His Story, Page 2
Back at Iliceto that winter, there were the usual retreats for men, held at regular intervals. During several of these, Gerard was instrumental in regaining souls to Christ. There was one man, especially, who, despite all the urging of the lay brother, refused to make a good confession. One evening Gerard obtained permission to go up to the man’s room. He carried a large crucifix, and before the man could open his mouth, “Look at these wounds!” he told him. “Your evil deeds have made the blood to flow.” Red blood began oozing from the nails of the crucifix. “For you, He was born in a stable,” Gerard continued. Suddenly the trembling man beheld the Infant Jesus in Gerard’s arms! “If you persist in your sins, you will be damned . . .” The brother made a gesture and a soul from hell appeared in the room writhing in torment! After that there was no need for words. At once, the man ran down the stairs two at a time to one of the confessors. He told what he had seen and asked that the whole incident be made public for the instruction of all. He made a good confession. Brother Gerard was indispensable to the success of the retreats.
It was the month of April and Gerard was on his way to the town of Corato, when a poor farmer, thinking him a priest, called out to him: “Padre, can you give me consolation?” The man pointed sadly to his farm. “See how the mice have eaten my seedlings. They are everywhere. My family will die of hunger because of them.” Gerard raised his hand and blessed the fields. “There now,” he said. “Everything will be alright,” and was on his way. The wretched farmer stood there watching the “Padre” awhile. He turned back to his stricken fields. He blinked his eyes and took a second look. All along the furrows, little field mice lay by the hundreds, not a one alive. “Wait, man of God, wait,” he shouted, but Gerard was turning a bend in the road. Corato was waiting.
During the greater part of the Lenten season, Gerard was at Corato. Word of his doings there came by post to the Rector of Iliceto . . . “his good example has attracted everyone and wrought many conversions,” the letter said . . . “Crowds follow him everywhere in Corato. They carry him about as though he were a Saint come down from Heaven. From six in the morning till six at night, they gather round the house of Don Felice Papaleo where Gerard has been staying. The people here want not only a mission by the Redemptorists, but a retreat. A large group are planning to go to Iliceto around the twentieth of next month . . . There are so many wonderful things (about Brother Gerard) I can recount for you, when I see you in person . . .”
While at Corato, Gerard paid a call at the Benedictine convent where Mother Abbess begged him to pray that she be relieved of her duties, as the responsibility weighed too heavily on her heart. Gerard assured her, she would soon be relieved of her cross, but that the Lord would give her another cross that she must carry to the grave. Shortly after Gerard’s departure, the good woman was relieved of her office, and as Gerard has predicted, she had developed a cancer of the foot, which remained incurable to the day of her death.
He often foretold that persons were to die. In June of 1753 while in Muro at the home of his old friend Piccolo, the watch-maker, he called the wife aside one day and told her a secret sin that had been troubling her for quite some time. “Make your peace with God,” he urged, “as you have but a short while to live.” At the time, she was in the pink of health. But a few days later she fell ill and died so unexpectedly that could not even have the priest. Later Gerard met Piccolo and told him that his wife had passed away with the name of Jesus on her lips.
Everywhere he went, he visited the sick. Some he cured; others he passed by, and often he gave his reasons. At Castelgrande he paid a call on the mother of a three-year-old boy whose little hands were crippled from violent convulsions. “The child will suffer no more,” said Gerard, and made a cross on the boy’s head. Long years later, the mother attested to the truth of his prediction. Her boy had been well ever since. Little Judith, the daughter of the mayor of Castelgrande, was blind. Her mother begged Gerard to pray that Judith regain her sight. Gerard said, “No. If Judith were to see, she would lose her soul.”
The Man Who Disliked Redemptorists
Sometimes there is a touch of irony in the stories recounted of Gerard Majella. One of these concerns a young Michele de Michele. For some reason, he bore a grudge against religious, and he particularly disliked Redemptorists. He lay ill of fever at Melfi and Gerard cured him instantly with a little sign of the cross. Awed at such power, Michele spread the story all through Melfi.
