As with all religious congregations, the Cistercians celebrate the memories of those of their brothers and sisters who, having lived lives of exceptional witness to Christ and the Gospel, are held up by the Church as outstanding models of holiness for us who are still running the race.
Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu was born in Sardinia on 17th March 1914 and died on 23rd April 1939. Remembered as a strong character, but honest and sincere in everything that she undertook, she could at times be impatient and impulsive in her younger days. However, after some hesitation she joined Catholic Action and became serious in the practice of her faith and particularly in teaching the catechism to local children and entering into long periods of private prayer. Eventually, after speaking with a priest, she left her family and home and became a postulant in the Trappist-Cistercian monastery of Grottaferrata. Her Abbess who met her that day, wrote later:
“She was dignified and simple, with large eyes full of purity and amazement at the mystery of the house of God and the religious life”.
She took the name Gabriella, and gave herself generously and joyfully to monastic asceticism and the life of the community, becoming all the time more calm, thoughtful and profound in her manner, speech and life.
It seems that the defining action of her life – to offer her very self as a sacrifice for the Unity of Christians – came unexpectedly. In January 1937, a little after Maria Gabriella had made her solemn profession in the Order, a pamphlet arrived at the monastery, for the first time, announcing a week of prayer for the unity of Christians. One of the oldest sisters in the Community offered herself and her life to the Abbess for this intention. Extraordinarily she dies very shortly after. The following year, when the same pamphlet arrived inviting the prayers of the nuns for this intention, it was Sr Maria Gabriella who felt the invitation to answer the call to sacrifice. Her offer to God through the permission of the Abbess was accepted.
Even though her knowledge of what the drive for Christian unity meant must have been scant, Maria Gabriella’s principal motivation in this offering was her complete desire to love without limit:
“When one suffers for Jesus one does not think about the suffering: during the noviciate I wanted to love and love more and more … It seems to me that one dies of love if one is living by love, since at the end of one’s life one can gain one’s soul but not love”.
The cost of this love was, in a very short time, to be her life. Succumbing to tuberculosis she died at the age of 25. Writing in his encyclical on Christian unity Ut Unum Sint (That they Might be One), John Paul II teaches:
“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… It was in order to affirm this duty that I set before the faithful of the Catholic Church a model which I consider exemplary, the model of a Trappistine sister, Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity, whom I beatified on January 25th 1983. Sister Maria Gabriella, called by her vocation to be apart from the world, devoted her life to meditation and prayer centred on Chapter 17 of St 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 Christian unity. Christ’s prayer to the Father is offered as a model for everyone, always and everywhere”.
To offer one’s very life at Christ’s invitation! Few, if any of us, can do it in such a complete way as Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, even though, when we do so, we are merely returning to God what is his and what he has entrusted to us. By and large our offerings and sacrifices are conditioned by our own availability and circumstances. We do frequently undertake the work which we find comfortable and achievable. But rarely do we feel we can go beyond the bounds which we set to guarantee and protect our security and comfort.
The question of our work for the unity of Christians is a serious one, principally because Christ gives it to us as a task, and so we cannot justifiably ignore the Master’s invitation. To undertake prayer, work and action which allows us to live this invitation requires both discernment and sacrifice. We have to begin with a twofold inquiry – how well do I know, accept and live the faith and practice which has been given me; and how well do I respect the faith tradition that others know, accept and live? Without that fundamental starting point we will not engage Christ’s command.
On Holy Thursday, generally during the ceremony of the washing of the feet, the Mandatum, we sing a hymn which is well known form the modern setting of its refrain:
Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est: Where there is love and charity, there is God.
But we should take time to read down through the text to see what comes later:
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor: The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
This can be read interpreting that genitive – Christi – in two ways. Christ’s love for us makes us one; and our love for Christ gathers us into one. The first goes without saying – Christ’s love for us is absolute, never divides, always draws together in a truly life-giving way. But the latter? Certainly, where our love is diminished or absent, our being one with our brothers and sisters, of the faith and of others faiths, remains gravely weakened.
O God, eternal Shepherd, who inspired Blessed Maria Gabriella, virgin, to offer her life for the unity of all Christians, grant that through her intercession, the day may be hastened in which all believers in Christ, gathered around the table of your Word and of your Bread, may praise you with one heart and one voice. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-