This article is a continuation of little stories in the life of Saint Gemma. The source of these stories is the book "The Gem of Christ- The Story of St Gemma of Lucca" by Father Francis C.P (Passionist), Published in 1949 by the Catholic Book Publishing Co.
Gemma declines offers of marriage giving herself in love to Jesus alone
When Gemma’s father died, relatives soon came to the assistance of the poverty-stricken family and Gemma, then age 20, was invited to stay with her aunt Carolina at Camaiore. This aunt was her father's sister, who had married a rich widower, Dominic Lencioni. Gemma usually spent her vacation with them and was held in such high esteem by her uncle Dominic that he once said to her: "If you remain with us I will leave you as much money as I shall leave to my other niece who lives here."
"Oh, no!" said Gemma. "I am going to be a nun, but if you give me something for my dowry, I willl be very grateful."
The comforts, even luxuries, to be had in her new home made no appeal to Gemma. Her daily life was one of great regularity. Each morning she went with her cousin Rose to the Collegiate Church to hear Mass and receive Holy Communion. On their return they took care of household duties, and then went to serve the customers in their uncle's store, the kind usual in the country, with hardware, kitchen utensils, cloth, and ready-made clothes. They worked until noon and, after lunch, they walked the half mile to the Abbey Church, where there was a famous shrine of the Pieta, Before this image of the Sorrowful Mother, Gemma experienced, as she once confided to a friend of hers, "…a very strong, almost irresistible love for the Passion of Our Lord and the Sorrows of His most holy Mother, together with a detachment from all that life can offer to a young person."
The two girls then returned to the store and worked until 6:00pm. Then, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament was followed by supper, Rosary and night prayers together, general family conversation, and then a well-earned sleep. This routine she followed for the ten months of her stay.
In the country, as well as in the city, life has much to offer youth. Gemma was possessed of no ordinary beauty at sixteen. Now, at the age of twenty, without ornament, dressed simply in black, dignified but graceful, governed by piety and modesty in every gesture, possessed of all womanly accomplishments, she was understandably admired by the young men of the place. One of them went with his father, a physician, to see Gemma's uncle and made a formal proposal of marriage. To the worldly-minded a refusal would have all the marks of folly, but Gemma had chosen "the foolishness of the Cross" ; she had no eyes for anyone but the Beloved and passed, unseeing, all earthly love in search for the only One.
In spite of this, another young man, who bore the most fitting name of Romeo, made an attempt at a proposal. He worked in a pharmacy across the street in the rear of the Lencioni house. Standing there in the doorway he asked one of the servants at work in the kitchen to declare his intentions to Gemma. "When I refused to do so," says the good woman, "he had the effrontery to write a letter and made me the bearer of it. Gemma took the letter, opened it quickly and read it out loud: it was a declaration of affection. She made a gesture of disgust, exclaiming: 'Look what the silly fellow did! Wait. I'll write him a few lines and you take it to him.' I refused to do this and, even though the letter was written, Gemma said: 'I think I will go and see him myself.' And she tore up the letter."
Together they went to the young man. The servant was not present at the interview but Gemma later came back and exclaimed: "Now you will see that I will not be bothered again. Do you know what I told him? I said that he must not think of me or even look at me because I belong to Jesus, and that all my thoughts and affections are for Him alone, and for Him always."
This one-sided romance did not escape the notice of the usual small-boy tormentor. Her cousin, Aloysius Bartelloni, in 1922, as a witness in the Processes of Canonisation, took an impish delight in recalling how he teased Gemma on that occasion. "On the kitchen door I wrote this sentence: 'Gemma and Romeo are going down to the Abbey bridge to make love.' And to vex her all the more, I used to walk behind her chanting the same words. It wasn't worth the trouble I took. Gemma absolutely avoided all such things, and was hurt by my provoking conduct, yet it was my sister and my aunt, and not Gemma, who scolded me and made me cease annoying her."
To avoid such importunities Gemma, like the virgin-martyrs of the early Church, had recourse to God in prayer and the answer came in the form of a serious sickness. She began to feel pain in the head and the back and, with this excuse, returned to Lucca - to a home poor and desolate, devoid of every comfort. There she grew worse; her headaches became violent; she lost her hearing; all her hair fell out and paralysis seized her whole body. The doctor looked at the abscesses on her back and after consultation, he pronounced her disease, tuberculosis of the spine [or perhaps spinal meningitis]. They cauterized the abscesses and later fitted her into a heavy iron brace, which she wore day and night, with only her hands free. And thus she remained helpless, crucified for a whole year.
During this time she received Holy Communion on the 15 Saturdays in honor of our Lady of Pompei - a popular devotion in Italy. The priest who brought Communion to her had only a short time before returned from a pilgrimage to Parayle-Monial. He mentioned the fact to the suffering girl who was immediately interested and asked about the Sanctuary, about the devotions to the Sacred Heart and to Saint Margaret Mary practiced there.
Her aunt at Camaiore used to send her some money every month but, instead of using it for herself, Gemma bought a soul; for the saints are always direct and practical. Why pray for the conversion of sinners and refuse them the help to get away from their sin? She had been told that the water-carrier was living in sin with a certain man. The family were all for discontinuing her services, but Gemma said: "Let me speak to her. Why send her away without giving her time to reflect? Jesus did not send Magdalene away but received her kindly."
