Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity wanted to console the Sacred Heart, so saddened by division in His Church.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed from January 18 through 25 in the Northern Hemisphere. Now, at the outset of that week, is a great time to reflect on the life of the woman whom St. John Paul II held up as the model of such prayer: Blessed Maria Gabriella of Unity.
Maria Sagheddu was born to large family of modest means on the island of Sardinia in 1914. At the age of 21, she entered a Trappist convent and took the name Maria Gabriella. The extreme poverty suffered by the community only led them to foster a spirit of sacrifice and abandonment to divine providence, all for the love of God. One sister of the community had this final request on her deathbed: “Please wipe my lips. I’m going off to kiss the bridegroom.”
A year after Maria entered the convent, her abbess announced that the sisters would take part in the “Prayer of Unity Octave,” eight days of prayer asking God to bring an end to divisions in Christianity. Immediately after the announcement, a 78-year-old sister named Mother Immacolata approached her abbess with the request to offer the remainder of her life as an oblation for Christian unity: “I’ve come to ask your permission to offer to the good Lord the little bit of time I have left. It’s truly a worthy cause!” Exactly one month after the octave concluded, Mother Immacolata died.
With this example before her, Maria Gabriella followed suit. The next year when the octave was announced, Maria Gabriella asked for and received permission to offer her life for the cause of Christian unity. Almost immediately afterward, she feel ill and was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Her suffering increased dramatically, but so did the joy she radiated. A year later Sr. Maria died, having revealed her sacrifice only to a handful of confidantes including her abbess and her spiritual director. At the time of her death, her Trappist sisters discovered that Maria Gabriella’s Bible was particularly worn at John 17 – which contains Christ’s prayer that “they may be one” (John 17:20 and 22).
Although Maria was a complete unknown in life, God chose to exalt this humble soul after her death. After many of her sisters at the convent reported receiving messages in their dreams from Sr. Maria Gabriella and witnessed other heavenly signs, her abbess took the unprecedented step of having a biography of Sr. Maria published. Within a few years, visitors of various denominations were making pilgrimages to Maria Gabriella’s grave. When her grave was opened in 1957, Maria’s body and clothing were found incorrupt — a naturally inexplicable state for someone who died of tuberculosis.
It’s pretty amazing that someone who did nothing but pray has become the Church’s patroness for ecumenism. What is even more amazing is that growing up in Sardinia she had never met a non-Catholic Christian. She only knew that some Christians were separated from the Catholic Church, and that this grieved the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Whether or not we make it to an organized prayer service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Blessed Maria Gabriella’s life reminds us that we should pray continually for the restoration of unity among all Christians.
Find prayers and resources for the Week of Prayer provided by the Vatican here.