A few days later, he met Gerard in the street and stopped to speak. Before long, however, he saw that all dissembling was useless. Gerard could read his inmost thoughts . . . even his antipathy for religious. “Michele,” Gerard said to him as they parted company. “The day will come when you will be one of us.” That was a little too much. “I’ll join the Redemptorists the day I can touch the sky with my thumb,” quipped Michele. In less than six months, Michele de Michele was a Redemptorist novice at Ciorani.
Michele had not come to Ciorani as yet when nine young Redemptorist scholastics made their memorable pilgrimage to his patron’s shrine, St. Michael the Archangel at Monte Gargano. It was in September and Brother Gerard accompanied them. The Rector put Gerard in charge of the pilgrimage, entrusting him with the money for the trip – thirty silver carlins. In our money, it amounted to $2.00 . . . hardly enough to defray the expense of food and lodging of ten young men for a fortnight, even in 1753! The students were all for abandoning the trip but Gerard calmed them. “Money isn’t everything,” he said. “God will provide.” So they set out.
However, by the time they reached Manfredonia at the foot of the mountain, all Gerard had in his purse was twenty cents . . . and they had twelve more days and nights to go. Being a thoroughly practical saint, he spent the twenty cents on a spray of flowers and took them into the chapel at the castle of Manfredonia. After praying awhile with the students, he walked up to the altar. “See, Lord, we’ve thought of You. Now you must think of us.” With that, he laid the bouquet in front of the tabernacle.
The chaplain of the castle was spectator to this little scene, and after greeting the group, invited them to spend the night there. Next day they climbed the mountain to St. Michele’s shrine and spent the night at a nearby inn. By this time, the students were thoroughly worried. How would they pay for their lodging? They were whispering among themselves when a well-dressed Signore came up to Brother Gerard and without further ado, he presented him with a purse of silver.
The inn near Monte Gargano did a brisk trade. Long lines of pack mules brought provisions up the steep slopes each day. There was always good food to be had there, but prices were high. When it came time for Gerard and his party to leave, he asked the inn-keeper for the bill. Exorbitant! Gerard questioned this item and that to no avail. The inn-keeper could not be swayed. “Very well, my good man, I’ll pay you.” Gerard counted out his silver coins . . . “But if you are over-charging us, you will suffer. All your pack mules will die.” The inn-keeper reached for the money, chuckling to himself, when the door burst open and his son rushed in. “The mules, Dad! They’ve got the plague! They’re all lying down half dead.” The inn-keeper crossed himself in terror. Clutching Gerard by the sleeve, he admitted he had added this item and that to the bill. “Your lodging will be on the house,” he pleaded. “I will give you food for your trip home,” he cajoled. “Only keep my mules from dying!"
Gerard paid the amended bill. “Signore,” he said. “I gladly forgive you; but never forget that God is with the poor.” As the ten pilgrims trooped into the inn-yard, the mules were again on their feet.
Summer had been all sunshine and no rain. By mid-September, the roads were a powder of dust and the rivers low. Along the way from the shrine to Manfredonia, Gerard asked a farmer for water as the students were parched with thirst. “But if I let every passerby take a drink from my well, I’ll soon have no water at all.” The man was reluctant. “Look out, Signore,” Gerard was angered at his selfishness. “Your well may refuse water even to you!” As he spoke, the well ran dry. Panic-stricken, the farmer promised them all the water they wanted. So Gerard dropped the bucket into the dry well. It landed with a splash and came up filled with cold water. The nine young men had plenty to talk about when they got home to Iliceto.
In late November of that year word came to Iliceto that an epidemic had broken out in Lacedonia. Doctors were powerless to check it. People were dying off by the hundreds. Finally, a letter came from Bishop Amato; an urgent request for the presence of Brother Gerard in the stricken town. Gerard was shortly on his way.
