St. Gerard Majella

Author: John Carr


John Carr

The Redemptorists (Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer) were founded in 1732 by St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori (1696-1787) at Scala, near Naples. They are essentially a missionary order dedicated to "preaching the word of God to the poor." Their apostolate consists principally in the giving of missions, retreats, and activities of this sort. St. Gerard Majella (1726-1755), the subject of this selection, preferred to suffer the consequences of a shameful calumny in silence rather than appear to disobey the rules of the order.

In the spring of 1754, there occurred in Gerard's life an incident that was to be the source of the heaviest transient disgrace and the purest abiding glory. He was calumniated, foully calumniated, and had to pass through a dark and noisome tunnel of suspicion and mistrust before emerging once again into the fresh and lucid atmosphere of the love and veneration of his brethren. In a circular letter to his spiritual sons, the holy Founder had written two years before: "I beg each of you—and that you may remember the better what I now say, I even give you an obedience—to ask of the despised Jesus Christ every day, during the meditation or thanksgiving, for the grace to bear contempt with peace and cheerfulness of spirit; the more fervent will positively pray that He may let them be despised for His love." If Gerard took this last recommendation to heart, as is more than likely, his prayer was answered, and that lavishly.

There are two versions of the story: one given by Tannoia, the other by Caione. Tannoia was in Ciorani at the time, fulfilling the duties of novice master, and was evidently unable to obtain any inner first-hand knowledge of the incident. Caione was Gerard's last superior, and, after the saint's death, he was commissioned by St. Alphonsus to investigate the matter closely and commit his account to writing. We will follow Caione's version.

Among Gerard's unusual apostolic activities was the opening of the cloister door to young girls. One of these was a certain Neria Caggiano, of Lacedonia, who was anxious to enter the convent of San Salvatore in Foggia. Lack of the requisite dowry stood in the way. Gerard put himself to much trouble in her behalf and at last, through the generosity of friends, succeeded in getting her accepted. After a brief stay of barely three weeks, Neria yielded to homesickness and came out. To justify her action in the eyes of her relatives and friends, she set about defaming the nuns—evidently in no measured terms. Now, Gerard was well known in Lacedonia. To say nothing of the three years he had spent in the service of its irascible bishop, he had but a few weeks before been a consoling angel for its inhabitants during an epidemic. And so the question naturally arose: If these religious were really all Neria made them out to be, how could Gerard, who knew them so well, have allowed her to enter?

And how could he have co-operated in her so doing to the extent of procuring her a dowry? It was a difficulty, and the girl saw it. To those who put it she would keep on repeating Gerard's name in such a way as to provoke suspicion that she was not saying all she could say. Thus Gerard's reputation for holiness and prudence stood in the way of her calumnies against the nuns being believed. Why not remove it by calumniating Gerard himself? No sooner thought than done. In the best of lives there is so much that can be read deliberately or indeliberately amiss, and with a little evil ingenuity a criminal can be made out of a saint. For an in stance we need not go beyond the Gospel.

Whenever business brought Gerard to Lacedonia, he was the welcome and honoured guest of a worthy and intimate friend, Costantino Cappucci. St. Alphonsus knew the Cappucci household well and, ever since his first acquaintance with them on the occasion of a mission he preached in the town in 1746, he had looked on them as a model Christian family. Cappucci had four daughters. Two of them—Maria Antonia and Maria Teresa—acting under Gerard's advice and influence, had already entered the convent of San Salvatore, from which Neria Caggiano had just emerged. Two daughters remained at home. One of these, Nicoletta by name, was a singularly good and guileless child. In the early part of this year 1754 Gerard had stayed a whole month in the Cappucci home. These were the elements of the calumny. Neria and the devil did the rest. In Lacedonia there was a very estimable priest, Benigno Bonaventura, who was, moreover, very friendly with St. Alphonsus and had the interests of his rising institute much at heart. He happened to be Neria's confessor. Having gradually secured his confidence in her sincerity, at last she whispered into his horrified ear a foul story about Gerard and Nicoletta which she had invented. There was no hinting or surmising in the telling: relentlessly she delivered herself of her concocted facts. Dates places, circumstances, with sordid details, were at her fingers' ends. The good priest was shocked beyond words. He knew Gerard. But he also knew men. The best on earth was always capable of the worst, until heaven settled matters, as every confessor knows, and knows better than anyone. He had no reason for doubting his penitent, and he had to reckon with every possibility, even the worst. There were high interests at stake, and it was his duty to secure them. If Gerard were really such as Neria's alleged facts made him out to be, then the sooner he was exposed the better. He imposed upon his penitent the duty of writing to St. Alphonsus. Then, with her permission—in this case most willingly given—he accompanied Neria's letter with one of his own.

