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A pilgrimage for the young: in the footsteps of St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows


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Bret Thoman, OFS - published on 09/15/21

Located in the “umbrage of the Gran Sasso mountain,” a journey to the sanctuary is often combined with hiking or skiing. 

When most people think of saints and Assisi, they usually recall St. Francis and his female counterpart, St. Clare. However, there is another lesser known saint from Assisi – St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. In fact, there is a connection between him and St. Francis.

The other saint from Assisi

In the year 1215, St. Francis of Assisi was traveling through the region of Abruzzo, when he visited a sanctuary dedicated to the Immaculate Conception located on the slopes of Italy’s Gran Sasso mountain. Perhaps inspired by the largest mountain in Italy south of the Alps, he felt the desire to build a convent for his order. 

The Franciscan friary he founded remained for almost six centuries. In 1809, the Franciscan friars were forced to abandon it due to the suppression of religious orders in the Napoleonic era.

In 1847, with the end of the French Kingdom in Italy, the Passionist priests arrived at the site. In several decades, the church would become a major pilgrimage site due to the presence of a lesser-known saint from Assisi – St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Born and baptized in Assisi with the name, Francesco Possenti, he was the eleventh of thirteen children. His father, Sante Possenti, was a nobleman from Terni in lower Umbria, and served as pontifical governor of Assisi under Pope Gregory XVI first, and Pius IX later. (Assisi was part of the Papal States until the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century.) 

At the age of four, his mother died, and Francesco and his siblings moved around Central Italy as his father’s work demanded. He led a normal life and was known for a charitable and outgoing personality. Francesco did well in school, despite his childhood marked by the death of three sisters and above all of his mother.

During an illness, he promised to become consecrated if he were healed. Later, while at a religious procession in the cathedral of Spoleto, he heard an inner voice that invited him to leave the bourgeois life he was accustomed to in order to become a Passionist religious. 

Francesco took vows in the Passionist Order and was given the religious name, Gabriele dell’Addolorata (Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows). 

His writings (consisting of letters and other pages of spirituality) reflect his intense relationship with the Lord and the Virgin Mary. In particular, in his Resolutions he described in detail the path to achieve unity with the Passion of Christ and the sorrows of Mary.

Gabriele spent just six years in the Passionist Order, from 1856 until his untimely death. After studying philosophy in the region of the Marches, he went to Abruzzo for theological studies, taking residence in the Passionist community in Isola del Gran Sasso, the same site where St. Francis of Assisi – his fellow townsmen and baptismal namesake – had founded a community some six centuries earlier.

An untimely death at the age of 24

Shortly after arriving, he was struck by a form of tuberculosis. Though mostly bedridden, he strove to follow the life as a Passionist and he maintained peace of mind. His confreres were struck by his joyful disposition, and they looked forward to spending time with him at his bedside. 

Gabriele died at the age of 24 in the Passionist monastery clutching an image of Our Lady of Sorrows to his heart.

He was beatified by Pope Pius X in 1908, while Pope Benedict XV canonized him twelve years later. Pope Pius XI declared him patron of Catholic youth and elevated the sanctuary to the dignity of a minor basilica, while Pope John XXIII declared him the patron saint of Abruzzo. 

Visiting the pilgrimage site

The sanctuary complex of San Gabriele dell’Addolorata is a major pilgrimage site, especially for the people of Abruzzo and young people. Located in the “umbrage of the Gran Sasso mountain,” a journey to the sanctuary is often combined with hiking or skiing. 

Youth groups and students frequently visit the sanctuary. The month of March, 100 days prior to state exams, is a busy period when thousands of students from Abruzzo and neighboring regions descend on the sanctuary to receive blessings on their pens and textbooks, and to pray for a successful outcome.

Today, the complex includes 4 main structures:

  • the convent, which houses the headquarters of the Passionists, where St. Gabriel of the Addolorata died in 1862;
  • the original church, built in 1908 over the previous churches in honor of St. Gabriel;
  • the large, new sanctuary, built in 1970 in reinforced concrete, glass and steel, which is opened on holidays to accommodate the large number of pilgrims; it contains the crypt with St. Gabriel’s tomb which was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II on June 30, 1985;
  • the headquarters of the magazine, Eco di San Gabriele, a monthly associated with the activity of the sanctuary.

Though he died young, San Gabriele dell’Addolorata was known for his mature faith. He once said, “I only want to do God’s will, not mine. May the adorable, lovable, most perfect will of God always be done.” 

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