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How was it that Gerard Majella, a lay brother that died while still in his twenties, came to be known as the Patron of Mothers? Hailed by millions even today, but still unknown to many more, here is the story of Saint Gerard's life.
Born April 6, 1726 in the Southern Italy town of Muro, he was the youngest of five children born to Dominic and Benedetta Majella. His passion began at the earliest of ages. Sickly at birth, he was rushed to the cathedral for baptism. Later, at only five, he would pray with such fervor in church that there were claims of him playing with the child Jesus that climbed down from the arms of a statue of the Blessed Mother. He would return home on more than one occasion with a loaf of bread given to him by the Child.
When Gerard was 12, his father died. Without the resources to continue his schooling, his mother apprenticed him to a tailor who treated him harshly and sometimes beat him. Later, he served as the house servant for the Bishop of Lacedonia. An otherwise good priest, the bishop was known for his terrible temper, and Gerard suffered greatly at his hands. In these early years, he attributed all of his suffering to the will of God, and unwaveringly accepted it. When the bishop died, Gerard returned to the tailor trade. He divided his earnings between his mother and donations to the poor.
Gerard had a great respect and affinity towards religious life. Before serving the Bishop of Lacedonia, he attempted to join the Capuchin Franciscan order as a teenager, but was turned away because of his youth. He also made a futile attempt at becoming a hermit. When Gerard was 23, in 1749, the newly founded Redemptionist Order gave a mission in Muro. Gerard decided that this was his opportunity. He asked to be considered as a candidate in the order. After being refused by the mission leader because of his poor health, Gerard became quite persistent. Finally, the mission leader advised Gerard's mother to lock him in his room the night the missions were to leave town. The next morning, his mother opened the door to find an open window with a sheet hanging from it. On his table was a note that read "I have gone to become a saint." Gerard had reached the missionaries as they were leaving town. After several refusals, the mission leader, Fr. Paul Cafaro, finally agreed and sent Gerard to the Redemptionist house at Iliceto. He sent a recommendation note along with him declaring that he was a "useless" lay brother.
The "useless" brother was to perform the work of several men. He served as tailor and infirmarian, and he travelled tirelessly with the missionaries. More incredible than his physical endurance despite his ailing health, Gerard was regarded by St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptionist order, as a miracle of obedience. He was known to obey without question the wishes of his superiors, and even came to understand and act on their wishes when they were absent in faraway locations. So perfect was his life of prayer and his skill at winning sinners for the Church that even his fellow brothers came to regard him as a saint during his short life.
In 1754, Gerard underwent a great trial. He would frequently come to the aid of young people who wanted to enter religious life. Having counseled many girls on entering the convent, he even secured the dowry for some young women who were otherwise too poor to meet that requirement. One young woman who Gerard assisted found a distaste for convent life. Leaving after several weeks and having slandered the lifestyle of the nuns, this woman by the name of Neria Caggiano finally resorted to accusing Gerard of horrible acts of impurity. When questioned by St. Alphonsus on the accusations, Gerard simply maintained silence, in imitation of Jesus. Without choice, St. Alphonsus imposed severe penance on Gerard, prohibiting him from receiving the Eucharist and from contact with outsiders. Not being able to receive the Body of Christ was a terrible hardship for Gerard. He was so strongly drawn to Jesus that he requested to be relieved from serving mass, as he feared he would unintentionally seize the Host from the priest's hands. After a time, Caggiano fell ill and recanted her accusations, completely clearing Gerard's name. While St. Alphonsus rejoiced, Gerard simply took the news in stride, attributing everything that had occurred to God's own will.
St. Gerard's life was a complete imitation of Christ. Hailed as a "miracleworker" by those who knew him, he indeed performed works as diverse, if not as many, as Christ. He was blessed with the gifts of reading souls, penetrating hearts, ecstacies, prophecy, bilocation, levitation, and powers over nature and illness. He once restored life to a boy who had fallen from a cliff, he walked on water to lead fishermen to safety in a storm, he blessed and multiplied bread that he distributed to the poor. In perhaps the most famous of Gerard's works, he once forgot his handkerchief as he was leaving the home of his friends, the Pirofalo family. The young daughter of this family ran after him to return it. In a moment of prophetic insight, Gerard told the girl to keep it, and that it would be useful one day. For years, long after his death, the girl grew and kept the handkerchief as a prized souvenir of Gerard. In danger of death in childbirth, the woman recalled the
Tuesday evening, May 16, 2000, a mass and prayer service in honor of Saint Gerard Majella was held at Sacred Heart Parish in Stamford, Connecticut. Each year Fr. Thomas Nicastro, Jr. gathers devotees and hopeful parents alike to his parish for a special mass honoring Gerard, and to invoke the saint's special blessing. Fr. Nicastro grew up in Saint Lucy's parish in Newark, New Jersey, which houses the national shrine of St. Gerard. Today he is the U.S. national delegate for the international shrine of Saint Gerard at Materdomini in Caposele, Italy.
