The Story of Saint Gerard Mejalla
The life of St. Gerard Majella reads like a fairy tale for children: full of surprises, full of impossible things that happen anyway because of him. An archangel brings him Communion! A statue comes to life! Empty pantries suddenly bulge with bread! A bird bolts out of the air to perch on his finger and sing for a crying child! The life of St. Gerard teems with such things. If you are one who finds wonders hard to stomach, if dozens of “commonplace” miracles tax your forbearance . . . this booklet is not for you. Lay it aside.
Children will love this story . . . and their mothers, too. That is only as it should be. For today, for some secret reason of Divine Providence, little ones and their mothers are St. Gerard’s favorite beneficiaries. Thousands of children in the United States bear the name “Gerard” because of his powerful intercession. He is commonly called the Patron of Mothers.
Annibale Rosso! It was incredible. He had suddenly given up membership in the Communist Party. Even more surprising, he was seen at mass. People naturally talked in the small town south of Naples. Communism was on every lip just then, for it was the month of April 1948. On the third Sunday of the month all Italy would vote and Communism might well take over the government. But one thing was certain. The vote of Annibale Rosso would be against the Hammer and Sickle. He said so himself. He swore a solemn oath, he would have no more truck or traffic with the Party . . . not after last night.
Last night he had been ranting in his usual fashion against the “duplicity and trickery of the Church.” If anything he was more boisterous, more caustic than ever. The occasion was a candlelight procession that had come to town. People singing. Little children in white carrying spring flowers, and priests in the black cassock and rosary of the “Liguorini” – the Redemptorists. Annibale cursed the “tomfoolery.” He was all for stoning the priest preaching in the public square before the church. “What new-fangled sort of nonsense is this?” he muttered . . . “digging up a saint two hundred years dead and carrying him round the countryside! It’s a trick. The whole thing is a trick of these priests.”
At the wish of the Archbishop of Conza, the remains of St. Gerard Majella had been traveling through the Archdiocese since the first of April. They would continue visiting town after town until April 15th. It was an attempt at waking the towns of the Archdiocese to the practice of their Faith; to warn them of their duty as Catholics to vote on April eighteenth and avert the red menace. Gerard Majella had come from that neighborhood. He had visited these very towns as a Redemptorist laybrother two centuries ago. He had died at Materdomini in 1755 at the age of twenty-nine. Wonders were his specialty. Stories of his miracles were still handed down from father to son all through that countryside.
During the fifteen-day tour of his native diocese of Conza, St. Gerard continued his wonders. All spring the skies had been clear. The fields were parched and dry. Farmers, among them Annibale Rosso, were hoping for rain for their crops. The evening the procession came to the town, it rained for the first time in weeks. The same thing had happened in many other places. Then there was a little thirteen-year-old girl suffering from an incurable malady – tuberculosis of the bone. The afternoon St. Gerard passed through the village, she was cured instantaneously.
The rumor of all these happenings ran like wildfire. By the time the procession came to the town of Annibale Rosso, new wonders were already passing from lip to lip. It was too much for Annibale. The peasants with their beads and shawls, the smoking candles, the church bells, the sermon, the flower-decked statue of Our Lady of Materdomini. People stood in queues waiting to confess their sins. Eight Redemptorists were constantly busy. And there was to be a Mass at midnight! Annibale Rosso swore a withering oath and went home to bed.
Then it happened. In his sleep he saw St. Gerard Majella accompanied by a group of priests. “Annibale Rosso, have I not helped you often before this?” The saint’s face was stern. His dark eyes flashed disapproval. “Have all my graces been fruitless? Do you think you can make sport of the Saints of God and come off unscathed? It is not as you say, a “trick” of these good priests, that I am carried through the countryside. I am visiting my friends . . ." Annibale Rosso sat up in bed. He was trembling. Dressing at once, he hurried down to the church, waiting with his townsmen to confess his sins and receive the absolution of the missionary.
In 1948, just as in 1755, Brother Gerard Majella of the Redemptorists was busy – not only battling with Communists in Italy, but leading the counterattack in America on the forces of Anti-life, pouring favors on countless mothers, and blessing the unborn.
