Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Blessed Maria Gabriella: The Saint of Christian Unity

 "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”
—John 17:20-21

The divisions that exist within the Church today are a sad reality that most of us simply take for granted. Although we’re quick to identify ourselves as followers of Jesus, we’re equally as ready to qualify our commitment when we label ourselves as “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” and “Protestant.”  

In his General Audience of August 27, 2014, Pope Francis spoke about this sad reality in a very direct way:
If we look at the history of the Church, there are so many divisions among Christians. Even now we are divided. Also in history, we see Christians have made war among ourselves for theological differences… But, this is not Christian. We must also work for the unity of all Christians, to take the path of unity which is what Jesus wanted and prayed for.
In the face of all this, we must make a serious examination of conscience. In a Christian community, division is one of the gravest sins, because it makes it a sign not of God’s work, but of the devil’s work, who is by definition the one who separates, who destroys relationships, who insinuates prejudice… Division in a Christian community, whether in a school, a parish, or an association , is a very grave sin, because it is the work of the devil. God, instead, wants us to develop the capacity to welcome, to forgive and to love each other, to be ever more like Him, who is communion and love. The Church’s holiness consists in this: in recognizing herself in God’s image, showered with his mercy and his grace.

Just over a century ago, a woman was born in Sardinia who dedicated her brief life to the cause of Christian unity. Now, honored as Blessed Maria Gabriella “of Unity,” she offers an inspiring witness of how each of us can offer our lives for the healing and unity of the Church.

Born into a poor farming family on March 17, 1914, Maria Sageddhu was the fifth of eight children. She was, by her own admission, headstrong, independent, and proud; she was also known as having a strong sense of duty, an intense loyalty, and dedication to purity. When Maria was eighteen, her favorite sister died. This marked a shift in her life and faith. She began to seek the guidance of a spiritual director and joined a young people’s branch of Catholic Action, beginning a ministry of teaching catechism to young children. When she was twenty-one, she decided to commit her life to God as a Trappistine nun in the Abbey of Grottaferrata, near Rome. She was given the religious name of Maria Gabriella.
Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu
Her religious life was marked by a spirit of gratitude to the mercy God had shown her in calling her to religious life and an eagerness to respond completely to the gift of grace. She dedicated herself to quietly and faithfully living out the strict Trappist rule of life. Inspired by materials on the new ecumenical movement, she asked for and received permission to dedicate her life for the cause of Christian unity, declaring, “I feel the Lord is asking it of me.” Interestingly enough, Sister Maria Gabriella had no firsthand experience of the divisions within the Church. But the knowledge that Christians were not one in belief, prayer, and worship was a source of great pain to her. Maria Gabriella’s sole desire was for “everyone to turn to God and for his kingdom to be established in every heart.” Her favorite text for meditation was the Gospel of John, especially chapters 17-20 in which Jesus prays that all his followers might be one. With the permission of her abbess and the community’s chaplain, she offered her life in a particular way for the cause of Christian unity.

A short time after she made her offering of self, she became ill with tuberculosis. As she struggled at not being able to be part of her community’s worship (she spent several months in hospitals in Rome and elsewhere), she still found ways to pray and to praise God.

Sister Maria Gabriella died on April 23, 1939, the Fourth Sunday of Easter (“Good Shepherd Sunday”). The Gospel proclaimed at that day’s Mass included the words, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). These same words from John’s Gospel will be proclaimed this coming Sunday (April 26), also the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  

After her death, a small Bible was found by her bed, in which the pages of Jesus’ “priestly prayer” (John 17-20) were worn and stained from constant use.

Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu was beatified by Saint John Paul II in 1983. Her commemoration is celebrated on April 24.
In his Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Saint John Paul II said these Blessed Maria Gabriella and prayer for Christian unity: 
Praying for unity is not a matter reserved only to those who actually experience the lack of unity among Christians. In the deep personal dialogue which each of us must carry on with the Lord in prayer, concern for unity cannot be absent… Sister Maria Gabriella, called by her vocation to be apart from the world, devoted her life to meditation and prayer centered on chapter seventeen of Saint John's Gospel, and offered her life for Christian unity. This is truly the cornerstone of all prayer: the total and unconditional offering of one's life to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The example of Sister Maria Gabriella is instructive; it helps us to understand that there are no special times, situations or places of prayer for unity. Christ's prayer to the Father is offered as a model for everyone, always and everywhere.

