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  • The Voices of Gemma Galgani: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint
  • John J. O’Brien
The Voices of Gemma Galgani: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Saint. By Rudolf M. Bell and Cristina Mazzoni. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2003. Pp. xviii, 320.$30.00.)

This is a multi-textured study of the spiritual experience of Gemma Galgani (1878-1903). Galgani, the first person who lived in the twentieth century to be canonized as a saint, has been an unknown figure except among those that are familiar with Passionist spirituality, preaching, and popular devotion. In this work Rudolf M. Bell and Cristina Mazzoni present Gemma's writings in English for the first time. They allow the reader to inhabit her world, the religious milieu of late nineteenth-century Lucca. Then, in separate essays, they reframe her significance for those committed to an examined life of discipleship and mysticism in the twenty-first century.

In the helpful introductory chapter Bell considers the historical setting of late-nineteenth-century Italy. Gemma was born just outside Lucca in 1878, the fifth child and the first daughter of Enrico Galgani, a pharmacist, and Aurelia Landi. Another boy and two girls followed. Her family was deeply Christian, though influenced by the secularism and scientific rationalism that permeated the educated classes throughout Europe. Gemma was bright, sensitive to the poor, and fervent in faith. At the same time, she was brought up in the modern world where secular concerns and institutions intruded everywhere. Gemma's writings reveal her profound longing for nurture and intimacy. After the death of her parents—Aurelia died of tuberculosis in 1885 and Enrico died of throat cancer in 1897—the Giannini family supplied some measure of warmth and affection. Both earthly and celestial surrogates provided Gemma with a sense of security and belonging.

In the second, third, and fourth chapters the reader is given access to Gemma's life through her autobiography (up to 1899), her diary (summer 1900), and her ecstasies and letters (summer 1992). Gemma reluctantly penned her autobiography in obedience to her spiritual director (her "Dad"), Passionist Father Germano Ruoppolo (1850-1909). "The humility of a saint and the hubris of autobiography did not cohabit easily in Gemma's conscience" (p. 24). She completed the document in a remarkably fresh and unaffected style. The reader is given glimpses into her spiritual companions: Mary, our Lady of Sorrows and her surrogate mother, her guardian angel, Gabriel Possenti, the second member of the Passionist community to be canonized, and Jesus, her beloved. Gemma writes of her identification with the Passion of Jesus Crucified, her share in Christ's suffering through life-threatening illness, and her bearing the stigmata, received on the eve of June 8, 1899, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The three documents narrate her trials and struggles, her slow and gradual maturation in prayer and spirituality, and her movement from the exterior (the stigmata) to interiority and depth.

In chapters five and six Bell and Mazzoni bridge the Gemma Galgani of Lucca and the Saint Gemma Galgani of today. Bell critiques the politics of making [End Page 334] Gemma a saint, reviews the roles that Monsignor Volpi, Gemma's first confessor, and Father Germano, her spiritual director, played in her spiritual growth, and the development of her cult beyond Lucca. Mazzoni brilliantly reads Gemma's life for today. This chapter, "A Saint's Alphabet, or Learning to Read (with) Gemma Galgani: Theory, Theology, Feminism," is framed through feminist hermeneutics. Mazzoni allows Saint Gemma Galgani to speak to a postmodern world by considering her embodied self and clothing, her devotion to the Eucharist, her difficulties with food and hysteria, and much more. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

John J. O’Brien
Calvary Retreat Center
Shrewsbury, Massachusetts


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pp. 334-335
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