A Pretty Lady
He was born in the South of Italy in a small town called Muro on the sixth of April. It was in the year 1726. His father, Domenico, was a tailor. His mother, Benedetta, had already borne three daughters. Gerard was the youngest – the only son. They were an ordinary hard-working Italian family. Pious too. Donna Benedetta often brought her three youngest to Mass with her at the shrine of Our Lady of Graces at nearby Capotignano. And, like thousands of other small boys, then and now, Gerard was all eyes for the strange new things he saw. Not quite four, he was too young to know what was going on. But he did know this: he liked the “pretty lady with the baby.”
“Mama, Mama, see what I got from the little boy.” In his hand he clutched a small roll of bread. Nobody paid him a bit of attention as he chattered about a pretty lady and her baby who had given him the bread. Small boys love to make up stories! But the next day he brought back another white roll, and again the next day, and the next. His mother decided to investigate. Next morning she followed her son. Off he ran the two miles to Capotignano, making straight for the chapel. Benedetta followed. It was then she saw who his playmate was – the Christ-Child himself. The statue of Our Lady of Graces had come to life. The infant climbed down from his Mother’s arms to romp with Gerard. A bewildered Benedetta ran home to Muro. At mealtime, little Gerard came back with another roll of bread.
In after life this childhood attraction for the “pretty lady with the baby” ran over into a love for all children and their mothers. This can be seen in the most cursory glance at his life. There are so many wonders wrought for little children . . . and for mothers. The “Mother’s Saint” has earned even greater claim to the title in the nineteen decades since his death.
His Lordship’s Latch-Key
Ten years later when he was houseboy for Bishop Albini at Lacedonia, children went home to their mothers with all sorts of stories told them by Gerard Majella. But the townsfolk had learned about the new houseboy themselves. Everyone had tales of his kindness, his visits to the poor in the clinic, his compassion. How he bandaged the wounds of the sick and brought them leftovers from the bishop’s table. Anyone who noticed him at prayer in the cathedral knew Gerard for what he was.
But the morning they saw him running down the cathedral steps with the Bambino, they didn’t know what to say! It was the last week in December in 1743. People stopped and stared at Gerard racing down the street with the statue of the Infant from the crib. A crowd followed after him. He paid no attention. On he ran to the public well.
What happened? What’s the matter?” Someone explained how His Lordship had gone for his morning walk, and the house-boy had locked the door and come down to the well for water: but as he leaned down to haul up the bucket, the bishop’s key had dropped into the well.
Gerard had by now tied a rope around the Bambino, and was lowering it gently into the well. “Gesu, Gesu Bambino” he prayed aloud, “find me my key. It’s the key to His Lordship’s house . . . and he’ll be back in half an hour . . .” Bystanders craned their necks to peer into the well. Others shook their heads and walked off. Some smiled a little smugly at the antics of the frightened houseboy. But when he pulled up the rope from the well and the dripping statue of the Infant came into view, there in Bambino’s tiny hand was the Bishop’s key.
In June of 1744, Bishop Albini died at Lacedonia and Gerard returned to his hometown of Muro. He had been apprenticed to a master-tailor before going to Lacedonia to work for the bishop and knew the trade quite well. Now after a short apprenticeship with a second tailor, he set up his own business in his mother’s house.
There’s magic in an established name. And the sign “Majella the Tailor” hanging over the shop brought many of his father’s old customers to the door. His growing reputation for faultless workmanship won him patrons from all walks of life. His prices were always fair. He was scrupulously honest. From the poor, he took no payment at all.
One day, a man came in with some goods for a suit. Gerard spread it on the table, and laid his tape measure along its length. “Mmmmm!” He shook his head. The cloth was much too short. The poor man could not hide his chagrin, as he had no money for more. “It is nothing,” said Gerard, running his fingers along the edge of the cloth. He measured it once more. Three yards . . . four . . . five! More than enough for a fine substantial suit! As a matter of fact, when the garment was finished, the man received a good extra piece of material. The cloth had grown longer under Gerard’s miraculous touch.
One and Twenty
April 6, 1747. How the years fly! Gerard was twenty-one and as yet had not found his heart’s desire. He had a fair business: at least he could support his mother. He gave he a third of all his earnings. Another third went to the poor of Muro. The rest was for Masses for the Poor Souls. As for himself . . . God would provide. Not too practical to a hard-headed businessman, but he was more than just a small town tailor. He wanted to be a saint.
