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Catholic Heroes… Blessed Maria Gabriella Of Unity

April 19, 2016 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Just before Italy formally entered World War I in April 1915, a poor farmer and his wife welcomed a little girl into the peaceful land of Sardinia, an island about 150 miles west of Italy. Maria Sagheddu was born on March 17, 1914, the fifth of eight children. During the war that lasted until 1918, over 1,800,000 Italian men were killed, crippled, or wounded. The Italians were humiliated in the treaty negotiations, receiving no recognition for the sacrifices the country had made.
This holy Italian woman, who is the patroness of unity, then died just before the outbreak of World War II in September of 1939. She was a contemporary of St. Faustina Kowalska, the apostle of Divine Mercy, although they never met.
Born in the farming community of Dorgali, Sardinia, Maria Gabriella became known as an obstinate child, yet obedient and loyal.
Consider the two sons in the Parable of the Two Sons: “A man had two sons and he came to the first son and said, ‘Son, go and work today in my vineyard.’ But he answered and said, ‘I will not’; but afterwards he regretted it and went.” Likewise, Maria would say no when told to do something, but then she would go and obey the order.
When Maria was five years old, her father died, leaving the growing family without him. Maria only received an elementary education before she was needed at home to help care for her brothers and sisters.
Maria again lost a beloved member of her family when her younger sister died. Maria, only 17 at the time, was deeply affected by the loss. She turned to long hours of prayerful solitude where she grew closer to Jesus and developed many devotions.
When she was 18, around 1922, she joined the women’s Azione Cattolica (Catholic Action) in Sardinia, where she taught catechism classes with zealous discipline. Her reputation for being strict reached the attention of the local priest who came up to Maria one day and seized the stick she held over the children whom she was teaching. He told her, “Arm yourself with patience, not a stick.”
Maria continued to grow in her love of solitude and prayer, until in 1935 she left her home on the island for the mainland of Italy. Her destination was the Trappistine Abbey of Grottaferrata near Rome.
When she became a member of the community, she took the name Maria Gabriella. Then Maria took her vows, and she surrendered herself totally to God saying, “Now do what you will.”
The abbess of the monastery, Mother Pia, had a great devotion to Christian Unity. In 1937 or early January 1938, Mother Pia received a letter from Fr. Paul Courier in Lyons, France. He wrote to her explaining that various denominations — Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant — were offering their lives to Christ for Christian Unity.
When the abbess read the letter to the Trappist community, she instilled a great zeal in the nuns to pray for Christian Unity — especially Sr. Maria Gabriella. She studied the prayer of our Lord for Christian Unity in chapter 17 of the Gospel of John.
“Holy Father, keep in thy name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one even as we are” (John 17:11). And: “Yet not for these only do I pray, but for those also who through their word are to believe in me, that all may be one, even as thou, Father, in me and I in thee; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory that thou hast given me, I have given to them, that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them and thou in me; that they may be perfected in unity and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and that thou hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Inspired by the letter and by the Gospel of John, Maria immediately felt a calling to give her life for unity. As a novice, she discussed her desire with the novice superior who referred her to Mother Pia. Mother Pia then referred Maria Gabriella to the 70-year-old Cistercian monk who was the monastery chaplain.
After discussing her wish to pray and sacrifice for Christian Unity, the monk told Maria that she had received a very special grace and gave her permission to offer her life for the intention of unity.
Returning to her cell, she wrote in her journal, “I have given everything in my power to give.” This was no small sacrifice for a young woman, who — up until this time in her life — had enjoyed excellent health.
Within just a few months, Maria Gabriella fell ill. She became so sick that she was sent to the hospital where the doctors in May 1938 diagnosed her with incurable tuberculosis. They released Maria and she joyfully returned to the peaceful seclusion of the monastery in Grottaferrata.
Her remaining time, while a time of suffering, also brought her comfort — even joy — to be a victim for Christian Unity. She spent much of her time in prayer, reading and rereading the Prayer for Unity in the Last Discourse from the Gospel of St. John.
Eleven months after Maria Gabriella had made her offering to Christ to be a victim soul for the sake of Christian Unity, she died. On the day of her death, April 23, 1939, the Gospel reading was about the Good Shepherd — that all sheep must be gathered in.
As her sisters in Christ gathered her belongings, they picked up her Bible reverently. When they flipped through the pages, they noticed that the pages of chapter 17 in John’s Gospel were particularly worn from the repeated reading of our Lord’s Prayer for Unity.
Few had ever known Maria in life, but her fame for holiness spread quickly after her death. Pilgrims from far and near came to visit her crypt in the Trappistine Monastery in Colli Albani outside Rome.
In 1957 her body was exhumed and was found to be incorrupt. Her cause for canonization opened in 1958 and she was beatified in 1995 by Pope St. John Paul II who had written about her in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint. He called her a model for carrying out every Christian’s duty to pray for Christian Unity. Her feast day is celebrated on April 22.
Dear Blessed Maria, how the Devil loves division. Pray for us! Teach us to pray as our Lord led you to pray for unity. During this time of many divisions in Christianity and even in the Catholic Church, help us to not only pray for unity, but also to sacrifice by doing penance and fasting — even offering ourselves as victim souls for what our Lord prayed at the Last Supper — Christian Unity. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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