Alphonsus got the letters, read them and was aghast. Gerard—the saint, the miracle-worker, the pride of his youthful congregation—Gerard to fall! And so low! Could he have misread? He read again. But no; Neria had presented her case with devilish cunning. Then Padre Bonaventura had written, not only as a friend, but as a priest and as a confessor who had made up his mind about Gerard's guilt. No; Alphonsus had not misunderstood and had read the accusing documents aright. What were his reactions? Alphonsus had been a great lawyer, was already a great saint, and would one day be looked upon as the prince of moral theologians. Alphonsus, too, knew men. None better. For nearly thirty years now he had been dealing with them—with all sorts and conditions of men—and the incalculable possibilities of evil were well known to him. We must suppose that the slanderous story had the same effect upon him as it would normally have upon any normal man. After all, a lie, unless very clumsily clothed, does make its appearance in the garb of truth and, I as such, holds possession for the time being. No matter how extravagant and fantastic it may seem, if what it sets forth is barely possible, then that bare possibility must be reckoned with and may not be ruled off hand out of court. And it was here that the deadly power of Neria's calumny came in: by alleging evil, it called attention to the possibility of evil; while the good that had so far been taken for granted had now to be proved, or the evil admitted. Gerard's guilt in a certain concrete case was possible, and that possibility had to be reckoned with.

His first step was to commission Father Andrew Villani, one of the general consultors of the Congregation and a trusted friend and director, to proceed at once to Lacedonia, where the Cappucci family lived, and thence to Iliceto, to make prudent inquiries. The Father interviewed Neria Caggiano, who maintained her charges. He interviewed Padre Bonaventura, who maintained his conviction of Gerard's guilt. Though Villani could glean nothing further that was positively prejudicial to the accused, still, the information he gathered did not warrant his complete justification. Forthwith Alphonsus summoned Gerard to Nocera.

It is not certain whether Gerard had been aware of the object of this summons. According to Caione, Villani made his investigations chiefly, if not solely in Lacedonia, and as his case was still pending, it is not likely. At the same time, he seems to be hinting darkly at coming trouble when, on the eve of his departure, he writes in a letter to a friend in Caposele: "I am leaving for Pagani where my Superior has summoned me. I beg of you to pray constantly for me. I am in sore need of it." He left Iliceto, where he had spent the first five years of his brief religious life, never to see it again.

On arrival, Gerard presented himself before Alphonsus. It was the first time they had ever met, and the meeting was sad and strange. The father Gerard had revered and loved from afar as his God on earth he now faced as his judge. The lay-brother whose fame was on all men's lips and whose reputation for sanctity had thrilled the holy Founder with the purest joy, Alphonsus now beheld as a possible hypocrite and seducer. It was a tragic meeting between these two men, either of whom would have died rather than sully his soul with one deliberate venial sin, and each of whom would one day be canonized. Alphonsus read the accusing letters and waited for Gerard to speak. Gerard did not speak. Like the Great Accused in Pilate's hall, he "was silent."