His mother was driven to distraction by her son. He would not eat her meals. He was lean from fasting and penance, pale from long vigils of prayer in the nearby cathedral. But if his constitution was frail, his disposition was always on a holiday: gay as a lark, merry as a little child.
Twice he had applied for admission to the Capuchin monastery at Muro. But a glance at his sunken chest and thin white hands, and the Capuchins turned him down. Candidly, they told him, he had not the health nor stamina for so strenuous a life. Perhaps he should go off into the hills to live as a hermit in seclusion and holy meditation! He tried it but his confessor firmly forbade it. So Gerard went back to his needles and tape. He understood that a man can achieve holiness in any walk of life, in the faithful discharge of his duties. If it were God’s will that he be a tailor, then he would be a good one.
And God showed evident approval. The whole countryside spoke openly of his supernatural powers. Had he not cured little Amata Giuliani! The little girl had tumbled into a vat of boiling water and for all the medications of oil and wax, the child whimpered in her mother’s arms all day. As Gerard was passing the house he heard the child and went in. “It is nothing,” he said, laying his hand on the scalded skin. Suddenly, little Amata Giuliani was smiling. The next morning all trace of the burn was gone.
Walking down a side street of Muro another day, Gerard noticed a new house abuilding. Work was at a standstill. The carpenters stood awkwardly by while the foreman ran his fingers through his hair in a helpless rage. The rafters had been sawed too short. “Pull them with ropes,” suggested the onlooker. Practical men though they were, they took the suggestion. The rafters fitted snugly from wall to wall, and work was resumed.
Always in Church
No matter what was ado about the cathedral, Gerard was there. He attended all the Sunday Masses, the May devotions, the tridua. In fact, he often spent the whole night locked up in church. One of his relatives happened to be sacristan. The rest was easy. One evening while deep in prayer, Gerard heard a voice . . . “Pazzarello . . . My little fool, what are you doing?” looking up at the altar, he answered. “Ah, but you are more a fool than I, a prisoner for me in your tabernacle.” When the bells rang for Mass the next morning, Gerard was still in church.
He was there the afternoon of Low Sunday, April 13, 1749, for the start of the parish retreat. A newly founded congregation of missionaries were to preach in all three churches of Muro. Their founder had been a well-known lawyer at Naples, Alphonsus de Liguori. Wherever these missionaries went, they moved all hearts with their fervent words. It was the same in Muro.
One of the missionaries, Father Paul Cafaro, made a deep impression on Gerard Majella. “I must join these men as a lay brother,” he decided. Each day the resolution grew more insistent in his heart. He even gave away all his worldly goods – one extra shirt and a pair of linen breeches! Finally, he went to see Father Cafaro.
But like the Capuchin superior a few years before, Father Cafaro gave him no encouragement. He was too frail for the rigorous tasks of a lay brother. Despite the rebuff Gerard was not disheartened. He was convinced that God wanted him to join his new Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. He went on making preparations for departure.
When his mother discovered the plan she was frantic. His three sisters wept aloud, pleading with him to stay. “Mother needs you at home,” they insisted. But Gerard stood firm. He was going to Iliceto to become a Redemptorist! They ran to the missionaries, begging them not to accept their brother. Father Cafaro has no intention whatever of accepting the young man. However, he shrewdly foresaw it would be hard to dissuade this importunate youth. “Detain him at home somehow the day we leave,” was Father Cafaro’s advice to Gerard’s distracted family. They promised to do so.
Benedetta bolted Gerard’s door the morning the Redemptorists left Muro. But later when she tiptoed into the room, he was not there. His bed-clothes, knotted together, streamed from the open window, and on a small table lay a scrap of paper: “Mother, I am off to become a saint,” it read. It was signed “Gerardo.” He had gone after the missionaries.
