Tag Archives: Passionists

St. Gemma Galgani

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Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani
(1878-1903)

Gemma Galgani should have died unnoticed, for she left no children or family, no hospitals, schools or any human achievement bearing her name. Often sickly in her 25 years of life, disappointments marked her life at every turn. She never got her wish to enter the Passionist Nuns or any other religious community.

Yet, at the news of her death on Holy Saturday, 1903, in the city of Lucca, Italy, neighbors gathered quickly in the city’s ancient streets proclaiming “A saint has died.” Today we’re celebrating her feast.

Gemma died appropriately on the eve of Easter, for she lived a life of intimacy with the Risen Jesus and shared in his passion and death. The young woman spoke familiarly with him in prayer and bore his wounds in her body. Many think the spiritual world faraway; for Gemma it wasn’t faraway at all– saints and angels, Jesus himself, were ever at her side.

“Poor Gemma”, she called herself; but she was not poor. Frail in body and mind, she was no failure. In declaring her a saint, Pope Pius XII said that Gemma experienced what the great apostle Paul experienced: “I have been crucified with Christ and the life that I live is not my own: Christ lives in me.”

Gemma said of herself: “Often I seem to be alone; but really I have Jesus as my companion…I am the fruit of your passion, Jesus, born of your wounds. O Jesus, seek me in love; I no longer possess anything; you have stolen my heart.”

In Gemma’s time, “enlightened” thinkers like Freud and Jung saw only human answers to the mystery of the human person. Little concerned about God’s presence in human life, they would probably have dismissed Gemma and her spiritual experiences as delusional. Some of Lucca’s “enlightened” people had that same opinion of her.

But Gemma’s Passionist spiritual director, Father Germano, saw God working in her, and the church concurred in his judgment by declaring her a saint in 1940.

As humanity today defines itself increasingly in human terms and sees success here on earth as our ultimate goal, Gemma is a strong reminder of God’s presence in ordinary people, even in unsuccessful, imperfect people. Devotion to the Passion of Christ gave Gemma a deep sense that Jesus loved her and lived in her. She saw her life fulfilled in him and his promise of life beyond this.

Lucca Streets
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Lucca St. Michael 3

We’re not alone. Jesus Christ is our companion as well.

You can get St. Gemma’s Autobiography or a The Life of St. Gemma Galgani by writing to the Passionist Nuns, 1151 Donaldson Highway, Erlanger, Kentucky 41018
(859)371 8568

“Then one day I became very discouraged because I saw that it was impossible for me to become a Passionist, because I have nothing at alI: all I have is a great desire to be one. I suffer much seeing myself so far from realizing my desires. No one will be able to take this desire away from me. But when will it come about?” Letter to Germano

Gemm’a buried at the Convent of the Passionist Nuns in Lucca, Italy. The house where she lived before she died has been turned into a museum honoring her. Both places worth a visit.

Her feast day is May 16th.

Feast of St. Matthias

Thomas

May 14th is the Feast of St.Matthias, chosen by lot to take the place of Judas. He brings the number of apostles back to twelve, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel who await the promises of God. The Spirit comes after Matthias is selected in Luke’s account. j

The qualifications for a new apostle seem simple enough. Peter says it should be someone “who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us. He joins us as a witness to his resurrection.”

Two have those qualifications. Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.

Then, they pray:
“You, Lord, who know the hearts of all,
show which one of these two you have chosen.”
Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias,
and he was counted with the Eleven Apostles.” (Acts 1,15-17, 20-25)

Yet, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. For Matthias to be a witness to Jesus it wasn’t enough to get all the details right about what Jesus did or said, as a reporter or witness at a trial might do it.

In John’s gospel read for Matthias’ feast, Jesus describes a disciple as one who abides in him, who remains in him– a friend committed to him. So, a disciple cannot be just an on-looker, but one who enters the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s one who weathers doubts and uncertainties as the disciples listening to Jesus’ Farewell Discourse did. He’s like Thomas who sees the wounds in the Lord’s hands and side and learns to trust and believe through them.

Rembrandt’s wonderful portrayal of Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas (above) presents Thomas, not as a lonely skeptic, but someone representing all the disciples. All the disciples must come before Jesus’ wounds.

Pope Francis in a homily  spoke of the importance of the wounds of Christ for a disciple of Jesus. We’re on an exodus beyond ourselves, he said, and there are two ways open for us. “one to the wounds of Jesus, the other to the wounds of our brothers and sisters.”

“If we are not able to move out of ourselves and toward our brothers and sisters in need, to the sick, the ignorant, the poor, the exploited – if we are not able to accomplish this exodus from ourselves, and towards those wounds, we shall never learn that freedom, which carries us through that other exodus from ourselves, and toward the wounds of Jesus.”