We can imagine—or perhaps we cannot imagine—the horrible shock received even by his disciplined and heroic soul at the impact of such an accusation; an accusation which, if not disproved, would carry with it his expulsion from the bosom of that religious family which it cost him so much to enter and which was dearer to him than life. Not that he thought for one moment that, left to himself and his own unaided frailty, he was less capable of sin than any other man. These words of his on this occasion have been recorded: "If God had not kept His hand over me, I should have done worse than that." We remember his fifth resolution: "Among all the virtues that are dear to Thee, my God, what I love best is purity and spotlessness in God's sight. O Infinite Purity, I trust in Thee to keep me from every impure thought, even the least, which I in my wretchedness might conceive in this world." His smitten heart was loud with the clamour of contending voices. Nature, recoiling from the blow, called imperiously for an immediate and vigorous disavowal of the loathesome charge. He now gave it a deaf ear and listened to other speakers. There was his Rule—never, of course, meant to apply to such a case—forbidding him to excuse himself when accused. There was his special vow always to do what he thought to be the most perfect thing. Above all, there was his love for his crucified and humiliated God and his own life-long yearning to be like Him. He remembered how He "was silent." Swiftly and irrevocably, he decided. With bowed head he listened and said nothing. His confessor would hear of his innocence; the proof he left to God.

This attitude, however heroic for Gerard, did not help matters for Alphonsus. The accused had not admitted his guilt—but neither had he denied it. In such cases silence is suspicious and compromising. Whatever Alphonsus thought of it, he now took drastic action and, short of expulsion, inflicted every penalty that would have suited the case had the accused been found guilty. Gerard was forbidden to hold any intercourse whatever with the outside world, even by letter. He was forbidden to receive Holy Communion. The first privation was for his contemplative soul in many ways a relief; what the second involved could be described only by himself....

One day he was urged to beg Alphonsus' leave to receive Holy Communion. For a moment he hesitated. The stakes were high. Then he said, with renewed emphasis and decision, energetically striking the balustrade as he spoke: "We must die under the winepress of God's Will." Another morning, a certain Father asked him to serve Mass. "Let me alone, let me alone," was the answer; "do not tempt me; I might snatch the Host out of your hand." But no remission, no mitigation of the dread sentence would he seek. "It is enough to have Him in my heart," he would say; "the Lord wishes to punish me for my little love for Him and is flying from me; but I will never lose Him from my heart." All the while he redoubled his penances and prayers, taking comfort from the thought that the more he suffered the more conformable he became to the great Sufferer of Gethsemane and Calvary. His one real grief was the sinful state of her who had so cruelly calumniated him, and he gladly bore his penance to purchase grace for her soul.

His sudden disappearance from public had already caused painful surprise, and it was impossible to keep it from being noised abroad that he was under a cloud. Within the Congregation, sympathy was deep and l general, though no doubt many found it hard enough to explain his persistent silence satisfactorily. Yet he was under a cloud; and judging from the nature and severity of the penalties imposed, many must have suspected the worst. Perhaps there were some who, angered at the bare possibility of being duped by bogus sanctity, had already begun to think of removing him from the pedestal of their veneration and turning him out of the temple of their hearts. Perhaps even his miracles were already being attributed to Beelzebub. Gerard must have realised it all. He must have caught many a furtive glance of painful curiosity levelled at him; he must have surprised many a whispering group and noticed the sudden drop in the conversation at his approach; he must have sensed the ill-concealed effort to seem at ease in his presence and the atmosphere of awkwardness and strain his presence brought with it. The long and silent endurance of all this, so easily forgotten in the glory of his eventual rehabilitation, must have been a martyrdom for his heart calling for a martyr's heroism.

Gerard had one very great and holy friend in Father Francesco Margotta. This saintly man—a man after Gerard's own heart—had been in turn a lawyer, a governor, and the president of the seminary in the diocese of Conza before he became a Redemptorist. His worth was soon appreciated by Alphonsus. He helped in the foundation at Caposele and became rector there in 1749. He was for many years procurator-general of the Institute, and in that capacity spent much of his time in Naples, where he had Gerard as companion during the two visits the latter made there. For many years he went through an inner martyrdom of aridity and scruple. He died of famine fever at Naples, in 1764.