“Wait, wait for me!” The group of missionaries half way to Rionero turned to see a cloud of dust on the road behind them. It was that young man again. He had pursued them for twelve miles. Gasping for breath, he commenced his entreaties all over. He was too frail for the life, the missionaries countered. He had better go back to Muro. But Gerard would not be put off. He argued. He nagged. He pleaded. He prayed to Our Lady. He made such a holy nuisance of himself during the next few days in Rionero that Father Cafaro at last gave in. He wrote a short note for the Rector of the monastery at Iliceto, and gave it to the persistent young man. At once Gerard was on his way. By nightfall, he had reached the novitiate of the Redemptorists.
On a Saturday evening, the seventeenth of May in 1749, a tired young man, dusty from long hours of walking, knocked on the door of the monastery at Iliceto. Soon he was presenting his precious letter to Father D’Antonio, the rector. He had no idea of what Father Cafaro had written. As the Rector unfolded the note, Gerard was all happiness, his face wreathed in smiles. “I am sending you a brother, who as far as work goes, will be perfectly useless.” The Rector glanced up at the young man over the letter, noting the frail little frame and the pallid face. He read on . . . “But because of his many earnest entreaties, and the high reputation he holds in Muro, I could not quite deny him a trial . . .” Now Father D’Antonio was smiling. “This is not an easy life,” he dryly remarked, “But we will give you a chance at it.” Gerardo Majella was happy unto tears. He was going to be a religious . . . a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
Gerard Majella, the Redemptorist Lay-brother
A lay brother is lay: he is not an ordained priest. He is not bound to the Divine Office. He does not say Mass or hear Confessions, or preach missions. But he is a brother to the priests of the community, wearing the same Redemptorist habit, living under the same roof, eating the same meals, sharing the community’s prayers and good works. He is a religious with the three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience . . . the same vows as any Redemptorist priest. In no sense is he a servant to the priests. He is their helper. He takes care of the material upkeep of the monastery while his confreres are busy with the spiritual work of the apostolic ministry. He has little commerce with the world beyond the monastery walls except when the business of the house may require it. He should be modest, humble, simple, and joyously obedient. Above all, he must be devoted to prayer.
Knowing what we do of Gerard, we can appreciate how ideally he fitted these requirements. Today, in the Constitutions of the Lay Brothers of the Congregation, St. how ideally he fitted these requirements. Today, in the Constitutions of the Lay Brothers of the Congregation, St. Gerard Majella is named their patron and model. But, back to Iliceto in May of 1749.
Next morning he began his new apprenticeship: doing odd jobs here and there about the monastery, helping the brothers at their various tasks. His first assignment was the garden . . . hard and back-breaking work for a lad accustomed to needle and thimble. Somehow he managed to finish his own work and always have time to help the others. “This new-comer does the work of four of us,” was the comment of his new companions. Their admiration mounted wit the weeks; and by the time Father Cafaro came as Rector to Iliceto in October of that year, the young man from Muro was considered the jewel of the house.
The Will of God
The new Rector of Iliceto was quick to realize how premature he had been with his scribbled recommendations. Absolutely worthless! It embarrassed him to remember what he had written. Not only could the postulant do the work of four, he did the downright impossible! He read the minds of total strangers. He cured sicknesses. He set the natural laws at naught. His recollection was constant. So fixed were his thoughts on God and His Holy Will, he became a model of punctilious obedience. That was the secret of Gerard’s holiness: that in everything he sought the Will of God. For him the Redemptorist Rule in its minutest detail was the express Will of God. He knew it by heart. Were the rulebook to be lost, he could have rewritten it from memory, line for line. He obeyed his superiors to the letter. Often they had but to think of a task for Gerard, when at once he began to execute their wish.
There was the morning the Rector sent him off to Lacedonia with a letter for one of the priests of the town. He had been gone some time when the Rector remembered a post-script he had meant to add. “If I could only get hold of that letter,” he thought. Hardly had he phrased the thought when there was a knock at his door, and Gerard walked in with the letter. Without a word, he laid it on the Rector’s desk.
Some weeks later, the Rector was visiting the Bishop of Melfi. Conversation turned to the young man at Iliceto whom everyone regarded as a saint. The Rector spoke glowingly of him, so much so that the Bishop wanted to meet the young novice: would it be possible for Gerard to visit with him at Melfi? When the Rector agreed, the Bishop called for a messenger; but the Rector smilingly assured him a messenger would be unnecessary. “Your lordship, I will show you the extent of this young man’s obedience. I will close my eyes and desire him to come to Melfi.
