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.

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