Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Day Eight, “Walking in Celebration”Jan 25th, 2013 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Today is the eighth and final day in the Week (Octave) of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is also the feast of the conversion of St. Paul the Apostle on the road to Damascus. Thirty years ago today, January 25, 1983, at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Blessed Pope John Paul II beatified Maria Sagheddu, now known by her religious name as Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity.
In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote the following words:
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. Only in this way, in fact, will that concern fully become part of the reality of our life and of the commitments we have taken on in the Church. It was in order to reaffirm 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 25 January 1983. 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.1
Maria Sagheddu was born at Dorgali in Sardinia in 1914, the fifth in a family of eight children. Maria’s sister younger by one year was often sick, and Maria would regularly care for her. When Maria was still sixteen, this sister died. Through this event, Maria came to know Christ personally, and take her faith seriously. She read St. Francis De Sales’ book Introduction to the Devout Life, and began to consider whether Christ was calling her to religious life. In 1935, at the age of twenty-one she told her priest, Don Meloni, that she believed Christ was calling her to religious life. Don Meloni asked her which convent she wished to enter. She replied, “Send me wherever you want,” because her desire was not to belong to some particular order or convent, but to give herself entirely to Christ. He decided to send her to the Trappist convent in Grottaferrata, near Rome, where she took the name Maria Gabriella.
On Easter, Monday, April 13, 1936, she was clothed in the monastic habit. She wrote to her mother,
Although I am a miserable and unworthy creature who has done nothing but offend Jesus, He has not rejected me, but has welcomed me into His Heart. He, my Creator, has deigned to call me His spouse… He has wanted to make me the object of His mercy. When I think about this, I am overwhelmed, seeing the great love of Jesus and my ingratitude and my failure to respond to His favor….2
In 1938, her convent received a booklet for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, published by Father Paul Couturier. In this booklet Fr. Couturier asked nuns to prayer for the unity of Christians. Sister Maria Gabriella learned that an elderly nun had offered her life to the Lord for this intention, and had died a month later. Just as we speak of offering up our sufferings or persecutions for particular intentions, this nun had offered her whole life to the Lord, for the reunification of Christians. Sister Maria Gabriella recognized that this intention is at the center of Christ’s sacred heart, and discerned that prayer and spiritual sacrifices were necessary for its realization. She requested of her Abbess that she be allowed to offer her life to Christ for this intention. After some time, her Abbess and the chaplain gave her permission, and she did so during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Apparently later that same day, she experienced some pain in her shoulder, and a medical investigation revealed that she had tuberculosis.
During the next fifteen months of suffering she gave many hours to prayer and to the study of Scripture. The pages of the Bible she used are yellowed from chapters 12 through 20 of St. John’s Gospel, and especially chapter 17, in which Jesus prays that all His disciples would be one. One day, stretched out on her bed, and in a very weak condition, she said to Jesus: “Lord Jesus, I love You and I would like to love You very much, to love You for the whole world.”3
Dom Antoine Marie describes her last day in this way:
Sister Maria Gabriella’s last night was passed alternating between calm moments and ones of intense suffering. At one point she moaned, “I can [take] no more!” Mother Abbess asked her, “Do you want to offer what is left of your life for Unity?” — “Yes!” she replied clearly. Finally, after the vespers of that Good Shepherd Sunday, April 23, 1939, she breathed her last with a smile. By mistake, instead of tolling the death knell, a festive peal of bells rang, to which the bells of the parish church instantly responded in a concert of joy.4
The gospel reading on the day she died was “There will be one fold and one Shepherd.” (St. John 10:16) As you can see from the photo above, on her tomb are the words “Unum Sint (may they be one), followed by her name “Maria Gabriella Del Unita” (Maria Gabriella of Unity).5
When Blessed Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity on this day, in 1983, he noted that her life was marked by conversion, sacrifice, and prayer. He said,
Besides, the whole chapter 17 of John – that chapter whose pages were found yellowed from everyday wear and tear in the small personal gospel of Sister Maria Gabriella – what else is this prayer which rises from the priestly Heart of Christ, who, in the looming prospect of the Cross, prays for those who believe in Him if not a change of heart? … Conversion of heart is the true and primary source of unity.
From the moment the girl willful and impetuous, coming in contact with the cross of Christ through the death of her favorite sister, decided to surrender to Him, she resorted to the meek and humble guidance of a spiritual father, and agreed to join in the life of the parish by enrolling in the female Youth of Catholic Action, by giving to children in catechesis, making them serviceable to the elderly, spending hours in prayer, then that began the “conversion” that took her from day to day, to accommodate the vocational call, and leave behind – at just twenty-one – her beloved land and loved ones of her native Sardinia, to present herself, ready to hear the voice of the divine Bridegroom, at the gates of La Trappe.
It is precisely this that marks her conversion to God, to His need for unity in love, which is the premise and the fertile ground on which the Lord shall descend, the call to total self-giving for others.