A prayer in honor of Blessed Maria Gabriella +
Lord God, eternal Shepherd,
You inspired the blessed virgin, Maria Gabriella,
Generously to offer up her life for the sake of Christian unity.
At her intercession,
Hasten, we pray, the coming of the day when,
Gathered around the table of your word and of your Bread from heaven,
All who believe in Christ may sing your praises
With a single heart, a single voice.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from the Missal of the Order of Cistercians)

Originally written for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their site the week of April 19, 2015.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

To Be a Witness

In classes and days of recollection I offer during Lent, I often remind participants that the purpose of Lent is twofold: it is the time of final preparation of the uninitiated (i.e. catechumens) for baptism and the time for Christians to recall their own baptism and they prepare to renew their baptismal promises on Easter Sunday. Unfortunately, this second aspect of Lent often gets lost. Yes, we all renewed our baptismal promises at Easter and were symbolically sprinkled with holy water, but, for most of us, that moment seems to be over as soon as it has begun and we don’t really appreciate the significance of the act… which is surprising since we’ve spent 40 days preparing to say “I do!” with a renewed mind, heart, and spirit.

We renew our baptismal promises each year because conversion and growing in faith are lifelong processes. In saying that, I simply mean that each moment of every day (not just the days of Lent) offers us infinite possibilities for experiencing grace, for choosing God and the good, and for giving and receiving love. And we have the freedom to choose how to live each of those moments. Ultimately, this all reminds me of a reflection of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who said that “the divine Majesty is a shoreless and fathomless ocean.” If we truly believe this, then, of course, we can spend an entire lifetime immersing ourselves in the depths of God’s mercy and majesty and never fully comprehend or adequately believe. 
Christ appearing to the Apostles by Duccio

I think this sense of going ever-deeper is at the heart of the Readings proclaimed on the Third Sunday of Easter. Each of the Scripture passages, in its way, speaks of what it means to be a witness of the Risen Lord. The Gospel passage (Luke 24:35-48) tells us about events after the well-known Emmaus story. As the Apostles are pondering what they’ve heard from those two who encountered Jesus on the road and who shared a meal with him that Easter Sunday, Jesus came to the gathered Apostles to teach and share a meal with them. They witnessed Jesus walking, talking. They listened as he explained everything that had happened to him, as he showed them his wounds. In a commentary on this Gospel passage, Timothy R. Martens writes:
Luke tells us that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” What a terrific description! It evokes a sense of someone holding a newborn for the first time, a team winning an improbably victory or finding out you got the job. Is this real, or is it just a dream?
Then Jesus did the most human of things to ground them: “Have you anything here to eat?” The Greek of the NRSV seems to formal. I would opt for “What do you guys have to eat here?” They gave Jesus “a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” Things just got real.
Once Jesus had finished teaching and eating, he reminded the group that they were now-and had always been-witnesses of these things. But, they also needed time to understand and unpack everything they had seen, heard, and felt.
We get a sense of their own progression in faith and understanding when we read Peter's words recounted in Acts of the Apostles: "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus... You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses." Peter and the others had begun to get it. They were piecing together all the things they had seen and heard and they were empowered to go out and share the Good News of mercy and hope.
This is the same gradual realization that we experience in our own faith journeys. We have heard the stories and we encounter the Risen Christ present among us in the Eucharist and other sacraments, in the proclamation of the Word, in the praying and serving Church, and in the poor. But we are rarely (if ever) granted those "Aha!" moments when all the pieces fall into place and we somehow, mystically comprehend the Life, Light, and Life that is God. And so, we reflect, we pray, and we serve so that we can be effective witnesses, just like Peter and the Apostles. Remember that part of the reason we say those "I do's" at Easter is because we are also being sent out to share with the world that we are also witnesses that Christ is alive in the world, even now.
This leads us to a final reflection as we continue this Easter celebration: The quality of our witness is tied to how we live out our faith.
This point is brought home to us in the reading from the First Letter of John. Here, John is reminding us that, because we are witnesses, we have an obligation to live according to God's commandments: "The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Those who say, 'I know him,' but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them." These are strong words, but a powerful statement that we are called to live with integrity.
To profess that we believe in the One who has been raised from the dead, even as we refuse to live according to the teachings that he gave us, is to live a lie. Our commitment to care for the poor, the disabled, the outsider, the qualities of our friendships, the health of our family relationships, how we act in our private lives, and our habits of prayer are all fundamental aspects of our witness-commitment. This same is true of our willingness to be converted and to give up our sins: "Repentance and acceptance of forgiveness is not guilt-induced; it is the only adequate response to God's gift of new life offered in restored relationship with the risen Christ" (Barbara Reid, O.P., Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year B). Only those who have experienced repentance and mercy can proclaim the Good News as Jesus intended (cf. Luke 24:46-48).
A prayer for the Third Sunday of Easter +
May your people exult for ever, O God,
in renewed youthfulness of spirit,
so that, rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption,
we may look forward with confident hope
to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Blessed Lydwina: A Saint for the Sick

We are not discouraged;
rather, although our outer self is wasting away,
our inner self is being renewed day by day.
For this momentary light affliction
is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,
as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen;
for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.
—2 Corinthians 4:16-18

For most of us, the experience of illness is a burden. Whether we face a chronic, debilitating illness, just minor allergies, or a cold, our worlds can often be reduced to our “feeling bad” or the frustration that we aren’t getting better.