At that same moment, Gerard went to Father Minister at Iliceto for permission to go to Melfi, as the Rector wished to see him. And while the Bishop was still conversing with the Rector, Brother Gerard came into the room.
“And what brings you here, Brother?” the Rector feigned surprise. “Obedience,” said Gerard. “I sent no message for you to come here,” the Rector spoke sternly. “No,” replied Gerard meekly. “But in the presence of His Lordship you commanded me to come, as he desired to meet me.” So the Bishop of Melfi met the novice. He remained at Melfi for three weeks.
Reports of his wonders came from all quarters. One afternoon a rough looking character came to Iliceto and asked for the Rector. He wanted to go to confession. After making his peace with God, he told how he had come to seek out Iliceto. “I was coming down the road quite a distance from here thinking my own wicked thoughts, when just below Acadia at an intersection I met one of your Brothers. He stood there as though he were expecting me. I hastened my pace as I had no mind to talk to him. When he saluted me, I snarled that he mind his own affairs. He was a frail, thin fellow; but then he reached out and grasped my arm and held me as in a vice. “Where are you going?” he asked. “I may be able to help you.” I was furious at his impertinence! I tried to jerk my arm from his grasp. “I know what is in your heart. You are in despair. You are on the point of giving your soul to the Evil One.” I turned pale at his words, because it was the truth. That very moment I had been mulling over that very idea. “God knows what you are thinking. He sent me to this spot to warn you.” Frightened at the way he could read my soul, I admitted I was about to commit a crime, and asked his guidance. He told me to come here to Iliceto to you.
The days of Brother Gerard’s novitiate were drawing to a close. He had tried the Redemptorist Rule and found it to his liking. His various superiors had tried him in many ways and found that he passed their tests. Anyone who observed him in chapel knew he was a man of prayer. His fellow Brothers could vouch for his alacrity at the hardest work. From all over came reports of his wondrous dealings with the poor and the sick and the sinner.
On the feast of Our Lady’s Visitation in 1752, Brother Gerard commenced his fifteen-day retreat in preparation to make his vows as a Redemptorist. On July sixteenth, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, he knelt in the chapel at Iliceto and pronounced in the presence of his community, the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and the oath of Perseverance until death. Brother Gerard Majella was a professed member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Two months later, with the consent of his Director, he made a fifth vow: To do always that which was most pleasing to God.
Much as Gerard preferred solitude and meditation, his life as a lay brother demanded that he often leave the monastery on business. He traveled with the missionaries, helping them in every way possible, in their tedious weeks of preaching in many villages and towns. Often too, he was called by the poor and the sick. Wherever obedience demanded his presence, Gerard was there to “do the Will of God.” And God in turn seemed to do the will of Gerard for the benefit of countless souls.
His hometown of Muro was his first assignment after Profession. It was now three years since he had climbed from his bedroom window and run after the missionaries. His mother was dead. She had passed away in April, four months before he returned. So during his stay in Muro, he lived with Alessandro Piccolo, the watchmaker, though he had invitations from nobles and well-to-do, and was greeted like a hero by everyone in the town.
Not in Text Books
The students of the new seminary in Muro could hardly believe their ears. Their rector had invited Brother Gerard to give them a conference on the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Some of them had been boys with him. They knew he had left school at the age of twelve; that he could barely read or write; and had never studied theology. And yet when he began discoursing lucidly on the eternal generation of the Second Person of the Trinity, he held them spellbound. He made it sound so simple! Canon Bozzio was later to write of Gerard . . . “Learned men are silent before this poor unlettered Brother. He draws knowledge from its source, the Heart of Christ, not from the muddy cisterns of the human mind. In his mouth the most obscure mysteries become luminously clear.” Is it any wonder that confessors flocked to Gerard seeking advice?
And always there were the children. They flocked to him from all over Muro. He told them stories, taught them to pray. One little fellow tumbled from a cliff and was found, to all appearances, dead. He was the son of Piccolo, the watchmaker, with whom Gerard was staying. “It is nothing,” he told the distracted father. He traced a little cross on the boy’s forehead and the child awoke.
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