St Gemma Galgani is considered a modern Saint, having lived only 100 years ago. She was born in Camigliano, Italy on March 12, 1878 and one month later her family moved to Lucca, Italy where she spent the rest of her short life. While Gemma's life was marked throughout by extraordinary divine favours, her spiritual life was quite hidden from the world. She was never the object of public curiosity or veneration, and her virtue was known and admired only by those very close to her. While her soul lived on the heights, to ordinary appearances her life was commonplace.
Heroic example of piety and purity
Gemma experienced loss and suffering from a young age. She was very close to her mother, but sadly her mother died when Gemma was only eight years old. However, before she died her mother was able to impress upon the soul of the young Gemma a devout love for God, and a fervent desire for heaven. "It was Mamma,"she said years afterwards, "who made me long as a child to go to Heaven." Her mother taught her to kneel upon her hands each day and recite three "Ave's" (3 Hail Mary prayers), asking the Blessed Mother for purity. Gemma thus began this daily practice in early childhood, and she continued this pious devotion until her death in 1903. In fact, not long before her death when she was quite sick and bedridden, a family friend happened to come into her room and found Gemma alone, kneeling on her hands on the floor and reciting the three customary "Ave's" for purity. Thus, even though she was gravely ill, she did not forsake this holy practice. Her love for the Mother of God was always deep and intense, the more so as she had lost her earthly mother. "If God has taken away my mother," she would often say, "He has given me His own."
Angered by Gemma's purity and devotion to God, the devil once sought to stain her purity by appearing to her in a lewd form. Struck with horror at the devils temptation, she immediately ran through the back door of the kitchen and plunged herself into a reservoir of cold water in the backyard. Oh, the heroism of the Saints! In light of her angelic purity, Gemma is a special patroness for youth today who are bombarded with immodesty from our culture and society.
Vanity also is always a strong temptation for teenagers and young women. In her Autobiography to her spiritual director, Father Germano C.P. she writes:
A little story about her brother Guido’s wedding
As we see in the photographs of her, Gemma always wore her black woolen dress and a black woolen mantellete, and when going outside, a black straw hat.
One day she surprised her aunt by asking her to come with her to the milliner's shop as she intended to have a hat made. Once they arrived there, Gemma described in word and gesture what she wanted - a hat of black straw with a wide flexible brim to come down around her face. The milliner pointed out that such a hat was not in style, that it was not becoming to a girl like her. "She meant," says her aunt proudly, "a girl as beautiful as Gemma." Gemma was not so foolish as to be unaware of the fact, for she had planned the hat to avoid the admiring looks she often encountered in public. And so she answered with emphasis: 'Please make it exactly as I have described it because I want it that way.' This was the finishing touch to the famous costume which made the rising young lawyer, Joseph Giannini remark: ‘I would not be seen outside with her.’[Joseph was one of the Giannini family children around the same age as Gemma with whom Gemma lived] he further states:
“Summer and winter she wore a black woolen dress reaching to the ground, a black mantle of the same stuff that came to the waist and - the unstylish hat.”
In this outfit she went to her brother's wedding. This brother, Guido, left home in 1897 and, after his term in the army, became, like his father, a pharmacist, and now lived in a town near Pisa. Gemma had never seen her future sister-in-law and, evidently, Guido had forgotten to tell his bride what to expect. Consequently, when she saw Gemma in her ridiculous costume, she was furious; she told her to go away and never come back. The meek and placid Gemma returned home, not resentful nor even apologetic, for there is no reference to the incident in the affectionate letter of felicitation she wrote shortly after:
‘Dearest Assuntina: It was a great pleasure for me to see your wedding day come at last and I write to tell you a thousand times: May you both be happy. It is not duty that moves me to say this but rather a pleasure which delights me in doing so. I will say it again now and always:
‘May you both be happy. This expression of my most ardent desire I will offer to God for you each evening, for you should know that I have nothing more at heart than your happiness and this will always remain fixed in my thoughts.’
‘I ought to have written sooner but I am sure that you will excuse my negligence. In the name of my aunts, then, I wish you great happiness; all of us will pray to Jesus that He may preserve you for long years in the affections of Guido and for the greater good of the family . . . Before ending I want to tell you something. From the moment of your marriage I have had this thought constantly; Papa was so pleased that you two were to be married. If only he had been there! Then afterwards I realized that all my adversities have made me resigned to the Will of God.
"Good-bye to both of you; live joyfully and happily. Believe me to be always, as I now sign myself with all my heart,
Your sister and sister-in-law,
Her brother Guido and his wife later visited Gemma, and Gemma having the stigmata, was obliged to wear gloves even at table, where she was subjected to some good-natured banter from her unsuspecting brother: "How stylish, eating with gloves on!" His wife seems to have taken for granted that Gemma was protecting a bad case of chapped hands and, after dinner, drew her aside and said: "I have some rose water and I will bathe your hands." And not waiting for Gemma's consent, she stripped off the gloves, and recognising the wounds ran weeping to Aunt Elisa: "Oh Aunt, why didn't you tell me! Gemma has wounds on her hands just like Our Lord's!"
Perhaps the young bride finally got around to the reading of the little book which Gemma brought to her as a present on her wedding day: “The Introduction to a Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales. If so, Assunta then realized that one with nails through the palms can neither grasp nor hold anything else on this earth. Gemma was all for Jesus, and she had sold all to gain a Pearl of great price, a Treasure of infinite worth. And Jesus kept her strictly to the bargain.
Gemma's example of humility and trust in God
Her child-like simplicity was wedded to a deep and touching humility. She seemed to be unaware of her high spiritual gifts and regarded herself, like the Apostle, as the chief of sinners. Once during a retreat made in childhood she had heard the preacher say, "Remember that we are nothing and that God is all," and the words made an impression which never faded. The thought was always in the forefront of her mind, and as she grew in the knowledge of God she saw less and less of good in herself and was filled with confusion and dismay at the divine favours granted to her. The more God exalted her the more deeply she sank in her own estimation. She always sought the humblest place and the most menial duties, and "If through the mercy of God," she once said, "I have experienced some happy moments they were when I saw myself despised and humiliated." Again and again she implored Our Lord to withdraw His extraordinary favours from her and bestow them on someone more worthy. She dreaded the account she should have to give for all the extraordinary graces God gave her, however she put her whole trust in His mercy. "Thy mercy, O Lord," she would say, "is the support of my soul. I know that Thy mercy is greater than my ingratitude . . . . If I saw the gates of hell open and I stood on the edge of the abyss, I should not despair, I should not lose hope of Your mercy, because I would trust in You." And when asked on her death-bed what was her favourite prayer she answered simply: "My Jesus, mercy."
St Gemma's writings are full of fervent expressions of love and devotion to God. Gemma's young heart was all on fire for the love of God, and she was able to translate that love into her writings. She wrote and said such beautiful things such as---
"You love me Jesus, and could I not love You? What wonderful tenderness of a God towards His poor creature! Jesus, when shall I be able to unite myself to You, in order to be no longer separated from You? "