Our Faith tradition has always understood that illness and physical ailments are opportunities for growing in our relationship with God. Our pain and discomfort, the patience that has to accompany illness, and our reliance on others give us an amazing opportunity to be in solidarity with those who are suffering throughout the world. In his 2015 Messagefor the World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reflected, “Even when illness, loneliness, or inability make it hard for us to reach out to others, the experience of suffering can be a privileged means of transmitting grace and a source for gaining and growing in wisdom of heart… People immersed in the mystery of suffering and pain, when they accept these in faith, can themselves become living witnesses of a faith capable of embracing suffering, even without being able to understand its full meaning.”

One of the saints who best embodied this truth is Blessed Lydwina of Schiedam.

Born in Schiedam (near Rotterdam) in the Netherlands in 1390, Lydwina was the daughter of a poor tradesman. When she was 15 years old, she suffered a serious fall in an ice-skating accident. At first, it seemed that she had only broken a rib, but complication set in and she began to suffer from extreme attacks of vomiting and a number of other painful symptoms. This marked a turn in her life and she spent the remainder of her life as an invalid.

Initially angered and depressed by her situation, she gradually accepted the advice of her local priest, Fr. John Pot, who helped her recognize that she had a special vocation. He invited her to see her own pain and suffering in the light of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus through meditating on the events of Jesus’ life. After a period of three years, she began to accept her suffering and understood that she was being called to offer her sufferings to God for the sake of sinners. A short time later, her illness took a severe turn and she became severely disfigured and she was able to use only her left arm. She also lost the sight in one of her eyes and the other was so sensitive that she could hardly stand even the light from a fire.

Her story made her an object of curiosity, devotion, and scorn. Many came to see her and their motives were mixed. Some thought of her as a sort of “sideshow freak” and others revered her as a saint. Reports began to circulate that she had miraculous powers. Many witnesses testified to her special graces, her visions, and that she lived on little more than the Eucharist for the last nineteen years of her life. During her visions, she would feel herself transported to Jerusalem and Rome and she would converse freely with Jesus, Mary, and the saints. She also had vivid visions of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
A murual in the Basilica of Schiedam showing
Blessed Lydwina's visions of the Passion and Resurrection.

Despite her popularity—or perhaps because of it—a new parish priest condemned her as a fraud and forbade her Holy Communion. He went so far as to have the local people pray for Lydwina’s release from the power of the devil. In time, however, Church and civil authorities thoroughly investigated her life and spiritual gifts and she was found innocent of the charges brought against her.

Lydwina died on April 14, 1433. In one of her final visions, she was given a rosebush by her guardian angel and told that she would die when the last of its buds opened. Because of this, she is often depicting with a flowering rosebush in sacred art. Her story was handed down by a number of biographers who had known her personally, including Thomas à Kempis, the author of the famed Imitation of Christ. Devotion to Blessed Lydwina of Schiedam was approved in 1890 and her commemoration is celebrated on April 14. Many European sources will often refer to her as "Saint Lydwina." 

Contemporary scholars, looking back on the various accounts of Lydwina’s life and illness, now believe that she might have suffered from multiple sclerosis. Whatever the true nature of her disease, her life is a powerful reminder that, regardless of our strength, health, or stamina, holiness is possible for each of us because, in Christ, each of us is whole and fully alive in the light of the Resurrection. Saint John Paul II reminds us: “Just as the Resurrection transformed Christ’s wounds into a source of healing and salvation, so for every sick person the light of the Risen Christ is a confirmation that the way of fidelity to God can triumph in the gift of self until the Cross can be transformed into a source of joy and resurrection… The sick, also sent out as laborers into the Lord’s vineyard, by their example can make an effective contribution to the evangelization of a culture that tries to remove the experience of suffering by striving to grasp its deep meaning with its intrinsic incentives to human and Christian growth. (Messagefor the World Day of the Sick for the Year 2000).

A Prayer in Honor of Blessed Lydwina of Schiedam +
O God, the exaltation of the lowly, who willed that Blessed Lydwina should excel in the beauty of charity and patience, grant, through her merits and intercession, that, carrying our cross each day, we may always persevere in love for you. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their website the week of April 13, 2015.