Death hung like a mist over Lacedonia. As Gerard approached, he saw the hills were a patchwork of new dug graves. Church bells were constantly tolling – funerals wending through the streets and out to the cemetery. Scarcely a home in the city had escaped the plague. At once he commenced his rounds of mercy. Here he prepared one for the end. Another he assured hat the illness would pass. But he wrought many miracles, too – with a simple sign of the cross. Doctors stood helplessly by. Not so Gerard! Patients got well as he touched them – all trace of their fevers gone.
During the seven weeks in plague-ridden Lacedonia, Gerard stayed at the home of Don Constantino Capucci, a brother of the archpriest, in the cathedral. Two of the gentleman’s daughters had already entered the convent. Two more were still at home. Here Gerard often delivered short discourses to the people crowding round the house. Some came for counsel. Some for solace or encouragement. He found time to give instructions to anyone seeking information on matters religious. His nights and days were spent in an endless activity for God and souls. Towards the end of February, the epidemic had run its course, and Gerard left for Iliceto. His own health was none too good.
A Wagging Tongue
One girl in Lacedonia escaped the plague, though it might have been better had she succumbed! Neria Caggiano with several other girls of the neighborhood had gone to the conservatory at Foggia. They had been admitted through the efforts of Brother Gerard and were happy in the convent. Then Neria came home. Soon, she was slandering the nuns, and the whole way of life at Foggia. However, as many families in Lacedonia had daughters in that very convent, they turned a deaf ear to Neria’s gossip. People avoided her. They feared her tongue.
Resenting this, she turned her spite on Gerard who had helped her to enter the convent. She belittled his “so-called sanctity”; blamed him for all her troubles. The good people of Lacedonia turned from her in horror.
Now she tried a new tack. Very demurely she confided to one of the priests of the town that she had been highly disedified by Gerard’s love for Nicoletta Capucci at the house where he had spent his stay in Lacedonia. She feigned to know of secret meetings between them! The priest was perturbed at such a confidence. If it were true then by all means Neria must write to Father Alphonsus Liguori at Nocera, the Superior General of the Order. She must inform him of the fact that he might dismiss Gerard from the Redemptorists before it were too late. Neria Caggiano took up pen and wrote.
When Alphonsus de Liguori read the letter from Lacedonia, he could not believe it. At once he ordered an investigation of the girl’s allegation. No evidence was forthcoming to prove the Brother’s guilt. But none could be found either to prove his innocence. The word of Neria Caggiano stood alone. She had sworn to the truth of her statement, and the priest of Lacedonia had given her credence. Alphonsus summoned Brother Gerard to his headquarters at Nocera de Pagani. Reports on this lay brother had always been the best. On all sides Alphonsus had heard of wonders wrought be Gerard. He had been seen in an ecstasy on Good Friday by the people of Corato. His confreres at Iliceto could vouch for his punctilious obedience . . . even to reading his Rector’s unspoken wish. He fasted much. He prayed long into the night. They even called him saint! Alphonsus had never met Brother Gerard face to face. Not until today . . .
Sitting at his desk, Alphonsus read the letter aloud to the young man standing before him. He folded it slowly, awaiting Gerard’s denial of so preposterous a charge. But Gerard just stood there looking at the floor. Baffled beyond words, Alphonsus sat studying the lean face . . . quietly waiting . . . affording him every chance to clear his name. Gerard said nothing. He would not deny his guilt. He would not affirm it. He simply stood there in silence.
There was nothing to do but impose a severe penalty until the matter could be further resolved. Expulsion was the normal penalty for such a misdemeanor, but Alphonsus had not been a lawyer for naught. He prudently bided his time. Gerard was to have no further communication with the world beyond the monastery. He was not to receive Communion until further notice. That was his penance. He accepted it in silence, quietly leaving the superior’s room.
April, May and most of June, Gerard remained at Nocera under the surveillance of Alphonsus de Liguori. For all practical purposes he was in disgrace. The community, when they noticed his abstention from Communion, suspected a calumny of some sort. Several of them urged him to clear his name – to speak. But, “It is in God’s hands,” Gerard would always say.
