Gabriel Possenti (1838-62) has the great merit, as compared with other youthful saints, that he did not pass his early years experiencing visions or devising exercises in asceticism.
On the contrary, he was keen on girls and spent long hours, like any self-respecting Italian boy, in dolling himself up for parties. In the social life of Spoleto he was known as “the dancer”. He read novels, went to the theatre and loved to laugh. From time to time he even lost his temper.
His background, however, was profoundly Catholic. His father, a lawyer, held a succession of appointments under the papal government. There were 13 children in the family, of whom Gabriel (originally Francis) was the 11th.
He was born in Assisi, though the family soon moved to Spoleto, where his father took up a position as registrar. Shortly afterwards, his mother died.
Francis was schooled in the Jesuit college at Spoleto, where he proved both popular and brilliant. When he fell dangerously ill, and promised to enter the religious life should he recover, he showed no inclination to fulfil this vow when restored to health.
The hound of heaven, however, did not abandon the chase. Two years later, Francis’s health again broke down. Once more he offered himself to religion; and this time, aided by a relic of a Jesuit martyr, seemed determined to keep his word as the illness relented.
Yet, when the Jesuits declared themselves ready to accept him as a novice, Francis hesitated. Only when his favourite sister died of cholera did he become finally convinced of the precarious nature of all earthly ties.
He entered not the Jesuits, but the more austere Passionists, taking the name in religion of Gabriel of our Lady of Sorrows. Having dedicated himself to God, he spent the last four years of his life in the search for perfection in small things. In this he was a precursor of St Thérèse of Lisieux.
His charity, his exact observance of every rule and his consideration for others were the more remarkable because his intense dedication to spiritual growth was always shot through with the spirit of cheerfulness.
At the same time Gabriel became so eager for mortification that his director mocked him for his zeal, forcing him to wear a spiked chain outside his habit – “so that everyone can see what a great mortifier you are.”
Gabriel, who always shrank from display or favourable notice, bore this humiliation without complaint. When he began to suffer from tuberculosis he insisted on destroying the notes he had made of the spiritual favours which had been conferred upon him.
He died at Isola di Gran Sassio in the Abruzzi on February 27 1862, and was canonised in 1920.