To paraphrase the prophet Isaiah: God's timing isn't always our timing.
Take St. Gerard Majella. To be sure, he was known as a “wonder worker” in his 18th-century Italy. But it has been in recent decades that his intercession has been sought out most fervently all around the world.
I learned much about this ascending saint during a recent visit to the National Shrine of St. Gerard Majella in Newark, N.J.
“It's really becoming a national shrine now,” Msgr. Joseph Granato, the director, told me. He described the dramatic increase in pilgrims, mostly women, who come between Masses each Sunday morning to be blessed with the saint's relic. And then there are the thousands of wives, married couples, family and friends who write in from across the United States and Canada. They ask St. Gerard to help them conceive a child, or keep mother and baby safe in difficult deliveries or problem pregnancies. They also come to thank St. Gerard — often with their miracle babies in tow.
Because helping mothers, would-be mothers and unborn children is a major specialty of St. Gerard's, it's little wonder that he's popularly acclaimed as patron of mothers, and protector of expectant mothers and their unborn children. Around the time he died in 1755 in Materdomini, Italy, at age 29, he already enjoyed this reputation. Today he's also known for helping infertile married couples conceive.
So now the timing seems right on the button for Gerard's up-to-the-minute pro-life and family concerns to grow from his national shrine in America, just two blocks from Newark's Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart. The shrine chapel is an annex of St. Lucy Church, itself a glorious example of enduring, Old World beauty.
This shrine chapel, dedicated on Oct. 16, 1935, was first known as the Sanctuary of St. Gerard Majella. By then, his feast had already been a major event at St. Lucy's. The parishioners who were immigrants from Caposele and Teora — Neapolitan villages where Gerard lived and worked — imported their devotion to Newark's first ward and established a public feast in 1899, five years before Gerard, who was a Redemptorist lay brother, was even canonized.
That launched tens of thousands of testimonies, each describing how a novena to him had been answered with a child, even when doctors said was a medical impossibility, or how applying Gerard's “handkerchief” saved a mother dying in childbirth or turned a difficult delivery into a nearly effortless one.
The St. Gerard handkerchief, an important sacramental, originated shortly before the young saint died. As he headed to his monastery in Materdomini after visiting with friends, he was surprised by their teenage daughter, running to return the handkerchief he had unknowingly dropped. “Keep it,” Gerard told her. “You may need it someday.”
Years later, dying in childbirth, she remembered Gerard's handkerchief and had it placed on her. Almost immediately all difficulty passed. She delivered a healthy baby.
Since then, handkerchiefs touched to Gerard's relic or tomb have blessed countless mothers with safe deliveries and happy, healthy, joyful births. Less complicated pregnancies too.
“We've given out thousands of these handkerchiefs,” says Msgr. Granato, who's been at St. Lucy's and the shrine since his ordination in 1955. When the sanctuary was raised to national status on Oct. 16, 1977, he was named St. Lucy's third pastor as well as shrine director.
In all those years, he and fellow priest Father Joseph Nativo, here since his ordination in 1956, have witnessed the wonder-working effects of novenas and prayers to this “mother's saint.” When specialists tell couples that it's medically impossible for them to have children, often St. Gerard steps through the same impossible barriers he did in his own lifetime. Husbands and wives can practically hear his standard pet answer: “It is nothing,” he always cheerfully declared.
The miraculous answers have “almost become commonplace, really,” Msgr. Granato notes from his long experience.
In 1999, for the 100th anniversary of the saint's feast (Oct. 16), Fr. Nativo compiled a book weaving Gerard's life through hundreds of testimonies chosen from thousands that have poured in from joyful parents whose prayers for children and safe births have been answered. And, as in Gerard's lifetime, favors are granted for other serious maladies, even of the soul, since he's also patron of a good confession.
Pilgrims pray fervently before St. Gerard's life-like image in the shrine chapel. Parish societies dress the statue, which arrived from Italy in 1900, in full Redemptorist habit for three days of processions through the neighborhood during the annual October 4-16 feast. Thousands fill the church and overflow into the plaza and neighborhood for the major novena and special devotions. Devotees come by busload from around the United States and Canada.
Different days focus on anointing the sick and blessing wives praying to conceive, expectant mothers and the newborn. In recent years, at least 60,000 medals have been distributed during the feast — 70,000 in just two days during the 100th anniversary.
“People don't come for a street festival,” Msgr. Granato explains. “They come to visit St. Gerard himself in the sanctuary, either to pray for a favor or give thanks for one.”
This beloved statue of Gerard stands behind the altar and tabernacle in the shrine chapel. He looks beatific. In the half-dome above the image, a mural pictures Gerard in heaven surrounded by admiring angels. Half-round murals circling the domed ceiling give us further glimpses into his life. They show us Gerard's baptism, the saint praying for a mother while he holds her baby and his deathbed vision of Mary as Queen holding the Baby Jesus. Both beckon lovingly to him.
It's no surprise. As a youngster, his playmate was the child Jesus, who would step down to him from a statue in a church near little Gerard's home. Churchmen consider it one explanation why divine Providence has entrusted the care of mothers and children to him. Just as people flock to his feast, children followed him all his life.
Opposite the statue, the gleaming marble baptismal font stirred me to imagine how many thousands of infants baptized here were born thanks to St. Gerard's wonder working. And how many more can be as more people discover him.
A vision for wider discovery — and a strong pro-life ally — came during a recent visit by the rector of the saint's international shrine in Italy. He spoke about the desire to get St. Gerard officially declared patron of mothers and their unborn children.
In fact, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Camden, N.J. diocese, who grew up close to St. Lucy's and has had a life-long devotion to Gerard, believes there should be a national devotion to him and a Mass in his honor in the U.S. From his own pastoral ministry, the bishop recognizes Gerard's powerful inter-cession for those who want to conceive or who are going through difficult childbirths.
Likewise, Father Thomas Nicastro Jr., whose family also hails from this neighborhood, now holds an annual Mass in Connecticut in May honoring St. Gerard. He directs devotees around the country to the national shrine and works with Bishop DeMarzio and the priests from Italy toward having St. Gerard placed on the U.S. liturgical calendar and officially declared the patron of mothers and their unborn children.
In Newark, St. Gerard's particular devotion to the Holy Eucharist is emulated with up to six Masses daily, plus perpetual adoration.
“I follow what Mother Teresa said: If you want to stop abortion, have perpetual Eucharistic adoration,” Msgr. Granato explains. So, I saw, the pro-life movement itself can find a ready-made powerful intercessor in St. Gerard, whose cause for canonization was initiated by Alphonsus Ligouri himself. After all, from 18th-century Italy to his national shrine in Newark, Gerard Majella has always proven himself one of the Blessed Mother's right-hand champions for pro-life and family causes.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.