“If He wills that my innocence be proven, who can accomplish it more easily than He?”
Meanwhile, the damp climate brought on a recurrence of his malady. Gerard was confined to bed. Though still deprived of Communion, God was with him. His miraculous faculty continued as before. One of the Fathers, making the evening meditation with the patient, saw him fall into an ecstasy that lasted for hours. The Superior General himself experienced Gerard’s gift of Obedience to the unspoken wish. One morning Brother Gerard rose up from bed and went straight to Alphonsus Liguori. “Why are you not in bed, Brother?” the superior asked. “I came because you desired to see me.” It was true. Just at that moment the thought had passed through the mind of Alphonsus. Thus, Gerard left his case in God’s hands, and the Lord took care of it. That he burned to receive Communion can be imagined. One morning when a priest asked him to serve his Mass, Gerard begged off . . . “Please do not tempt me,” he pleaded. “lest I snatch the Sacred Host from your hands.”
In June, Brother Gerard was transferred to the house of Materdomini at Caposele. The climate there would benefit his failing health. Here too on the last Sunday of June, he was again permitted to receive Communion. The clouds were lifting from his life.
A few days later, a letter sped from Lacedonia to Nocera. Neria Caggiano, gravely ill, now admitted that he previous letter was a tissue of lies. The innocence of Brother Gerard was at long last confirmed. Alphonsus Liguori was overjoyed. It was not long before the two saints met again.
“You were innocent all the time, my son, and yet you said nothing,” Alphonsus Liguori’s face was radiant with solicitude. “How could I, my Father,” said Gerard simply, “when our Rule forbids that we make excuses.” It seemed the warm Nocera sun poured in more brightly through the window!
A Mother Pleads
The last brief year of Gerard’s life was spent a Caposele, with a few short sojourns to Naples where he assisted the Procurator General of the Order. He also began a tour of the Archdiocese of Conza at the request of the Archbishop, but illness brought him back to Materdomini – to die.
Caposele and Naples won the favor of his wonders, as did Iliceto a year before. At Naples, great scholars came to him seeking advice. People begged his blessing in the streets. One morning, the Duchess of Maddaloni approached him as he entered the Cathedral, begging him to cure her little daughter who was ill. Gerard pointed to the altar, saying it was not he but God who wrought such miracles. But the mother persisted until Gerard promised to pray for her little one. An hour later, a liveried footman came to fetch the Duchess, bringing news that the little girl had suddenly recovered.
One day when Gerard was in Naples, one of those summer storms blew up, bringing lowering clouds and a chill wind from the Appenines. At once the fishing fleet hauled in traps and sail and made for shore. They well knew the damage a squall wrought. Off the rocks of Pietra del pesce the sea was leaping in huge bursts of spray, tossing a hapless boat like a stick. Fearing shipwreck, the panicky rowers signaled shore, but not a soul would dare put out to their rescue.
At the moment, Brother Gerard happened along and saw the little fishing smack pitching helplessly among the whitecaps. Walking down to the shore, he made the sign of the cross, threw his cloak back over his shoulder and without more ado, began to walk across the churning breakers till he came alongside the boat. Then while the crowds on shore shielded their eyes to watch, he grasped the prow and pulled the boatload of fishermen in the harbor. “Santo! Santo!” screamed the people. They mobbed around him . . . so that he had to dart away and hide in a shop, as though hunted by the police. By evening, all Naples was talking of Brother Gerard.
The crops had been meager that fall, and by winter famine stalked the hills round Caposele. Gerard had been appointed porter there in November and was delighted: he had thus to care for the poor. Every morning, several hundred peasants came to the monastery for clothing and warm food. No matter how many came, there was always plenty. Food seemed to double and triple in his hands.
