Born Francis Possenti, in Assisi, Italy in 1838, Saint Gabriel was the eleventh of thirteen children produced by the union of his parents. His father, a pious man with great political recognition in the area, and his mother, a well-connected religious woman from a respected family, were delighted in their son. He was baptized at the same font that his saintly namesake had been baptized nearly 600 years earlier.
From an early age, Francis demonstrated the potential for thoughtfulness and piety. He encouraged his teacher and siblings to pay more attention to the poor, oftentimes choosing to give some of his portions to those in need. Before he reached the age of four, his mother passed away from a serious illness, as did four of his siblings. Francis, the most sensitive of the family, was severely moved by these losses, increasing his empathy for others and his sensitivity to those in need.
As Francis matured, he developed insight into the fact that he was smart, charming, and attractive. He pursued hedonistic pleasures like art and theater, which he would later write to friends almost “cost him his soul.” He dressed to perfection, paying careful attention to his appearance. Francis excelled at school, and was generally the award-winner in all of his classes. He was chosen to give his commencement address upon graduation from the Jesuit College. Francis embraced the world, and to his classmates and friends, he appeared to have all the tools required for great success. He was the center of attention wherever he went, all the doors of the finest families and establishments open to him throughout the city. And while he was impulsive, prone to anger, and pridefully vain, he was poised to achieve great worldly things.
But Francis felt called in a different direction. Twice, Francis came down with serious illnesses while in school, illnesses he was not expected to recover from. During these times, he prayed to the Lord, promising to become a religious if his life was spared. While a student at the Jesuit College, he had asked permission to enter the Order, and was granted permission from his spiritual director. But Francis delayed entering the Order, finding reasons to wait. He maintained his faith, praying daily in the chapel and receiving the Eucharist, but could not commit to the religious life and give up his worldly enjoyments. As time went on, Francis began to doubt his choice of the Jesuit Order, instead feeling called to become a Passionist, the Order formed by Saint John of the Cross. His spiritual director encouraged him to wait and pray, and see where the Lord led him.
Following the cholera outbreak in 1856, the town rejoiced in thanks to the Blessed Mother, who interceded to save Spoleto. In veneration, a statue of Our Lady was carried throughout the streets. Francis observed the procession, more curious than devoted. As the statue was carried past him, he gazed into the face of the Blessed Virgin, and through the eyes of the statue, Mary pierced his heart with a gaze so strong it felt as a ‘dart of fire.” At the same time, he heard the words deep within in, “Why! thou art not made for the world! What art thou doing in the world? Hasten, become a religious!”
From that moment, Francis’ life changed. He entered the noviatiate of the Passionists, where he would live until his death. The Passionist Order is a strict order, and his family and friends urged him not to commit to such a life. Rather, they suggested he become a priest, or better yet, not become a religious and use his “talents” in the world. Francis was not to be disuaded. After his initial retreat, he was clothed in the robes of the Passionists, and gave up his name for a new name: Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows.
His days were spent in prayer, chanting, study, and manual labor. The Passionist Order maintains a rule of silence, and speaking was forbidden without permission. Gabriel spent the majority of his time meditating on the Passion of Christ, and praying the Rosary to Our Lady of Sorrows. Despite the rules and strict lifestyle, Gabriel was filled with joy. “My life is a continuous delight; what I experience inside these sacred walls is almost inexpressible; the 24 hours of the day seem to me like 24 short instants; really my life is full of delight.” He looked at each sacrifice as a way in which to polish away his sinful life, his pride, his vanity, and devote his life to Jesus. He wrote, “I will attempt day by day to break my will into pieces. I want to do God’s Holy Will, not my own”
Saint Gabriel looked to the Blessed Mother as his comfort and refuge in times of suffering, of which he had plenty due to illness. He wrote of her to his brother, “Love Mary!… She is loveable, faithful, constant. She will never let herself be outdone in love, but will ever remain supreme. If you are in danger, she will hasten to free you. If you are troubled, she will console you. If you are sick, she will bring you relief. If you are in need, she will help you. She does not look to see what kind of person you have been. She simply comes to a heart that wants to love her. She comes quickly and opens her merciful heart to you, embraces you and consoles and serves you. She will even be at hand to accompany you on the trip to eternity.” Within a few years of joining the Order, Gabriel was stricken with Consumption. He died a slow and painful death, over the course of two years, during which he maintained a cheerful and joyous disposition, so much so that his brothers in the Order wished to spend their days with him. In his dying moments, he asked for his picture of the Crucifixion, with the Blessed Virgin standing at the foot of the cross. It was well-worn from use. He devoutly kissed it, placed it upon him, folded his hands across it, and began to pray. With indescribable love he began to say aloud: “Oh, my Mother make haste, make haste!”
Many from the Order watched and prayed in his cell with him, as they knew his moment of death was close at hand. They were moved to tears by his devotion, and by the love with which he implored the comfort of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. By their records, Gabriel suddenly turned his eyes to the left and above him, gazing in rapture upon some heavenly vision. With a peaceful smile, he died, never letting go of his beloved picture. Not yest a priest when he died at age 24, Gabriel was buried at the Passionist retreat in Isola di Gran Sasso, Italy.
Since his death, numerous miracles have been reported via his intercession. For exmaple, Saint Gemma (1878-1903), a young woman with numerous ailments including deafness from meningitis, paralysis, abcesses, and curvature of the spine was miraculously cured after praying a novena to Saint Gabriel. In her own words, "I grew in admiration of his virtues and his ways. My devotion to him increased. At night I did not sleep without having his picture under my pillow, and after that I began to see him near me. I don’t know how to explain this, but I felt his presence. At all times and in every action Brother Gabriel came to mind.”
When she was approximately 20, and on her deathbed, Gemma began her novena to Saint Gabriel. While trying to sleep, she heard the rattling of a Rosary and he appeared to her, saying, “Do you wish to recover? Pray with faith every evening to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I will come to you until the Novena is ended, and will pray together to this Most Sacred Heart.” On the last night of the Novena, Gemma was miraculously cured of all her ailments, a scientific impossibility at the time. Saint Gemma went on to be visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary, and bore the stigmata throughout her prayerful life, committed to Jesus.
One of his brothers wrote of him: “In the garden within the monastery walls at Isola stands a large crucifix. A seed fell to the ground before it. A plant sprang up, and twined itself around the cross until it reached the feet of the figure nailed upon it. It then bent outward, as if to behold what was above. A bud formed, swelled, burst into bloom, and gazed in loving awe upon the figure of Christ Crucified. Lo! it was a true flower of the Passion! Its heart was pierced and stamped with the signs of Him Who hung upon the cross. The seed that fell at the foot of the crucifix was Francis Possenti. The plant that grew there from and flowered was Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, Passionist.”
Text shared from 365 Rosaries