The wounds of Christ and the wounds of our brothers and sisters– we learn from both to see victory of death and to trust in the passion of Jesus.

Like Matthias, we’re called to be witnesses..

Lamp for a Dark Place

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The sky over the boardwalk at Spring Lake, New Jersey, is sometimes swept with colors before nightfall. Then, a lamp becomes the only light till dawn.


“I came into the world as light,” Jesus says in today’s gospel” so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.( John 12:44-50)


The sun will rise again and the great Sun will also rise again, Augustine says in one of his sermons. Then  “lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.”

Darkness is temporary; we are meant for light.

“I implore you to love with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You will come to the fountain, with whose dew you have already been sprinkled.

“Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. Dearly beloved, John himself says, we are the sons of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

“I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.”

Church Leaders

Peter the Apostle, Cloisters, New York

Keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when thinking about church leaders. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles . Peter describes how he was called from Joppa to bring the gospel to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and his household. Joppa, you recall, was the seaport where Jonah began his perilous journey into the gentile world.

In Joppa, the tired apostle goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house overlooking the vast sea and had a disturbing vision. Instead of his usual  kosher food  a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and as a good Jew Peter pushes it away.  Three times the vision invites the puzzled apostle to eat before vanishing.

Then, messengers appear at the door from Cornelius, a gentile soldier stationed in Caesaria Maritima, the main Roman headquarters just up the coast, asking Peter to come and speak about “the things that had happened.” It’s a gentile banquet that Peter is invited to attend in his dream.

“As I began to speak,” Peter says of their meeting, ” the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning.” It was a gentile Pentecost. He baptized the Roman soldier, his friends and his household. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but every nation is acceptable to him,” 

Did Peter truly understand where his visit to Cornelius would lead? Was the simple fisherman, who spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who felt the pull of home, family and fishing boats, ever comfortable in a gentile world? Later, he traveled to Antioch in Syria and then to Rome, where he was killed in the Neronian persecution in the 60’s. Was he ever as confident in a gentile world as he was in his own? Was he ever completely comfortable at a gentile banquet?

Portraits of Peter in Rome usually portray him as a church leader firmly in charge of the church, holding the keys of authority tightly in hand. Clearly, he is a rock.

I saw another image of Peter years ago in the Cloisters Museum in New York. He’s softer, reflective, more experienced, not completely sure of himself. There’s a consciousness of failure in his face. He seems to be listening humbly for the voice of the Shepherd, hoping to hear it and ever surprised by the unexpected coming of the Holy Spirit.

Church leaders never fully understand the mysterious ship they’re called to steer. They have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice and look for signs of the Spirit.

Saints Philip and James

Saints Philip and James. Duccio

We celebrate a feast of the apostles each month. Why? Every family wants to find out how it began. Our church began with the apostles. Today, May 3rd, we remember two apostles together, Philip and James.

They’re celebrated together because their relics were placed side by side in the Church of the Twelve Apostles when it was built in Rome in the 6th century. Philip was called by Jesus to follow him the day after he called Andrew and Peter. (John 1:43-45)

James, who is also called James the Less to distinguish him from James, the brother of John, was the son of Alpheus and a cousin of Jesus. He  later became head of the church in Jerusalem. His mother Mary, stood with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalen beneath the cross of Jesus. (John 19: 25)  He was martyred in Jerusalem in the year 62.

On a feast of an apostle you expect to hear one or more of his heroic acts or wise sayings, but in today’s reading from St. John’s gospel  we hear instead an apostle’s clumsy question. During his Farewell Discourse, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.”

“Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Philip says to Jesus, who responds:

“Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.”

Can we hear exasperation in Jesus’s words? Some commentators think so.  Jesus’ apostles are slow to understand him, uncertain, fearful–even ready to betray him. Philip isn’t the only one who can’t fathom Jesus and his message. 

Called by Jesus, they’re human. Their humanness and slowness makes us realize where our power comes from. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us be the glory!” The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ.

But before we dismiss Philip, let’s remember he pointed Jesus out to Nathaniel at the Jordan River and he brought Greek visitors to Jerusalem to Jesus as he was entering the city to die on a cross. ( John 12: 20-23) He never stopped pointing to the One whom he tried to understand. It was an apostle’s gift.

The apostles make us realize the patience of Jesus, which is the patience of God. They  reveal the different gifts and weaknesses found in the followers of Jesus.

The Bread of Life

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All four gospels say that Jesus fed a great crowd near the Sea of Galilee by multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish. It’s an important miracle.

John’s account (John 6), read at Mass on weekdays from the Friday of the 2nd week of Easter until Saturday of the 3rd week of Easter, indicates the miracle takes place during the feast of Passover. Like the Passover feast, the miracle and the teaching that follows occur over a number of days.

