April 7-9, 2000
volume 11, no. 70
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Founder of Order of Women Dedicated to Dialogue

    VATICAN CITY, APR 6 ( This coming Sunday, John Paul II will proclaim 5 new Blessed. Among them is Swedish religious Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad, who will be remembered as one of the great driving forces in the 20th century of the dialogue among Christians of different confessions.

    She was born in Sweden in 1870 to a Lutheran family. At 18, she emigrated to the United States to help her family financially. When she witnessed the suffering and sickness at Roosevelt Hospital in New York, where she worked as a nurse, Maria Elisabeth developed great spiritual and human sensitivity. She turned to the love of the crucified Christ, and was inspired by the life and writings of her compatriot St. Bridget of Sweden, a mystic who died in 1373, and whom John Paul II named last year co-patron of Europe.

    Maria Elisabeth converted to Catholicism on August 15, 1902. She described the difficulties and illnesses she suffered before embracing the Catholic Church in these words: "Some months went by during which my soul was submerged in an agony that I thought would take my life from me. But light came, and with it strength."

    This "strength" enabled her to go to Rome two years later where, with special permission from Pope Pius X, she received the habit of the Bridgittines, in St. Bridget's House in the Eternal City, which at the time was the property of Carmelite nuns. In 1911, she reconstituted the Order of St. Bridget, which recovered its contemplative tradition, the solemn celebration of the liturgy, the apostolate, and constant commitment to the Church's unity. She received final approval for the Order from the Holy See on December 2, 1940.

    During and after the Second World War, she carried out intense work of charity in support of the poor and persecuted, victims of Italian racist laws, and promoted the movement of dialogue among Christians. She told her spiritual daughters to be united to God and to love the Church and the Pope. Her driving force was the unity of Christians in the one Church of Christ: "This is the primary end of our vocation."

    Mother Maria Elisabeth's foundation today is present in Europe (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Poland, England, Switzerland, and Italy), Asia (India, the Philippines), and North America (Mexico and the United States). She died in Rome on April 24, 1957.

Council Forerunner

    Mother Tekla Famiglietti, General Abbess of the Sisters of St. Bridget, remembers her with these words: "Coming from Lutheranism, Mother Maria Elisabeth lived her Catholicism with ecumenical sensitivity, and adopted this attitude in the formative dimension of the Order. One could say that Mother anticipated the spirit of Vatican Council II. In particular, she instituted 'spiritual and charitable ecumenism.' Following Mother Maria Elisabeth's prophetic intuitions, it is easier to understand what John Paul II says in his encyclical 'Ut Unum Sint' (1995), when he speaks of the 'ecumenical road' as the 'road of the Church' (Cf. nn. 7-14) and of the 'primacy of prayer' in the ecumenical movement (Cf. nn. 21-27)."

    All the religious heirs of the spiritual legacy of Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad (they number about 600 worldwide) are expected to be in Rome to participate in the beatification ceremony. There will also be many Swedish pilgrims. The celebrations will conclude next Tuesday with the profession of 16 new religious of this Order. The new consecrated women come from Finland, Poland, Mexico, and India, among other countries. ZE00040608


April 7-9, 2000
volume 11, no. 70

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