St. Gerard Majella—”One of those angelic youths whom God has given to the world as models to men,” as Leo XIII styled him, entered upon his short life, the eighteenth Century had already commenced second quarter. The epoch of soulless deism and dull “self-evident truth,” was the age blessed by a Saint whose life-story reads like the record; of some thaumaturge of the ages of faith.
Gerard Majella, the only son of two worthy parents, Dominic and Benedicta Majella, was born at Muro a charmingly situated town about fifty miles from Naples, 6th April, 1726, and was baptized the same day by the Archpriest of the Cathedral. At the age of eight, he went to school where he made such progress in the “three R’s ” that his master, Donato Spicci placed him as a kind of assistant teacher over the other children. Meanwhile he was advancing far in holiness, paying many visits to the Blessed Sacrament and showing remarkable devotion to Our Lady.
Though the Jansenistic influence of the time affected even Catholic areas, and often made the practice of frequent Communion rare, yet such was Gerard’s fervour, that he was soon allowed to communicate daily. Gerard’s father was a tailor and he too, followed the same trade under one Martin Pannuto; from whose foreman, a rough, unfeeling fellow, the young apprentice had much to suffer. He learned his craft very thoroughly and eventually set up a business for himself. Prior to this, however, he acted as servant for three years to the Bishop of Lacedogna, a prelate who also suffered from fits of bad temper ! Both there as well as in the tailor’s shop, under the cruel foreman, Gerard showed great patience and even sweetness, so that he became the wonder of everyone. He heard Mass every morning and kept up his frequent visits to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament—” the Prisoner of Love,” as he termed the great mystery. He gave away to the poor most of his earnings not required for the support of himself, his mother and three sisters, for his father had died in 1738.
When Gerard was twenty-three, sixteen Fathers of the Redemptorist Congregation gave a great mission at Muro. The young tailor, who had long wished to lead a life of perfection in some religious house, now offered himself to the Fathers as a lay-brother, but was refused on the ground, apparently, of weak health. At length, after considerable delay, he was accepted by Fr. Cafaro at Rionero, and was admitted into the Redemptorist House at Iliceto on 17th May, 1749.
Such was the extraordinary fervour of the new novice, that St Alphonsus Liguori, the Founder of the Congregation, shortened the novitiate of ” this miracle of obedience,” and he was professed, 16th July, 1752, adding, by special permission, to the usual four vows of Poverty, Chastity, Obedience and Perseverance, a fifth, to do whatever was most pleasing to God. Such was the marvellous sanctity of the youthful lay-brother, and such the wonderful graces, favours and even miracles, that seemed to attend him everywhere, that he was often sent with the Fathers when they gave missions and retreats. Brother Gerard seemed to be able to discern the state of souls by a certain kind of holy instinct. More than twenty instances of this marvellous gift are recorded with reference to secret sinners. These persons were total strangers to the Saint, and some of them were even regarded locally as individuals of advanced holiness! Yet to each Brother Gerard at once revealed the true state of affairs, and sincere repentance happily followed.
When not assisting the Missions and Retreats, or giving holy counsel to religious communities, Brother Gerard was engaged in begging for the Congregation—itself a very irksome task—or in serving the Community as tailor, cook, infirmarian or sacristan. The great trial of his life came in 1754. Among those to whom Gerard had given spiritual advice and even aided to enter a Convent, was a young woman named Neria Caggiano. She did not remain long in the Convent, and after leaving it, led a wanton life in the world. At the instigation of one of her paramours, she accused the young lay-brother of hypocrisy and immorality, and the serious charge was referred to St Alphonsus then at Nocera.
To the astonishment of the Founder, Gerard, when sent for, said nothing to exculpate himself, and was of course in consequence, half believed to be guilty. He was treated with great rigour, forbidden to go to holy Communion, and for some months was in disgrace. The Saint remembering Our Lord’s silence before Pilate, and his own vow to do what was most pleasing to God, bore the unmerited, dreadful suspicion with heroic patience. Before long his accuser made a public avowal of her horrible calumny, when the members of the Community—in the words of the great Founder the Redemptorists—recognized that, in the wonderful lay-brother possessed a great Saint. In June, 1754, Gerard was sent to Capoa where he superintended the building of the Redemptorist house. It was here that he obtained, in answer to earnest prayer before the tabernacle a sum sufficient to pay the workmen their wages, at a time when there was absolutely no money in the house. He continued to work wonders — curing the sick, expelling evil spirits and making known to various persons the secret state of their consciences, as well as discerning for others vocations God wished them to follow.
The health of Gerard, always on the weak side, became very bad in July, and by August, the doctors pronounced that consumption had set in. When told of this, the holy patient replied with his usual cheerfulness “It is the will of God, therefore let us rejoice, for we should always do God’s will with joy.” The end was not long in coming. On September, he received the last rites of the Church and as the priest (Fr. Buonama), held the Sacred Host before the dying Brother, the latter said : ” Thou knowest, 0 my God, that whatever I have done or said, all has been done and said for Thy glory. I die content in the hope that I never sought anything but Thy glory, and the accomplishment of Thy holy will.” A few days later, to the surprise of all, he appeared to get better but in October, the blood-spitting returned. On the feast of St Theresa (15th October), he received holy Viaticum for the last time. A deep ecstasy then came on, during which, it is believed, that he saw Our Lord for he exclaimed at the outset: “The Madonna! let us pay her due honour;” He passed to his eternal reward shortly after midnight on the 16th, aged twenty-nine years and six months.
The wonderful spiritual fragrance of his short life was befittingly represented at his death by a most sweet and indescribable odour which filled for several days not only the room where he died, but the whole Monastery at Caposele. Like many another famous Saint, Gerard Majella was long in being raised to the altars of the Church, but the delay, as indeed is generally the case, was part of that scheme of divine providence which appropriates the man to the hour that most needs him! Gerard Majella was Beatified by Leo XIII, the great Pontiff of the Reru Novarum, in 1893, and Canonized by Pius IX, 11th December, 1904, at a time when the labour world was entering upon that critical phase which still hangs around its destiny. It was fitting, therefore, that this young working-man, whose whole object in life had been how best to please God, should have been acclaimed by the Church as the Saint of working-men and their great model in all that really matters, at the very period when the proletariat of the world stands confronted by its latest and seemingly most baffling problems.