Since the beginning of time, division has crippled humanity. Families, neighborhoods, even nations are divided. And for centuries, Christianity too has been divided. For the most part, we accept these divisions as the ordinary condition of life, but between Christians, they reflect the body of Christ as through a mirror, broken and disjointed.
God has always desired to heal and unify his body. In the early twentieth century, that desire began to inspire some priests and laypeople in Europe; and at the Second Vatican Council, the Church herself underscored the importance of God’s people acting as one people for the salvation of the world. Today, despite doctrinal differences, Catholics and Protestants pray together, support common causes, and enjoy close friendships. None of this was foreseeable a hundred years ago.
The shift in thinking is the miraculous result, surely and simply, of regular prayers and sacrifices offered for Christian unity—actions like those of a simple, little-known Italian woman, Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu.
A Prodigal Daughter. Maria Sagheddu was born on March 17, 1914, on the Italian island of Sardinia, into a family of shepherds in a farming community—an entirely Catholic community in which church bells called the faithful to prayer each evening. But not Maria.
“You go ahead,” she would tell her mother, “I want to play.” And nothing could move her. No one could recall a single endearing story about her childhood. Stubborn, irritable, obstinate, and impatient were the words most often used to describe Maria. She herself said, “I used to get mad even with the cobblestones of the street—I couldn’t tolerate anything!” She was fiercely independent and competitive, and would have been considered among the least likely to enter religious life, let alone attain sainthood.
Despite this, Maria had a generous nature. In school, she was quick to help less able classmates, who often came to her house to get help from her with their homework. Throughout much of her childhood, she cared for her younger sister, Giovannantonia, who was chronically ill.
This dear sister’s death at the age of seventeen caused Maria to suffer immensely. And in some way, it also caused her to turn to God and give him her life. She began to pray, attend daily Mass and Vespers, and spend hours in silent contemplation before the Tabernacle. This was a marked turnaround to all who knew her. Now Maria’s mother, who used to scold her because she so seldom went to church, began to reprove Maria because she spent so much time there.
For two more years, Maria prayed, taught catechism, and tirelessly served the poor, sick, and unwanted residents of her village. She learned to “arm [her]self with patience” and became, according to her mother, “sweet and calm.” Maria likened herself to the prodigal son: hours of prayer and contemplation brought her to her senses. As she embraced God’s mercy and love, her faith grew and her sullen, headstrong nature softened.
A Call to Pray for Unity. Eventually, Maria left her home and family to enter the Trappistine monastery of Grottaferrata, near Rome. Friends and relatives thought her unlikely to last long there, given her strong will and impetuous nature. And yet, perhaps it was just this willpower, redirected by the Holy Spirit, that helped her. She embraced monastic life and lived it in a very ordinary way. “She simply kept the Rule and deserved little attention” is how one nun put it. With one exception: Maria was assigned to become a “choir nun,” although she couldn’t carry a tune. “I know very little about singing,” she lamented in a letter to her mother, “but all too much about going off key.”
Aside from this humiliation, Maria’s life in the monastery was quiet until one day an advertisement arrived at the monastery for an “Octave of Prayer for Unity.” The cause of Christian unity was being taken up in France, in England, and now in Italy. French priest Fr. Paul Couturier had been promoting the Octave of Prayer in order to gather a spiritual team of intercessors for unity. Inspired no doubt by the Holy Spirit, Reverend Mother Pia Gullini summarized the leaflet for her Italian nuns, inviting them to make a special offering of their lives for the cause if they felt moved. Maria showed no special interest then, but another nun did. “That’s for me,” exclaimed frail seventy-eight-year-old Mother Immacolata to her afterward. “If you will allow me, I want to offer the little bit of life I have left.” It was just that: a little bit. Within a month, the already ailing Mother Immacolata passed away.
Maria’s Offering to Jesus. A year later, once again Mother Pia invited the sisters to consider dedicating themselves and their prayers to Christian unity. Maria’s response was heartfelt. “I feel the Lord wants this of me,” she told her superior.
If entering the Trappistine monastery was Maria’s first yes to God, what followed was simply her next step in obeying the Lord’s prompting. Far from aspiring to produce any theological or practical solution to the problem of division, Maria responded with her usual hardheadedness and simple obedience to the invitation to “offer one’s own life for unity.” The details she was willing to leave to God and her superiors.
That evening, she felt pain in her shoulder. “Before, I had never even noticed this poor body,” she wrote, adding, “Afterward, I was never well.” For a short time, Maria carried on with her normal duties and routine.
“Here I Am.” Maria’s aching and coughing got steadily worse. Eventually, she was taken to the hospital for tests, which showed she had tuberculosis. In the hospital she felt like “a fish out of water” and begged the Reverend Mother, “For the love of God, do everything you can so that I return to the monastery as soon as possible.”
She did return, and for fifteen months suffered the physical ravages of tuberculosis. Wracked with pain and struggling to breathe, Maria wanted with all her will to be “strong as iron” but instead felt “weak as . . . straw.” And yet she was adamant: “I have offered myself entirely to Jesus and I have not taken back my word.” As her pain increased, Maria begged the Lord to keep her vow safe. “I would like to say, ‘Jesus, help me,’ but I cannot. Instead I say, ‘Here I am.’”
That simple prayer deepened in her last months. “Jesus, I love you! I thank you! I love you even though I suffer. . . . I thank you even though I suffer.” Lying in bed in the infirmary, Maria meditated almost continuously on the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel. She repeated Jesus’ words “Holy Father, keep them . . . , so that they may be one just as we are one” (John 17:11). Unity of Christians was continually on her heart; suffering drew her continually deeper into Christ’s. It was as if she felt the pain that God feels because Christians so often criticize one another instead of cooperating. And yet, Maria hardly knew what it was that she suffered for or how unity would come about; she prayed out of obedience more than understanding.
A Model, Always and Everywhere. Maria died on April 23, 1939, at the age of twenty-five. She had lived less than two years after offering her life to God, during which time she had totally submerged herself in Christ’s prayer for unity. And she might have rested forever in silent obscurity had not the community outgrown the Grottaferrata monastery and needed to relocate. The coffins of sisters had to be moved as well, and Maria’s was opened in 1957 with thoughts of possible beatification “someday in the future.”
At the time of Maria’s death, tuberculosis had already wasted her body, and further decomposition should have been rapid. So it was to everyone’s astonishment that Maria’s body and clothes were still perfectly intact. Maria had started life independent and indifferent to the gospel. Then, having offered her whole life to God for unity, she was discovered incorrupt. Perhaps God wanted to highlight the importance of unity—and of simple prayers for it like Maria’s.
Presiding at Maria’s beatification, Pope St. John Paul II explained what her example teaches us: “It helps us to understand that there are no special times, situations or places for prayer for unity. Christ’s prayer to the Father is offered as a model for everyone, always and everywhere.”
God Loves Unity. Each of us is included in Christ’s prayer “that they may be one just as we are one” (John 17:11). That oneness, so sorely needed in our families, in our places of work, and in the Church, might seem impossibly difficult to attain. But we have Maria’s example, which is more powerful than anybody perceived at first. Her simple prayer and offering continues in its effect today, as Pope Francis highlighted when he talked about Maria in his apostolic exhortation on holiness. When occasions for division arise, then, let us do our best to persist in unity and, like Maria, leave the details to God. Surely he will multiply our prayers and sacrifices, just as he did hers.
Ann Bottenhorn is a longtime contributor to this magazine.