The Passover feast commemorated the Manna God sent from heaven to sustain the Jews on their journey to the promised land. Jesus claims to be the “true bread,” the “living bread” that comes down from heaven.

Jesus is a commanding presence during the miracle and the days that follow in John’s account. “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” he asks Philip as crowds come to him. He then directs the crowd to sit down, feeds them with the bread and fish, and says what should be done with the fragments left over. Unlike the other gospel accounts that give the disciples a active role in the miracle John’s account gives them a small role. Philip and the other disciples are tested during the miracle and the teaching that follows it.

As they embark on the Sea of Galilee to return to Capernaum after the miracle, a sudden storm occurs and Jesus’ rebukes the wind and the sea, the forces of nature, so that the disciples reach the other shore. All four gospels have some version of Jesus’s power over the sea and therefore the natural world. He has divine power.

The crowds to whom Jesus speaks at Capernaum after the miracle are also tested as well as his disciples. They want to make him king after a plentiful meal and only look for a steady hand out instead of “the true bread come down from heaven.” Their faith is limited and imperfect after the miracle. They miss the meaning of the sign.

The disciples also are tested; some walk with him no more.

The miracle of the loaves and the fish remind us that Jesus is Lord and we are people of limited faith. We only see so far. The Risen Lord leads us to the other shore. He is the Bread of Life. “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life,” Peter says to Jesus at the end of John’s account. And so do we.

Catherine of Siena, (1347-80)

St. Catherine of Siena is a doctor of the church and Italy’s patron saint along with St. Francis.

The 24th child in a family of 25 children, Catherine of Siena was a saintly teacher and church reformer.  As a young girl, she clashed with her father, who worked dying wool, and her mother, a hardy determined housewife, after she told them she wasn’t going to get married, but was giving herself totally to God.

She cut her hair and began to fast and pray.  She joined a group of women who helped the poor in Siena, mostly widows associated with the Dominican order. They  were suspicious of the pious young girl who kept to herself and at odds with her mother and father.

At 21 years old, Catherine went beyond the mission of the women’s group and reached out further to the church and society.  Men and women, priests and laypeople, from Siena and its surroundings gathered around her. They cared for the poor– famine struck Siena in 1370 and a plague in 1374– but also they sought to reform the church and the society of their day.

At the time, Italian cities like Siena, Florence, Pisa and Padua were fighting among themselves as rival families clashed continuously over political power and economic advantages. In 1309 the popes fled the violence and factional riots in Rome for the safety of Avignon in France, where the papacy remained for almost 70 years. They call it “the Babylonian Captivity.”

Catherine and her companions pleaded with the feuding Italian cities for peace and urged the popes to return to Rome to exercise their mission as bishops of the city where Peter and Paul once led the Christian church. Catherine cajoled, warned and scolded the absent popes to do their duty as shepherds of their sheep and get back to where they belonged.

Without any formal education, Catherine learned to read and write only later in life, which made her an unlikely public figure. She was also a woman teaching and preaching– unusual for that day : “Being a woman, I need not tell you, puts many obstacles in my way. The world has no use for women in a work such as that and propriety forbids a woman to mix so freely with men.” (Letter) Despite those obstacles, Catherine traveled to the warring cities of Italy urging peace and to Avignon to plead with the pope to return to Rome.

Catherine had a deep experience of God in prayer, as the “Dialogue,” her mystical exchange with God, attests. God spoke with her and she shared those words. Her prayerfulness drew others to join her in her mission of peace-making and reform.

Jesus was her “Gentle Truth,” her guide and strength. “This is a sign that you trust in me and not in yourself: that you have no cowardly fear. Those who trust in themselves are afraid of their own shadow; they think heaven and earth are letting  them down. Fear and a twisted trust in their own small wisdom makes them pitifully concerned about getting and holding on to everything on earth and throwing away everything spiritual…The only ones afraid are those who think they are alone…They are afraid of every little thing because they are alone–without me.” (Dialogue)

As a lay-woman in the church, she was not afraid to speak to power, once correcting a bishop for “ordaining little boys instead of mature men… idiots who can scarcely read and say the prayers.  They consider it beneath them to visit the poor, they stand by and let people die of hunger.”

Tell the truth, God told her. Tell the truth because love impels you. “You must love others with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot repay my love. Love other people, loving them without being loved by them. Love them without concern for spiritual and material gain, but only for the glory of my name, because I love them.” ( Dialogue )  Loving God inevitably means loving others.

She died in Rome in 1378 and is buried there in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Her heart is in Siena.

Life Comes from His Wounds

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The Passionists celebrate the Feast of the Glorious Wounds of Jesus on Friday of the second week of Easter. The four gospels tell the great story of the passion of Jesus, each in its own way. More than the others, John’s gospel points to his wounds, unlikely signs revealing the mystery of the Word made flesh.

