When popes refer to saints in their writings, they usually limit themselves to Doctors of the Church, Fathers of the Church, and the saints found in the Gospels. But Pope Saint John Paul II broke that unspoken rule when he briefly referred to Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu in his encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, in 1995.
Why did the pope introduce a twentieth century Trappist sister from Italy into his encyclical on ecumenism? The most obvious reason is the one he explicitly states: she offered her life to God for the cause of Christian unity. When she was only twenty-four years old and newly admitted to the order, Maria Gabriella was inspired by her abbess’ devotion to ecumenism to offer her own life to this cause. God appeared to take her offer seriously because she contracted tuberculosis soon afterward and died a little more than a year later.
A moving detail shows her dedication: after her death, the pages of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of John in her Bible were visibly worn by repeated reading. Although the entire chapter is theologically rich, perhaps the most pertinent verse in this passage is John 17:20-21:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also might be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
As the pope pointed out in Ut Unum Sint, “there are no special times, situations or places of prayer for unity” (#27). Like Maria Gabriella, we should be always praying for an end to the divisions between Christians. After all, the passage above shows clearly that God intends for all Christians to be as perfectly united as are the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, an astonishing statement. It is therefore not a trivial matter that the divisions between Christians are a scandal to non-Christians and deter unbelievers from listening to us when we offer them the Good News.
But there are other reasons for the pope to highlight this religious sister. The pope who instituted World Youth Day in 1985 and attracted millions of young pilgrims over subsequent years knew that holy young people are particularly inspirational to other young people. John Paul II surely knew that while some saints have lived to a great age—such as Saint Alferius of La Cava, an eleventh century abbot also commemorated in the month of April and who died at the age of 120—others achieved holiness while still young.
For example, the pope elevated Saint Therese of Lisieux to the rank of Doctor of the Church, even though she died at the age of twenty-four. Blessed Maria Gabriella was only a year older than that at her death, proving that it may not require many decades for a given soul to achieve sanctity.
A final reason for particularly remembering Blessed Maria Gabriella on her feast day, April 23, is one that the pope may not have considered, though every parent will recognize its value immediately. She was a difficult child when she was a teenager. Words like “obstinate” and “stubborn” come up in her mother’s stories about those years. Our future saint was demanding about getting what she wanted and critical of other people; she would obey, but with an “attitude”.
What changed? Maria Gabriella was from a family of eight children. She had lost her father and a brother when she was only about five years old, and two other brothers also died as children. When her sister Giovanna died, Maria was eighteen years old, old enough to be aware of the permanence of that loss and to begin thinking about eternal things. Such as God.
By God’s grace, she made efforts to better understand her faith, serve other people, and, most notably to her family, discipline her temper before she discerned God’s call to enter a Trappist convent. Although she was no prodigal on the level of the famous Saint Augustine, every parent with a mouthy teenager can be comforted in the hope that the same conversion might occur in his or her own household.
Whether Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu’s selfless example inspires you to make sacrifices for the cause of Christian unity, be open to the Christian witness of young people, or ask God to help you tackle your own personal weaknesses, she is a friend in Heaven worth having.
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