HOPE IN THE HANDKERCHIEF OF A SAINT
Peter T. Farrelly Jr.
Another look at St. Gerard Majella, who some say should be the patron saint of the pro-life movement
Can it be that in a handkerchief dropped by an 18th-century Italian saint there's the power to protect the unborn and give strength to women in crisis pregnancies?
St. Gerard Majella's handkerchief has become a symbol for the popular acclamation of Gerard as the patron of mothers and children, the unborn and the pro-life movement.
His feast day, Oct. 16, is even in the month that the Church has officially proclaimed as the month to honor God's precious gift of life.
And if it were up to Father Thomas Nicastro Jr., parochial vicar at Our Lady of Grace Church in Stratford, Conn., St. Gerard would not only be named Patron of Mothers and Children but also would have a Mass in his honor on the Church calendar.
Father Nicastro has had a special devotion to St. Gerard since childhood, when his grandmother Anna Miano told him the story of the saint from her hometown in Italy and brought him to the many devotions at what is now the National Shrine of St. Gerard in St. Lucy's Church in Newark, N.J.
"My grandmother spent a lot of time bringing us to church and fostering this devotion," Father Nicastro said recently. "It probably had a lot to do with my vocation as well."
And many like Father Nicastro's grandmother have helped spread the devotion to St. Gerard all over the world.
Although not officially honored as such by the Church, Catholics far and wide recognize him as "protector of expectant mothers," said Father Nicastro, who is gathering material for a book about the saint.
"Many hospitals and maternity wards are named after him, and his image is always given a special place of honor," he added.
Explaining why devotion to St. Gerard is increasing now, Father Nicastro quotes one of the saint's biographers, Redemptorist Father James Galvin, who wrote: "Today, God seems to have chosen the good example of St. Gerard to contradict an age that has lost trust in God's providence and a way of thinking which seeks to undermine life."
For the second year in a row, Father Nicastro celebrated a special Mass in St. Gerard's honor Dec. 11, the feast of his canonization. Using a first-class relic from St. Gerard and a handkerchief like the one credited with helping many an expectant mother, Father Nicastro blessed almost 100 expectant mothers during the Mass.
As proof of the saint's growing popularity, even in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., more than 400 mothers with children came out that cold rainy night to venerate the saint's image and pray for his intercession, four times as many as the previous year.
A life frail and brief
Born April 6, 1726, in Muro Lucano, Italy, St. Gerard's special intercession for mothers and unborn children is perhaps explained by his own frail health at birth, which was cause for him to be baptized immediately.
His feeble condition persisted throughout his 29 years, until his death on Oct. 16, 1755 of tuberculosis.
Despite his condition, it fell to him to support his family after his father died while Gerard was very young. He apprenticed as a tailor, but had a foreman who belittled his devotion to the Eucharist and his constant works of charity.
Gerard withstood the criticism, however, dividing his earnings equally between his family, the poor and Mass stipends for the release of souls in purgatory.
Gerard's mother, Benedetta, said her son "was born for heaven," and told how he spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament "until he forgot it was dinnertime."
He tried to join two religious orders but was rejected as too weak. He was finally admitted as a lay brother in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer after the superior saw "he could do the work of three men."
The Redemptorists, as they are commonly known, had been founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori only a few years earlier. To their usual vows Gerard added one: "To always do that which would seem most pleasing to God."
So trusted was he that, after joining the monastery, he was made the spiritual director for several communities of nuns.
In 1753, however, a young woman who had quit the convent wrote to St. Alphonsus and accused Gerard of having an affair with a local townswoman.
Gerard refused to offer a self-defense, and St. Alphonsus saw no recourse but to consider him guilty of adultery and violating his vows He disciplined Gerard by ordering him confined to the monastery and forbidding him to receive Holy Communiona punishment that for Gerard was like being denied food.
Gerard's only comment was, "There is a God in heaven. He will prevail."
Months later, as his accuser lay on her deathbed, she was stricken with remorse and confessed to fabricating her story. When St. Alphonsus asked Gerard why he had not defended himself, Gerard replied: "But, Father, our holy rule says that we are to bear in silence mortifications imposed on us by our superiors."
St. Gerard spent many hours each day on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament to praise God and give thanks for His blessings.
Many of the gifts attributed to the frail saint were attributed to this time spent in prayer before the Eucharist. It was because of those gifts that his fellow monks frequently brought him with them when they would visit the homes of the sick.
Gerard had the ability to "read" souls and bring sinners back to God by quietly revealing to them their secret misdeeds, or sins they had been too embarrassed to confess.
Only one instance is recorded of his curing an expectant mother of her illness while he was alive, but there were many women who claimed that they and their children were granted graces through the prayers of Gerard.
The famous "handkerchief story" goes like this: While he was leaving the house of a family he had gone to visit, he dropped his handkerchief. A young woman retrieved it, but as she handed it to him, Gerard told her mysteriously, "Keep it. One day it will be of service to you."
Although puzzled, the woman did keep it. And a few years later, she faced life threatening complications as she was about to give birth to her first child. She remembered the mysterious hanky and the promise, and asked that it be brought to her in her travail. She held it to her womb and immediately the pain ceased and she delivered a normal, healthy child.
The miraculous handkerchief was passed from mother to mother as they were about to give birth in the town of Olive to Citra. The first mother passed the precious relic on to her niece and on it went through the generations.
Some families took small pieces of it and only a small shred remained when Gerard was canonized on Dec. 11, 1904. It was enough, though, to pass its special graces on to other cloths touched to it.
Now new handkerchiefs with St. Gerard's likeness, also touched to his relics, are given to visitors to the International Shrine of St. Gerard Majella in Materdomini, Italy, as well as at the national shrine in Newark.
Each year, thousands of expectant mothers, mothers with children and couples wanting to have children, visit the shrine in Newark, where Italian immigrants from Caposele, Teora and other towns around Materdomini settled in the 1900s, bringing their devotion to the saint with them.
Father Nicastro's maternal grandmother was among those early devotees in Newark whose zeal for St. Gerard caused the celebration of his feast day on Oct. 16 to overshadow many others.
When St. Lucy's was rebuilt earlier this century, a special sanctuary was built to house the life-sized statue of St. Gerard brought from Italy in 1900. During the week-long celebration of his feast, the statue, garbed in a new tailor-fitted Redemptorist habit, is processed through the streets of Newark. Devotees pin money to the new robes in testimony to the favors received or prayed for.
This devotion Father Nicastro hopes to spread. In a time when the very existence of the family and the sanctity of life is threatened by abortion, contraception, various biomedical techniques and a growing "culture of death," the little saint with the handkerchief may well be just what is needed for expectant mothers, families and the whole world.
Farrelly writes from Fairfield, Conn.
A prayer for life;
Almighty and Eternal Father, in your all-wise providence you have raised up St. Gerard Majella to be the glorious protector of the mother and her unborn child Humbly we ask you that, through the powerful intercession of this, your faithful servant, we might have the courage to oppose the forces of anti-life in this world and to stand firm in our support of life in all stages of its development Grant that the ideal of the Christian family may flourish to the praise and glory of your Holy Name We ask this through Christ, our Lord Amen
This article was taken from the January 19, 1997 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750. Our Sunday Visitor is published weekly at a subscription rate of $36.00 per year.