St. Gerard – October 2005

I am most happy to be here at St. Gerard’s Mission to celebrate this Mass with you and with the Redemptorist community who staff this mission as well as Sacred Heart Parish to which Gerard Majella as belonged as a lay brother.

Today, we bring to conclusion a Special Year of St. Gerard: we commemorate today, October 16 th, the 250 th anniversary of his death, or rather his birth into eternal life, and the 100 th anniversary of his canonization. One could say, by happy coincidence, this Year of St. Gerard parallels the Year of the Eucharist which will also conclude next Sunday at the close of the special Synod on the Eucharist which is taking place now in Rome this month.

However, Pope John Paul II was fond of saying that there are no coincidences – for what the secular world calls coincidence, Pope John Paul II would insist on calling signs of God’s providence. St. Gerard had particular love for the Eucharist – his piety was well note in his lifetime. So it is certainly providential that a holy man who saw his participation in Holy Communion as the source and summit of his Christian life be remembered during this Year of the Eucharist.

His example – his careful preparation for communion by fervent and frequent confession, his attentive participation in the Holy Mass, his long hours spent in thanksgiving and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament as well as the many acts of charity to the poor which his Eucharistic devotion inspired – all this can teach us much on how the Eucharist should shape and form our own lives as Catholics.

St. Gerard was no learned theologian; he had a very simple education. Before entering religious life, he was trained as a tailor like his father before him. He never aspired to the priesthood. He was of frail health. Indeed, the Franciscans rejected his petition to join them – the thought that he would not be strong enough for the rigors of religious life as it was back then; and the Redemptorists only took him in because they tired of his pestering them.

Gerard Majella truly was one of the lowly ones in whom God makes the power of his mercy radiant! He entered the Redemptorists at a young age and with the firm determination to “become holy”. They say that his relations locked him in his room to keep him from running off to join the Redemptorists. (And the Redemptorists who were not that anxious to take him encouraged them to do so.) But he tied his bed sheets together and lowered himself out the window. He left his family a note: I’m off to become a saint!

His joyful and confident “yes” to God’s will, sustained by constant prayer and an outstanding spirit of penance, was manifested through a charity attentive to the spiritual and material needs of his neighbor, especially the poorest. Although he had no particular academic qualifications, Gerard penetrated the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven and spread it in simplicity to all who approached him. Even St. Alfonse, the founder of the Redemptorist, marveled at how well he could explain in simple language the truths of our faith. He keenly felt the urgent need for the conversion of sinners and worked tirelessly for this cause; likewise, he was able to support and encourage those called to the Religious life.

The fame of his holiness and trust in his intercession spread in his lifetime with many people coming to seek his prayers and leaving convinced that these prayers did indeed work miracles for them. And this fame continued to grow after his death. Still today, his grave is the destination of numerous pilgrimages from Italy and from many countries on all the continents. Multitudes of the faithful turn to him confidently in the most difficult situations.

St Gerard is a shining example of the charism of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists, because of his love for the Crucified One and for the Eucharist, and his devotion to Our Lady. He was in his time – and given the popularity of people’s devotion to him today, he remains – an honest witness to the truth, wisdom and power of the Cross. (cf. 1 Cor. 1: 17-25) Our world today still needs and awaits such witnesses. He understood the mystery of the Cross – both in what it reveals about the evil of sin as well as what it reveals about the healing power of divine mercy.

For sinners, Gerard spared no efforts, prayers or penance. His love would not let him be indifferent to their choices and their plight; that they might all receive the sacrament of Penance fruitfully was his heart’s desire. There are many stories that survive of his ability to read the souls of those with whom he conversed; since he was not a priest he could not absolve sinners, but he directed them to the font of mercy which is found in the confessional. Today, with the sacrament of penance forgotten by so many – as well as the loss of a sense of sin – we could well use the prayers of St. Gerard to soften our hearts and to inspire within us the courage and discipline needed to avail ourselves of this great Sacrament which is so closely tied to the fruitful reception of Holy Communion.

If he was anxious for sinners to recover their spiritual life through conversion and the sacrament of Penance, St Gerard also paid special attention to newborn life and to expectant mothers, especially those with physical and spiritual problems. This is why today he is still invoked as a special Protector of mothers-to-be. Again, it is not coincidental, but providential that this celebration occurs in October, Respect Life month.

My middle name is Gerard. It would have been my first – but my father wanted me named for his uncle. But my mother, like so many others of her generation, prayed to Gerard during her pregnancy. I was my parents’ second child, the first born 11 months before I was died just two days after his birth – he was what they call then a blue baby – born with a congenital heart defect. My mother was always grateful that St. Gerard saw her through my birth and then later my sister’s birth.

Today, when life is threaten – especially life in the womb – we all can take a lesson from St. Gerard and always seek to love, defend and serve human life, from the first moment of conception to natural death.

The “working document” of the Synod on the Eucharist that is taking place Rome this month began with these words: “From the very beginning, the Church has drawn her life from the Eucharist. This sacrament is the reason for her existence, the inexhaustible source of her holiness, the power of her unity, the bond of her communion, the source of her dynamism in preaching the gospel, the principle of her evangelizing activity, the font of charity, the heart of human promotion and the anticipation of her glory in the eternal banquet at the wedding feast of the Lamb.”

These are lofty words – beautiful words – that each of us must translate into our daily following of Christ. These words must become the daily reality of our lives as Catholics. St. Gerard who left his home “to become holy” certainly embodied these words in his life. And this mission church which bears his name can profit from both his example and his intercession. From an early age, St. Gerard understood what the Second Vatican Council wished to give a renewed emphasis to: namely, the universal call to holiness. By our baptism, we all have been given a vocation to holiness. In the apostolic letter, Pope John Paul II wrote at the end of the Jubilee Year 2000, Novo Milenio Ineunte (a letter that I quote from frequently, especially when I speak about our own diocesan synod) he reminds us that to ask for Baptism is to say “I want to be holy”. He writes: “…since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity.” (NMI 31).

Gerard was a lowly man – but not a mediocre one; Gerard was a frail man – but never did he allow himself to cut corners in doing what is right, in doing his duty; Gerard was an unlearned man – but never shallow. As he lay dying, still in his 20’s, he had this sign put on his room: Here the Will of God is done, as God wills, and as long as God wills.

Today, together with the Redemptorists, the sons of St. Alphonse di Ligouri, we join in giving praise and thanks to the Lord for St. Gerard Magella. Once again, God shows us that he never ceases to work “great things” in the lowly and the poor. (cf. Lk 1: 46-50).