for Our Lord's passion and for Mary, and accompanied by his brother Aloysius, a Dominican priest, he entered the Passionist order and took the name of Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin.
Gabriel would never live to be ordained a priest but in his few short years with the Passionists, he was an example to both young and old, an example of humility, of acceptance of God's will, of joy in suffering, of a total commitment to Mary, to the suffering of Christ and to religious life. Those who lived with him, in particular his spiritual advisor, Father Norbert, saw a young man who personified the beatitudes. Father Norbert described the secret of Gabriel's sanctity: “What that young man did, he did with love.”
After several years of heroic suffering with tuberculosis, he died on Feb. 27, 1862. “And so the last days of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin,” wrote a biographer, “passed gently over to his first days in heaven.”
Buried in the little church of the Passionists at Isola Gran Sasso, where he spent the last two and a half years of his life, Gabriel was not forgotten by either his fellow Passionists or the townspeople, but it was not until his body was exhumed in 1892 that the first of many miracles attributed to him began to occur.
His fame spread. He was declared Blessed in 1908 by Pope Pius X (Father Norbert and several members of his family were present for the beatification) and proclaimed a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. In 1926 he was declared Patron of Catholic Youth and, in 1959, John XXIII named him patron of the Abruzzo region.
When St. Francis of Assisi arrived at Isola Gran Sasso, in 1215, he found a chapel dedicated to the Annunciation. Nearby he began construction of a monastery and larger church dedicated to the Annunciation. This church, the church of the Passionists and the youthful Gabriel, was restored in 1590 and enlarged to its present size in 1908 for the beatification.
Today Gabriel's remains are in a magnificent side chapel in the since-enlarged basilica, set in the stupendous scenery of Isola Gran Sasso.
To accommodate the 2 million pilgrims who annually visit St. Gabriel's, work on a new shrine began in 1970. The breathtakingly beautiful shrine, with its stunning mosaics, stained glass windows, and ceilings that soar heavenward, is now near completion. It can accommodate 6,000 for liturgical functions and has, as well, rooms for conferences, exhibits and retreats and a modern chapel for the Sacrament of Reconciliation with 30 confessionals. Starting at Easter, the influx of visitors is such that, even with a priest at every confessional, the average wait is two hours for penitents. The Passionist Fathers point with pride to the fact that people willingly wait two hours to confess.
At the corners of the transept are four bi-directional staircases that lead to the crypt chapel of St. Gabriel. In the months when the number of visitors taxes the capacity of the old basilica, Gabriel's remains are moved to this crypt, which was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
St. Gabriel's is one of the most visited shrines in Italy and, in fact, forced the Italian government to add to the Rome-Adriatic autostrada in order to make the shrine easily accessible to pilgrims. Isola Gran Sasso is very small and has few accommodations for visitors, most of whom come just for the day.
Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin is still very much alive today. The Passionist Fathers have seen to that. As have the millions of visitors throughout the years, especially the great numbers of young people who find an inspiration, an ideal, a model to be followed in this holy man who died so young. They, like Gabriel, have dreams, wants, needs and passions. Yet also like Gabriel, they seek a deeper meaning to their lives.
Gabriel's sanctity did not consist in doing spectacular works for God, but rather in doing the simple works of everyday life out of a spectacular love of God. And that is a love within everyone's reach.
Joan Lewis is based in Rome.