On Calvary  a small symbolic group stands beneath the cross of “the King of the Jews”– Mary, the mother of Jesus, the disciple whom he loved, and a few others. A gentile soldier joins them.

This group represents the “new Jerusalem,” “the inhabitants of Jerusalem who look on the one whom they have pierced…and mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child.” (Zechariah 11, 10 )

They receive a precious gift. “It is finished!” Jesus declares, and bowing his head, he pours out his spirit on them. A Roman soldier thrusts a spear into Jesus’ side. “Immediately blood and water flowed out.” (John 19, 34)

Blood, a sign of his life, flows on those standing beneath his cross. Water, signifying the Spirit within him, is poured out on the world they represent. Far from ending his life, his death is the moment Jesus shares his life.“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ.” (I John 5,6)

Artists afterwards picture the wounds of Christ as cosmic signs. They place the grave of Adam beneath the cross — generations wait for the new life Jesus brings. Creation, symbolized by the sun and moon, looks on expectantly, for Calvary is where creation too is redeemed. Angels collect the blood and water from Jesus’ wounds in cups representing the mystery of the Eucharist. All days are found in this one day. On Calvary, the glory of the Lord is revealed in his wounds.

St. Paul of the Cross in his letters often wished the one to whom he’s writing to be placed in the “wounds of Christ” or the “holy Side of Jesus” or his “Sacred Heart.”  “I am in a hurry and leave you in the holy Side of Jesus, where I ask rich blessings for you.”

These expressions may seem pious phrases until we read the story of Thomas from John’s gospel. Jesus shows the doubting disciple the wounds in his hands and side, and Thomas believes.

Belief is not something we come to by ourselves. God gives this gift through Jesus Christ. We all stand beneath the life-giving Cross of Jesus. May his life give new hope to us and our world.

Easter Saturday: We’re Slow, like the Apostles



Like the apostles we’re slow to understand the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus are not the only ones slow to understand– we’re slow too.

Peter, who preaches to the crowds in Jerusalem at Pentecost, certainly was slow to understand. He speaks forcefully at Pentecost, forty days after the Passover when Jesus died and rose from the dead, but the days before he’s speechless. It took awhile for him and for the others who came up with Jesus from Galilee to learn and be enlightened about this great mystery..

Mark’s accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances, read on the  Saturday of Easter week, stresses the unbelief of his disciples. They were not easily persuaded.

For this reason, each year the Lord refreshes our faith in the resurrection, but it’s not done in a day. We need time to take it in, like the first followers of. Jesus, and for that we have an easter season of forty days. Just for starters.

The disciples are slow to understand the mission they’re to carry out because it’s God plan not theirs, a plan that outruns human understanding. A new age had come, the age of the Holy Spirit, and they didn’t understand it. The fiery winds of Pentecost had to move them to go beyond what they see, beyond Jerusalem and Galilee to the ends of the earth.

The Holy Spirit also moves us to a mission beyond our understanding. Luke says that in the Acts of the Apostles. “The mission is willed, initiated, impelled and guided by God through the Holy Spirit. God moves ahead of the other characters. At a human level, Luke shows how difficult it is for the church to keep up with God’s action, follow God’s initiative, understand the precedents being established.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles)

“You judge things as human beings do, not as God does,” Jesus says to Peter elsewhere in the gospel. We see things that way too.

Peter’s slowness to follow God’s plan remained even after Jesus is raised from the dead. He doesn’t see why he must go to Caesaria Maritima to baptize the gentile Cornelius and his household. (Acts 10,1-49) It’s completely unexpected. Only gradually does he embrace a mission to the gentiles and its implications. The other disciples are like him; God’s plan unfolds but they are hardly aware of it.

One thing they all learned quickly, though, as is evident in the Acts of the Apostles. Like Jesus, they experience the mystery of his cross, and in that experience they find wisdom.

The Easter Tree

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The Cross  flowers at Easter time. There’s a flowering cross brimming with life  in the great apse of the church of San Clemente in Rome. Doves rest on it;  its branches swirl with the gifts God gives. It brings life, not death. Humanity is there, signified in Mary and the disciple John,  creation itself is there, drawing new life  from it. The hand of God makes it so.

The mystery of the sacraments offered in this sacred place brings its life-giving graces to us.

An early preacher Theodore the Studite  praises the mystery of the cross:.

“How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return.

“This was the tree on which Christ, like a king on a chariot, destroyed the devil, the Lord of death, and freed the human race from his tyranny. This was the tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in his hands, feet and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature. A tree once caused our death, but now a tree brings life. Once deceived by a tree, we have now repelled the cunning serpent by a tree.

“What an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality, that shame should become glory! Well might the holy Apostle exclaim: Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!”

San Clemente, Rome

See Children’s Prayers here for a children’s version of the Easter Tree.