Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.
This is a great mystery, even scandal, to the present day American Catholic, so steeped in a culture of individualism and Protestant notions of personal salvation, to grasp how one person might atone for the sins of another, or to bring a sinner that they have never met to conversion through the offering of suffering united to Christ’s. And yet the Catholic Church clearly teaches this is possible. It says of the Church’s treasury: “in this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.” (CCC 1475)
We see this mysterious truth confirmed in the lives of saints, including relatively modern ones. St. Thérèse of Lisieux famously prayed for repentance and God’s pardon of a murderer named Pranzini, whom she had read about in the newspaper. Thérèse later read in the paper that, as he went to his execution, he turned round and seized the crucifix that a priest was offering to him and kissed it three times, which she recognized to be a marvelous answer to her prayer. A lesser-known contemporary of Thérèse named St. Gemma Galgani had a particular passion for such intercession and suffering for sinners.
St. Gemma was born in Italy in 1878. Like Thérèse she lost both her parents early in life, was precociously devout, and died of tuberculosis in her mid 20s. Her mother, who died when Gemma was 8, had instilled in her a great love for daily Mass, and the spiritual director of the school she attended allowed her to make her First Communion at age 9, which was considerably younger than normally allowed at the time. She wrote down these resolutions on the eve of her First Communion:
- I will go to confession and Communion each time as if they were to be my last.
- I will often visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, especially when I am in trouble.
- I will prepare for every Feast of the Blessed Virgin by some mortification, and every evening I will ask the blessing of my heavenly Mother.
- I desire to remain always in the presence of God.
- Every time the clock strikes I will repeat three times, “My Jesus, Mercy.”
Around the tender age of 15, Gemma experienced a year of the dark night of the soul in which she felt no consolations in prayer, and yet persisted in going to daily Mass and all religious devotions. The next year her dear brother who was a seminarian died, and at the age of 19 she was orphaned when her father died penniless. She was soon beset by serious illness and was near death, but was miraculously cured on March 3, 1899. A few months later, on the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, she received the stigmata for the first time, which was repeated on many occasions, as well as manifestations of the scourging.
Through all of this suffering, the constant prayers of St. Gemma were directed to sharing in Christ’s sorrowful passion and pleading for the salvation of sinners. Her spiritual director, Fr. Germanus, recorded an extraordinary incident in which he found her in ecstasy, praying for a stranger she had briefly met in the town in which she lived. Her prayers began:
“You have not measured the Blood that You have shed for sinners, and now do You wish to measure the enormity of our sins? Do You not listen to me? And I, to whom must I turn? You have shed Thy Blood for him as well as for me. Will You save me and not him? I will not rise from here. Save him. Promise me that You will save him. I offer myself victim for all, but particularly for him. I promise not to refuse Thee anything. Will You grant it to me? It is a soul. Remember, oh Jesus, it is a soul that has cost You so much.”
As she continued to pray, she was given mystical knowledge of this man’s grievous sins in detail. After much pleading, she came to the intercession of the Blessed Mother: “But look, I present Thee another advocate for my sinner; it is Thine own Mother who asks You to forgive him. See! Oh, imagine saying no to Thy Mother! Surely You cannot now say no to Her. And now answer me, Jesus, tell me that You will save my sinner.” With this Gemma’s appearance changed to joy, she exclaimed “He is saved, he is saved! Thou hast conquered, Jesus; triumph always thus,” and came out of her ecstasy.
Shortly thereafter, a man came to Fr. Germanus’s door as he was writing down and pondering what he had witnessed. It was the man Gemma had been praying for, who threw himself at the priest’s feet sobbing and asking to make Confession. He indeed confessed exactly what had be revealed to Gemma, but missed recalling one thing, which the Fr. Germanus was able to prompt him to remember. Fr. Germanus concluded his testimony: “In my copious notes I have particulars of other conversions similar in many ways to that just described and equally well authenticated. For the sake of brevity and to avoid uncalled for repetition, I have not given them here.”
There were many such stories of the conversion of sinners in Gemma’s life, from the first recorded instance of a nurse who turned from a life of ill repute at Gemma’s urging, prayers, and sharing of what meager money she was given by another relative, to the last, a “notorious and obstinate sinner,” whom Gemma had never met but for whom a priest had asked her to pray, who was converted two days before Gemma’s death. St. Gemma died on Holy Saturday, April 11, 1903 (a date that has special poignancy for the authors of this blog, both of whom entered the Catholic Church on Holy Saturday, April 11, 1998).
It is common to hear complaints among devout Christians that our society has lost a sense of sin, that we do not call sin what it is, and many souls are lost as a result. Aside from neglecting to consider how ignorance and habituation diminish a person’s culpability for sin and the expansiveness of God’s mercy, a great deficiency in these laments is that they are almost never accompanied by exhortations to pray and suffer for sinners, to contribute to the treasury of the Church in order to obtain pardon on their behalf. St. Gemma’s life and testimony convicts us here of our neglect and even sin of omission against the universal call to holiness and evangelization. For all our combox comments calling out sins, or gossipy petitions offered in prayer groups, do not effect the conversion of souls as do devout private pleas and sufferings offered up for sinners known and unknown to us.
Whether we are “notorious sinners” ourselves, or guilty of the sins against the Body of Christ of indifference and individualism, let us ask St. Gemma for her intercession for us, that all poor souls may discover and attain the infinite mercy of God.
To learn more about St. Gemma Galgani, visit http://www.stgemmagalgani.com/