However, to the brother who baked the bread, this lavish charity of Gerard seemed imprudent. He had filled the pantry with fresh loaves that very morning . . . and there was not a loaf left. Hearing of this, the Rector reprimanded Gerard. There was nothing left for the community! Nothing for dinner! Gerard looked so dumbfounded that Rector and baker went down to the pantry to show him his folly. The baker threw open the cupboard, and . . . it was loaded with fresh baked bread.
When spring came in 1755, Gerard was extremely frail. Several times he had to take to his bed. But he recovered and accompanied a group of missionaries to Calitri, where his presence brought many back to the practice of the Faith. The mission was an outstanding success. That summer he made his last trip on business for the monastery, visiting a dozen towns and in many working wonders.
At the town of Senarchia, they were repairing the church roof. Workmen had felled great trees in the nearby woods. They were so heavy that a whole gang could not pull a single tree over the rough terrain to the church. Gerard heard of the problem and promised to help. The workmen followed him into the woods where he tied a stout rope to the largest log. “I command you to follow me.” He then pulled the huge trunk as though it were a child’s sled. The workmen, at his bidding did likewise, and the logs slid along at the slightest tug.
In the same town, a young mother was in danger of death after an extremely difficult birth. Gerard assured her friends that he would pray for her. Later, he told them the woman would recover. Both mother and child survived as he had predicted.
Auletta, Vietri da Potenza, San Gregorio, Buccino . . . Gerard visited town after town. At Buccino, he fell ill and the doctor advised that he go to Oliveto where the climate would be better for his lungs. Here he wrote to his Rector at Caposele, “Tell me what to do, I beg your Reverence. If you wish me home, I shall come at once. If you wish me to continue the tour, send me an emphatic obedience, and all will be well . . .” His superior wrote him to wait at Oliveto until he had strength enough to come home.
But Gerard’s strength was waning. He must set out for Caposele to spend his last days at Materdomini. On the way, he paid a brief visit to the Pirofalo family, telling them to watch for a white flag flying from the house at Materdomini. As long as they saw the flag, he would be alive. As a matter of fact, even on a clear day it was all but impossible to see that distance. But the family could see the monastery plainly, and the white flag flew all the days of September, and for half the following month.
Gerard had already left the house, when one of the Pirofalo girls called after him, telling him he had left his handkerchief. “Keep it,” he told her. “You may need it someday.” Long years after, when married and all but dying in childbirth, she remembered the words of Brother Gerard. She asked that the handkerchief be applied to her. Almost at once, her pain abated and she gave birth to her child.
Home at Last
The Rector of Materdomini was heartbroken that last day of August when Brother Gerard came back. He was so worn and emaciated! “Cheer up, Father. It is God’s Will,” said Gerard with a smile. “We must do His Will with gladness.” He scarcely stopped speaking of union with the Will of God. When Doctor Santorelli, the house physician, asked him if he wished to get well or to die, Gerard looked up from bed and answered simply, “I wish only what God wants.” His one last request was that a small white placard be tacked to his door with the inscription:
Here the Will of God is done,
as God wills, and as long as
On September fifth, the acting Rector gave Gerard an obedience to get well. The Will of God! At once all trace of his malady vanished. He got out of bed, ate with the community, walked in the garden, and was present at all the religious exercises. For a full month, he was well again. Then on October fourth, he said to the doctor, “I should have died a month ago, but for obedience. Now my time is near. Tomorrow, I go to bed.” And so it was. For the next ten days, he grew steadily worse. The afternoon of October fifteenth, he tried to sit up, crying to his confreres, “Look! Look! It is the Madonna!” and fell into a sudden ecstasy of love. That evening at seven-thirty, he died. He was twenty-nine years, six months, and nine days old. For six years, he had been in religious life.
To recount the happening after his death in 1755 would demand a large book. Because of the numerous miracles performed through the saint’s intercession, proceedings for his canonization were instituted shortly after his death. In 1893, he was beatified. Eleven years later on December the eleventh, 1904, Pope Pius X proclaimed his solemn canonization at St. Peter’s in eternal Rome. Brother Gerard of Muro and Materdomini was now Saint Gerard of heaven and the whole world.