Gerard had informed this beloved confidant of everything, and his letter drew the following reply: "My dear Gerard, Your letter has given me a two-fold pleasure: you tell me you remember me in your prayers; and you assure me of your conformity to God's Will in your present trial. I wish you everything that is good and pray that you may ever make greater progress in the service of God. I wish to confirm you in your good dispositions, so that you may act out of obedience and live solely to do God's Will by the most perfect submission to superiors. I keep you in my unworthy prayers to our Lord and our Mother, that you may be given the necessary strength to become in all things conformable to the Will of God and that you may fulfil all the holy aspirations of your heart."

Gerard was still silent. Alphonsus himself seems to have been perplexed; so much so that he thought it well to send the brother to another house, where he could enjoy greater freedom of conscience, if, perchance, that conscience of his were really burdened. Who was more painfully and sympathetically alive to the ever possible needs of the individual conscience than the great missionary and theologian? Accordingly, he sent Gerard to the novitiate in Ciorani, enjoining on its Rector, Father Rossi and the novice master, Father Tannoia himself, to keep him under close observation. At the end of ten or twelve days he was recalled to Pagani. "Our most minute observation," writes Tannoia, "failed to discover anything blameworthy in him." He added that what struck them most was that he never spoke a word about his trouble....

Gerard's second stay in Pagani did not last long. Father Giovenale was going to Caposele to take over the superiorship temporarily from the Rector, Father Mazzini, who was ill, and Alphonsus sent Gerard with him. Tannoia's excellent report, Gerard's uncomplaining silence, and the arresting fact that miracles and ecstasies were being laid to the credit of the alleged criminal had all combined to bring about a change in the attitude of Alphonsus. It was during his first stay in Pagani that Gerard suddenly appeared before Alphonsus in the refectory in answer to a mental summons from the holy Founder. He had begun to look on the accused with a kindlier eye. Before the travellers left for Caposele, he did something that made a world of difference to Gerard: he allowed him to receive Holy Communion on Sundays. But he enjoined on Father Giovenale at the same time to mortify him well and, above all, to see that he did not meet with outsiders. The saint was evidently not yet quite convinced of his innocence and was taking no chances.

They reached Caposele towards the end of June. A few days later a letter reached Alphonsus. It was from Neria Caggiano. She had been taken seriously ill, and the fear of God's judgments had brought her to her senses. She confessed her calumny to Padre Bonaventura, who laid upon her the obligation of formally retracting it. She did so in the letter Alphonsus now received, stating that her former letter had been written at the instigation of the devil and was but a tissue of lies. If that former I letter was surely one of the saddest he had ever received, this letter must have been one of the most welcome. There was universal rejoicing throughout the Congregation. Gerard himself was the least affected by the news. To quote Tannoia: "As he had not been cast down by the calumny, so he showed no elation when he saw that his character was cleared." He took everything—sweet and bitter—from the hands of God, from those hands which, as he put it in his first resolution, "shower down on me the precious gems of the divine will."

Alphonsus sent for him at once, this time to take him to a father's heart. When the holy Founder asked him why he had not said a single word in his defence, he replied: "How could I, my Father? Does not the Rule forbid me to excuse myself and to bear in silence whatever mortifications are imposed by the Superior?" "Very good, very good, my son," rejoined Alphonsus, with difficulty mastering his emotion, "go now and God bless you." As we read in the Positio super virtutibus, "It is well to note here that the rule in question is undoubtedly to be understood of excusing oneself where breaches of regular observance are concerned, and not where there is question of enormities so unworthy of a religious. Anybody else, no matter how obedient, would have thus interpreted that rule. When Gerard in his great humility and utter heroism did not do so, he won the admiration of all his brethren, not excepting the holy Founder himself." The room that was the scene of this incident is still pointed out to Redemptorists who go on pilgrimage to Pagani in their comings and goings across the world.

From A Treasury of Catholic Reading, ed. John Chapin (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957)