The faithful started gathering about an hour in advance of the service to secure a seat and perhaps pay a visit to the almost lifesize statue that stands year round at the left side of the altar. According to old Italian tradition, pilgrims pin dollar bills on the statue and pray for favors. A generous offering of literature, prayer cards, pins, and third class relics were available to all who approached the altar.
My wife and I arrived 2 hours in advance, not knowing what to expect. Of course we were driving from Long Island, New York, and didn't want to risk missing the event, or a seat. Ironically, we had read the article about the saint in the May 7th issue of Catholic Faith and Family, learning about the service only the night before. We decided on the spot that this was a must. Our pilgrim spirit grabbed us, and we knew we had to be there. While I spent the day trying to get home early from work, my wife spent a few hours researching Saint Gerard on the internet. She easily came up with a number of excellent pages on this fascinating Catholic personality, and by the time we arrived in Stamford, we thought we were experts on Gerard. In fact, the homily by Fr. Gerard Knapp, a Redemptionist priest who was invited to take part in the celebration, gave interesting insights on many of the facts about Saint Gerard that we had learned earlier that day. See St. Gerard History
Saint Gerard is really much more than a fascinating Catholic personality. He is hailed as the "Protector of Mothers." His life is a powerful example of humility and total devotion to the will of God. In a very real way, he imitated the life and works of Jesus. Because of his stirring works, most particularly in the intercession with mothers and unborn children, hopeful couples of all ages gathered in union with those happy parents giving thanks for his intervention in helping them to conceive or bear healthy children. The Catholic Faith and Family article reported that more than one couple at the parish attribute their success in childbearing to the saint, and return each year to the service with increasing numbers of followers. Fr. Nicastro asks that anyone whose prayers to Gerard are answered report their good news to the parish. As a first time attendee, I can claim with certainty from the outpouring of love experienced within these
church walls in one single evening that Saint Gerard is adored and confidently recognized as intercessor for these parents' intentions. During the service Fr. Nicastro invited the congregation to enjoy this special celebration with Gerard as patron not only of mothers, but fathers, and the cause of all children, born or unborn. After inviting Fr. Gerard Knapp to lead the opening blessings of the service, Fr. Nicastro celebrated the mass. In a homily Fr. Knapp, a Redemptionist like the saint, spoke animatedly and joked that there were many similarities between himself and his namesake
except of course sainthood. In fact you may note a physical resemblance to the saint from the photo on this page. He then proceeded to recount the moving events of the saint's life, highlighting the fact that this frail person, once considered "useless," became one of the most pervasive miracleworkers of modern Catholicism.
Following the mass, Fr. Nicastro invited groups to come to the altar to venerate the first class relic of Saint Gerard (a small bone fragment contained within a brass, crossshaped reliquary) and take part in a symbolic and prayerful laying on of the "handkerchief", a replica of Gerard's real handkerchief to which the famous cure of a mother in childbirth is attributed. During this part of the service he recited over each individual devotee prayers for the intercession of Saint Gerard. The groups called were chosen to be as inclusive of everyone as possible, representing married couples praying to conceive, expectant married couples praying for healthy childbirth, married parents giving thanksgiving for newborn children, and most parents or guardians with children they want blessed. Many babies and children were present for the service,
adding to the wonderful feeling of community and family.
The service ended with Fr. Nicastro's blessing and words of gratitude, including a special message in Italian for the traditional Gerard devotees. Finally, all were welcomed to a reception where a host of treats, many Italianstyle and homemade, were offered with coffee, which was especially welcome for our long drive home. We had the pleasure to meet Fr. Nicastro at the reception and again, we congratulate him for his most successful and inspiring veneration of St. Gerard. Our prayers are with him and his parish, and for continued admirable service to the cause of St. Gerard and all parents and children in our community. We hope his example will continue to blossom with increasing recognition and devotion to Saint Gerard, and look forward to seeing him again next year.
author of CatholicPilgrims.com
St. Gerard Majella pages