The Making of an Unlikely Saint
More than a million pilgrims a year visit Southern Italy's shrine to St. Gerard Majella, a humble and beloved miracle worker
BY Kevin Wright
September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 1:00 PM
St. Gerard Majella was a remarkable saint who died at the early age of 29. He is cited as the perfect role model for young adults and anyone striving for holiness. Recognized as the most famous miracle-worker of the 18th century, today he is invoked as the patron saint of motherhood. More than one million pilgrims are drawn to the shrine of the well-loved saint each year in Materdomini, Italy. Throughout the year, visitors can be seen kneeling and praying before St. Gerard's tomb, seeking his powerful intercession.
Born on April 6, 1726, Gerard eagerly offered his services to the Capuchins as a young boy, in his quest to serve the Church. Refused for being too young and delicate, he later became a servant for the bishop of Lacedogna. Severely ill-treated by the prelate, Gerard nevertheless served the bishop faithfully until the latter's death. Afterward, he returned home and gave a third of his earnings to his mother, another third in alms to the poor, and the rest in stipends for Masses for the souls in purgatory.
At the age of 23, Gerard left home to join the newly established Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) as a lay brother. Not everything was rosy at first: his family objected to his leaving, and a Redemptorist priest wrote to the house Gerard was joining, “I send you a useless brother.” In time, however, everyone recognized Gerard's superior diligence. St. Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the order, realized the young man's sanctity and shortened his novitiate. In 1752, Gerard professed his final vows.
Over the next three years, Gerard devoted himself to propagating the Catholic faith. His gift for reading souls led the Redemptorist fathers to bring Gerard on their missions and retreats. During this period, the future saint experienced the gifts of ecstatic flight, bilocation, prophecy, and infused knowledge. When the archpriest of Muro was murdered 50 miles away, Gerard knew of the incident immediately. Several times he learned and correctly acted on the mental wishes of others at a distance. On one occasion he read the bad conscience of an archbishop with such accuracy that the prelate repented and completely reformed his life.
His reputation for holiness spread far and wide. Several communities of nuns received him as their spiritual director, although he was a lay brother. For many others, he became a spiritual adviser and wrote many letters of advice to those in authority, both priests and other religious.
Brother Gerard also possessed a deep love for the poor. Many described Gerard's concern and compassion for them as similar to that of a mother for her children. Everyone came from far and near to present his or her needs to him. In 1755, while laboring and traveling throughout southern Italy in the summer heat, he grew weak and ill.
Except for a few brief periods, he remained confined to his bed with poor health. During the last weeks of his life, his intimacy with God intensified. Through physical suffering and spiritual ecstasy, the Lord granted him elevated gifts of infused knowledge and pre-vision. Gerard died on Oct. 15, 1755, at the day and hour he had foretold. Gerard was canonized in 1904.
In the words of Pope Leo XIII, the saint was “one of those angelic youths whom God has given to the world as a model to mankind.”
Today, the shrine of St. Gerard Majella in Materdomini (Latin for “Mother of God”) has become one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in southern Italy. The most prominent sites at the sanctuary include the basilica, St. Gerard Museum, and the tomb of the saint. Pilgrims can also visit the chapel which once served as St. Gerard's living quarters.
The shrine is staffed by the Redemptorists and celebrates a number of anniversaries and feast days throughout the year. St. Gerard's birth is commemorated on April 6 each year. On April 25, the shrine honors the Day of the Sick, and on the third Sunday of May, the sanctuary sets aside a special day for youth pilgrimages. On the fourth Sunday of May, special celebrations are held for mothers and their children. Each August 1, the solemnity of St. Alphonsus Liguori is observed. The first Sunday of September brings with it a day offered for the poor of Madagascar and a procession with the statue of St. Gerard. Sept. 8 is the Feast of Materdomini, and on the evening of Oct. 15 there is a solemn commemoration of St. Gerard's death. The following day, there is the annual blessing of the grain and agricultural equipment. On the 16th of every month, there is a commemoration of St. Gerard's death.
Materdomini is located approximately 40 miles southeast of Naples, and is easily accessible by car and bus. From Naples, take A3 southeast to Contursi Terme via Salerno and Eboli. Exit at Contursi Terme (S91) and head north to Materdomini via Quaglietta.
As there is no railway station at Materdomini, the town is accessible only by car or bus. For rail travellers, take the train to Salerno. From Salerno, there is regular SITA bus service to Materdomini.
For more information on making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Gerard Majella, contact one of the many Catholic travel organizations or e-mail the shrine (in Italian) at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin Wright, author of Catholic Shrines of Western Europe, writes from Bellevue, Washington.
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