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What Parents Can Learn From the Childless St. Gemma, by Andi Sligh

Today, April 11, is the feast day of St. Gemma Galgani. She lived a little over a century ago in Italy and is one of a select group of saints who experienced the wounds of Christ on her body. In addition to the stigmata, she faced numerous physical and personal struggles throughout her life. She had a number of illnesses, including severe headaches, spinal tumors, and tuberculosis. She was a wonderful student but was forced to leave school because of her poor health. Other setbacks included the deaths of her mother, her brother, and her father, and not being allowed to enter the convent.

I wasn’t familiar with Gemma Galgani until recently, and I have to admit that reading her story both shamed and encouraged me. I have two children, and both of them have special needs; my daughter is 19 and has cerebral palsy while my son is 12 and has Down syndrome. We live in a world where the vast majority of the people we encounter on a daily basis are typical, especially children and young adults. When I cross paths by chance with another young person who has Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, it’s like finding an Easter egg!

For the most part, our life feels ordinary. We do the things that most families do, although we may do some things in adapted ways. These adaptations are so much a part of life that I don’t even think about them most of the time, and almost never when we are at home or together without outsiders. But when living nontypically in a typical world, things happen that remind me how much we have struggled, and sometimes I get frustrated and can’t help but ask “Why?”

WHY can be a dangerous word if we let it. It can become a challenge to the wisdom and Divine Providence of God. When we ask WHY, we should take care to orient ourselves to an understanding of His will. Instead of asking why a particular struggle was imposed upon us, we should ask ourselves what God can achieve through those struggles. St. Gemma has thoughts on this subject:

"It is true Jesus, if I think of what I have gone through as a child, and now as a grown up girl, I see that I have always had crosses to bear; But oh! how wrong are those who say that suffering is a misfortune!"

For those of us who have children who lag behind academically, it’s unlikely that they will have “success” as our society measures it. St. Gemma lived a simple, quiet life of prayer; our children’s lives don’t need to be a “success” to have a powerful spiritual impact on others. It is difficult to watch our children struggle, but from St. Gemma’s example, we can see that her struggles as a child and young adult brought her so close to Jesus Christ that she was canonized only 37 years after her death. A simple life. United with Jesus. Isn’t that what we all want for our children, that they become saints?

As parents of special needs children, we want what is best for them, and at times the struggle to help them reach their potential in this broken world can lead us toward despair. But again, St. Gemma has thoughts:

“If I saw the gates of hell open and I stood on the brink of the abyss, I should not despair, I should not lose hope of mercy, because I should trust in you, my God.”

Trust God with your special child. Believe that whatever struggles He gives to your child - or to you - are part of His plan to lead you along the same path as St. Gemma: sainthood.

Learn More About St. Gemma Galgani

Andi Sligh is a wife and mother of two children with disabilities and three dogs. She is a lifelong Alabamian, Dr. Pepper addict, Catholic convert, and former engineer who rediscovered a love of writing when she became a mom. You can find more of her writing at

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