Her offer of her life for unity that the Lord inspired in her during the week of prayer in these same days in 1938 – forty-five years ago – and which teach us to appreciate how fragrant is the holocaust of love, were not the beginning, but the fulfillment of the spiritual race of the young athlete. The union reached with the voice of God, comes from the prompting of the Spirit to open up to others. …
It is from this premise that the heroic gesture of Sister Maria Gabriella rises to the heights of a great ecclesial event. Precisely because it comes from a sublime act of conversion to the Father, her openness to her [separated] brothers and sisters identifies herself with the crucified Christ, reaches historical value, assumes ecumenical significance.
So the Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, which combines nicely with the name of the Angel of the announcement to the Virgin of, is a sign of the times and model of that “spiritual ecumenism”, which reminded us of the council. She encourages us to look with optimism – over and above the inevitable difficulties of our being human – to the wonderful prospects of ecclesial unity, whose gradual emergence is related to the deeper desire for conversion to Christ, to make active and effective his desire: “Ut omnes unum sint“!
Yes, Lord, that everyone will soon come to be one. You ask, the new Blessed, together with us, that the flame of your divine longing may be consumed in this joyful sacrifice of their young lives.
“Omnes. . . unum. ” Amen!6
The conversion of which Blessed Pope John Paul II speaks is one in which the heart of Jesus Christ becomes also our own heart, and His longing and prayer become our own longing and prayer. That for which He sacrificed Himself, becomes also that for which we sacrifice ourselves in loving union with Him. The theme for this last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, is “walking in celebration,” not a celebration marking the successful attainment of the full visible unity of all Christ’s disciples, but a celebration of the progress that has been made, and of lives such as that of Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity, whose heroic witness inspires us to imitate her example for the sake of Christ’s sacred heart.
Among her words are these:
In simplicity of heart I gladly offer everything, O Lord.
The Lord put me on this path, he will remember to sustain me in battle.
To His mercy I entrust my frailty.
I saw in front of me a big cross…,
I thought that my sacrifice was nothing in comparison to His.
I offered myself entirely and I do not withdraw the given word.
God’s will whatever it may be, this is my joy, my happiness, my peace.
I will never be able to thank enough.
I cannot say but these words: “My God, your Glory.”
Jesus Christ, join our hearts to yours, that your longing and prayer may be truly ours, and that together with You, we may be willing to sacrifice our lives for the sake of the unity of Your disciples. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Biblical Reflections and Prayers for the Eight Days
Day 8 Walking in celebration Readings Habakkuk 3.17-19 Celebrating in a time of hardship Psalm 100 The worship of God through all the earth Philippians 4.4-9 Rejoice in the Lord always Luke 1:46-55 The Song of Mary
To walk humbly with God means to walk in celebration. The visitor to India is struck by the hardships and struggles endured by Dalits, but at the same time by their sense of hope and celebration.
Hope and celebration occur together in today’s biblical readings. The prophet Habakkuk rejoices in the Lord at a time of drought and crop failure. Such testimony that God will walk with his people in their difficulties is a celebration of hope. The Blessed Virgin Mary walks to her cousin Elizabeth in order to celebrate her pregnancy. She sings her Magnificat as a song of hope even before the birth of her child. And from prison, Paul exhorts the Christian community at Philippi to celebration: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” In the Bible, celebration is linked to hope in God’s faithfulness.
The celebratory aspects of Dalit culture bear similar testimony to a gospel of faith and hope, forged out of the crucible of the Dalit experience of struggle for dignity and resilient survival. As we pray for Christian unity this week, we turn to the celebration of life that we see in India with focus on the faithfulness of Dalits to their Christian identity in the context of their struggles for life. Our celebration for a unity among Christians which has yet to be achieved likewise occurs in hope and struggle. It is grounded in hope that Christ’s prayer that we may be one will be achieved in God’s time and through God’s means. It is grounded in gratitude that unity is God’s gift, and in recognition of the unity we already experience as the friends of Jesus, expressed in one baptism. It is grounded in the conviction that God calls each of us to work for that unity, and that all our efforts will be used by God, trusting with St Paul “in everything by prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” The walk towards Christian unity requires that we walk humbly with God in celebration, in prayer, and in hope.
Gracious God, may your Holy Spirit fill our communities with joy and celebration, so that we can cherish the unity we already share, and zealously continue in the search for visible unity. We rejoice in the faith and hope of peoples who refuse to allow their dignity to be diminished, seeing in them your wonderful grace and your promise of freedom. Teach us to share in their joy and learn from their faithful endurance. Rekindle our hope and sustain our resolve, that in Christ’s name we may walk together in love, raising a united voice of praise, and singing together one prayer of adoration.
God of life, lead us to justice and peace. Amen.
What are the struggles towards justice in your community? What are the causes for celebration on the way?
What are the struggles towards Christian unity in your community? What are the causes for celebration along the way?
- Ut Unum Sint, 27. [↩]
- Dom Antoine Marie osb, Spiritual Newsletter of the Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval, July 22, 2008. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- According to SPQN.com, in 1957 her body was found to be incorrupt, though I have not confirmed this claim. [↩]
- Source. The errors in the English translation are my own. [↩]