This is the story of a young man who lived a very normal happy life: the sort of person you might meet at school or at a club, who is happy, full of life and who never gives up. God was in Gabriel's life from the very start. However, as he grew up he knew that he was missing something in his life and kept looking until he found it. Then, like everything else he did, when he found it, he gave himself up to it 100 percent. The "It" he was looking for was holiness. The thing to remember about Gabriel is that he shows you how you can succeed - all you have to do is think about how good God has been to you, the gifts you have been given, and then that do something with them for God. This is his story.
Gabriel was born in Assisi in Italy, where Saint Francis came from, on March 1st 1838. He was actually given the name Francis in the hope that it would bring him good things. His father was a wealthy man and he had many brothers and sisters. It was a very happy but holy family. His mother especially would often pray in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. However, quite suddenly when Frankie, as he was then known, was four years old, she became very ill and died, hugging and kissing her children and telling them she would meet them in Heaven.
Frankie began school. The important things in his life were his friends from school and the games they would play together, his homework, his prayers, his brothers and sisters and his father. He got on well with everyone and, although he had quite a temper, everyone loved him. As he grew older he studied harder at school, which was run by the Jesuits. He pleased his teachers and was liked by his classmates. He won prizes at school and continued to enjoy himself playing with friends.
He was saddened by the deaths of some of his sisters and brothers; one of his other brothers became a priest. Frankie however was leading the life of a normal teenager; he liked arranging hunting trips with friends, going to the theatre and dances, reading and taking part in sporting activities. People would always be asking him " What do you want to do when you grow up?" and started thinking about girlfriends for him. Frankie however was still too busy enjoying his life although there was an idea at the back of his mind that, like his brother, he might serve God and help other people by living a religious life. Once, when he got such a sore throat that he could hardly breathe, he even promised to do this.
Frankie was able to put the decision off because he was too busy doing other things to prepare him for his future. He focused his attention on finishing school successfully, helping his father and regularly praying and going to church. His personality was beginning to show itself more, by helping the poor or classmates in school or anyone in the family who needed it. However, everyone noticed that whatever he did, he did it with great enthusiasm.
By the time he was 17, he had grown tall and handsome. He was popular and always dressed in the latest fashion. He was very friendly with a girl called Mary. Life was good for him and he was very much caught up in it. All thoughts of giving this up for religion had disappeared. Then suddenly, in 1855, his sister died and a difficult year followed. He couldn't make any decisions and his attitude to life changed. He would still go out to the theatre for example, but before the show was over he would disappear to go and pray at the Cathedral. He would still wear nice clothes but under them he wore an itchy hair shirt. He carried on doing things that his father and friends wanted, but inside he was not happy and was looking for something else.
On August 22nd there was a special celebration in the town where he lived and the statue of Our Lady was carried through the streets. Frankie was there and, when the statue was carried past him, he felt Our Lady's eyes looking straight at him and he suddenly heard a voice:
"Francis, what are you doing? Don't you see that this life is not for you? Become a Religious."
And that was it. He realized that what was missing from his life was a closer companionship with Jesus and Mary to whom he wanted to give all his love and life. By September 9th, he had joined the young student-priests of the Passionist Congregation. His family tried to change his mind with parties and hopes for the future, but his mind was made up.
Once he was there, he began to feel truly happy and could smile again. His life took on a new meaning and reached new heights. He changed his name from Francis to Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows and this change of name showed that his past was definitely behind him. He studied hard hoping to become a priest, as he had worked hard in everything else in his life so far, and did it well. His prayer life grew deeper and deeper as he meditated on the sufferings of Jesus and the sorrows of Mary. As time went on he experienced an inner peace and joy that he had never had before.
On September 22nd 1857, he finished his training and became a member of the Passionist Congregation, and promised to focus his life on the sufferings of Jesus. He took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and followed these with such determination that even those who had spent very many years in religious life were impressed. Over the winter, however, he became ill and had difficulty breathing, but because of his love of God, he was not afraid to die. He got better, but when his family came to visit him, they were shocked by the change in his appearance. Gabriel explained to them that he had found what he was looking for and it was the best thing imaginable - the love for Our Lady. Sometimes students would see him kneeling on rocks praying in front of her picture with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the Cross.
In 1859, Gabriel moved to another house where he continued his studies, and wasted no time in speeding through all the subjects so that he could become a priest and missionary. He also got along well in the community and people outside were deeply impressed by the way he spoke about Our Lady, who was always there in his heart. He almost seemed to cast a spell on those who heard him talk about her. He was totally devoted to her and would do anything for her. The most important part of his life was his prayer. At Mass, and especially when he received Jesus in Holy Communion, he was deeply attentive and prayerful.
Gabriel gave himself to this life with great devotion. He made great sacrifices when eating, drinking, walking and studying. This was to deny himself and so leave himself more open to God. He was still not satisfied with all that he was doing and wanted to do more. By the end of 1861 however, he became ill and developed tuberculosis, a very serious illness in those days. Gabriel realized that nothing could be done, but was not upset. He had so much love that it didn't make any difference whether he stayed on earth or went to heaven. On February 27th 1863 he said his good-byes and said "Mary, dear Mother of mine, come fast" and died with a smile on his face.
This is only the first part of his story, however, because people (especially in Italy) have been praying to him, and he has made his presence felt by working miracles for many. He was made a saint in 1920 and has a shrine, which is visited by millions of people every year because everyone finds him attractive. We can understand his desire to succeed and be happy; to obey and yet to be free; to be happy in life and to accept everything that life offers, pleasant and unpleasant. Students are often drawn to him and sick people too, because he was not always in good health, but that didn't stop him achieving what he wanted to do. Young people especially, are attracted by him, because his story is one of love: first of all, love for his family, school and friends. He loved having a good time, but then feeling the gaze of Our Lady, he learnt the love of Jesus on the Cross, and gave himself completely to that love.
Sarah Gwynn, Islington EMAS.
Based on " Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows — Life and Prayers" by Gabriele Cingolani, CP, Alba House.