The next day Gemma spoke to the woman about her evil life. The woman admitted the truth, but declared she was living with the man only because he paid the rent. "In that case," said Gemma, "I will pay the rent, provided you leave him. Now go to confession, tell everything, and return to the friendship of God." The woman did so, and Gemma, out of her little money, kept her promise as long as she lived. And with a final little touch of practical charity so lovely in the Saints - Gemma insisted that the woman should have a cup of coffee each morning when she came, exhorting the others: "Let us each take a little less so that we may have a cup for her."
Her humility and simplicity
A young priest, professor of Hebrew in the seminary and also Monsignor Volpi's secretary, was sent by the Monsignor to verify for him a reported recurrence of the stigmata. Bristling with importance, he entered Gemma's room along with Cecilia Giannini. The poor girl was in bed suffering, the day being a Friday on which she had also endured the mystic Scourging. To report this was his errand, but he fancied himself as a clever inquisitor and made many demands on Gemma to test her humility, and to find out if she had the knowledge of hidden things. He knew French. Would Gemma talk in French with him? He had received some alms for Masses but had forgotten the number. Would Gemma please tell him the number? To all this nonsense the suffering girl made no reply until at last she said: "Speak to me about Jesus." The learned professor left in haste - to become ever after her bitterest critic, even as a witness in the Processes of Canonization.
In the midst of so many Divine favors, she was as natural and as much at ease as a child in her father's house. While enjoying the visible presence of her Guardian Angel, she dealt with him on terms of friendly affection, leaving him without ceremony when duty called. At night she begged him to sign her with the Holy Cross and to watch by her and then she calmly turned over and went to sleep. In the morning with her mind on Holy Communion, she scarcely noticed him, saying: "I have what is much better in my thoughts; I am going to Jesus."
When he took leave of her, she merely said in her simple way: "Good-bye, dear Angel: offer my salutations to Jesus." After her ecstasies, she washed off the stains of blood on her face, drew the sleeves of her dress over the wounds in her hands and returned to the family circle with as much unconcern as though nothing had happened. She, who a moment before was face to face with her Crucified Jesus, contemplating the Mystery of Redemption and sharing in His Sufferings, could be found engaged in amusing the younger children of the house. An instance - the time she said to Cecilia Giannini:
"Dina and I get along fine, because I am always willing to play the games she likes, especially hide-and-seek."
This was a treasured memory for the little girl who grew up to become a Poor Clare. Charles, the youngest, was her favorite, though a little bundle of mischief. If he became boisterous at table, he would steal a glance at her and be restored to good behavior by a simple look. As soon as these two youngsters were finished eating, she took them up to the play room, while she went to her own room to pray. The children, going to see what delayed her, would find her in ecstasy. Once Gemma said to her good benefactor Cecilia: "We must watch that Charles; he is a little rascal. Do you know what he said to me: 'Why do you always go to sleep?'
She was at ease with the innocent and simple, and sought the means to give them pleasure. Whenever Joseph Giannini (one of the older Giannini children) got ready to return, after his weekend visit, to the University of Pisa to continue his law studies, she would remind his aunt to ask him to bring back a box of candy so that she might have a supply on hand for the children.
Her generous offerings of self
Like a dove, Gemma flew above the perishable things of time, spurning them in her eagerness to return to the Heart of God. The contempt she felt for earth inspired her favorite form of petition - that of offering a certain number of the years of life for special favors. "There are about seven years of life still before me," she wrote to Father Germano. "I would like to offer three of them for Seraphina," a friend who was very sick. "I would like to be near you so that I could ask this favor on my knees." Before receiving an answer to this, she had another case - Mrs. Giannini, the mother of the large Giannini family, became seriously ill and it was thought to be cancer of the stomach. Again a letter went off to Rome, in which Gemma pleaded for permission to show her gratitude for the lady's kindness. 'This morning I spoke to my Confessor and said: 'I would like to offer my life for the poor mother.'
His answer was an absolute No. Then I said: 'Could I then give two years?'
‘He gave in and said 'Yes', but only on condition that the Father [Germanus] approves also. . . . Father, you won't deny this to me, will you? Two for Seraphina, and two for the mother, and more if they are needed."
Both ladies recovered and, in the time specified as she had foreseen it, Gemma died. She went in the flower of youth - a victim to a childlike love of her neighbor and to the ardor of her longing for God.
"Many waters cannot quench charity, neither can the floods drown it ; if a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing.” (Cant. 8, 7.)
A little example of Gemma's devotion to the Blessed Mother
Gemma loved the following popular prayer-
"My Queen! My Mother! I give myself entirely to Thee: and to show my devotion to Thee, I consecrate to You this day, my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my heart, my whole being without reserve. Wherefore, good Mother, keep me, guard me as Thy property and possession."
She once wrote out this prayer from memory and gave it to a friend, which can lead us to assume that she must have said it often.
Click here to go to Part 1 of "Little stories in the Life of St Gemma"