Pontinia – Blessed Maria Gabriela de la Unidad Monastery
Sr. Maria del Corpus Domini passed away on Wednesday, March 22nd. The vivid desire to contemplate Jesus Christ and that He would call her on the 21st of March, the day of her anniversary of religious profession moved her to prepare all the details of her funeral. She would fall asleep with this desire during her last days. One of the sisters who was taking care of her said that during the night she would wake up and ask: “Still the Spouse has not come?”
Our Lord Jesus Christ had also prepared the smallest details from all eternity for this unique and mysterious moment. Well do we know that nothing is coincidental in the divine plan but rather that all has been perfectly determined by the loving providence of the Creator.
It was not coincidental that Sr. Corpus Domini would die after completing 25 years of her religious profession nor was it coincidental that a few moments before departing from this world she would participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the altar offering herself with Christ the Victim and would receive Him for the last time in holy communion. Neither was it accidental that she received anointing of the sick with plenary indulgence before passing away while her parents were present along with her monastic community who was able to accompany her in her last agony with the prayer of the Divine Mercy chaplet.
Moreover, we could point out another detail that was not overlooked by Divine Providence: spring had begun the day before. We can be sure that this detail was not merely “accidental” but instead it was a sign of the coming of Him who makes all things new (cf. Ap 21:5). In fact, for Corpus Domini her “winter” had already passed. The winter of her interior trials and pain, of her struggles, of her efforts to be faithful to her religious vocation and to the charism of our Institute. Her illness itself and all that was for her “winter” had passed and it was the time to receive the eternal consolation promised by Jesus Christ. “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). For this reason, we could truly place the words of the spouse on the lips of our dear sister when it says: “The sound of my lover! here he comes…See! He is standing behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices. My lover speaks and says to me, “Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come!… the winter is past…The flowers appear on the earth, Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come!” (Song of Songs 2:8-14).
The coffin with her mortal remains were placed in the Church in front of the altar. As Sr. Corpus Domini had indicated, they clothed her in a particular habit with a crown of natural flowers, the same crown which she used during the Holy Mass celebrating her 25 years of profession. In her hands was not to be missed the rosary as well as the monastic Rule, a crucifix with a relic from the Holy Land to remember the other cross that she held in her hands before dying. Her face which at another time spoke of pain was not beautifully serene giving a hint of a smile.
That same night of the 22nd of March, there was a vigil of prayer with her mortal remains. As people were notified of her death, they also came to pray until 10:30 pm when the doors of the monastery were closed and the contemplative sisters continued praying.
The apostolic sisters that had gone to help from the Provincial house, the General Procurate, and the International Juniorate took turns to keep vigil the whole night with hymns, rosaries, and stations of the Cross.
In the afternoon of the 23rd at 5 pm, the funeral took place. The Holy Mass was presided by Msgr. Mariano Crociata, bishop of the dioceses of Latina-Terracina-Sezze-Priverno. Various IVE priests and diocesan priests concelebrated. Among them was present Don Romano who was Sr. Corpus Domini’s parish priest to whom she confided her desire to be a great missionary when she was eleven years old.
The Church was full of people, friends, families, benefactors, and religious. Even an overflow of people outside. Her parents, Marisa and Alberto, were seated in the first pew with a resigned look of sorrow on their faces.
The order of the liturgy continued as Sr. Corpus Domini had meticulously prepared: the Gregorian Mass pro defunctis, the introit In Paradisum, the readings from the book of wisdom, Psalm 25, the Gospel which invites us to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. It seemed like through the liturgy, she wished to make her last call to those who were present to speak to them of the value of eternal life. This time, however, she did not do it with her voice but with the voice of the Spouse, the Word of the Father.
Msgr. Crociata preached a beautiful homily about our last end, highlighting the intense desire that Sr. Corpus Domini had to go to Heaven to contemplate God. Moreover, he referred to her example of contemplative religious life completely donated to God in silence and prayer as a great testimony to the transcendental.
At the end of the Mass, her brothers Vincenzo, Anabella, Stella, and her niece Sara spoke moving words of farewell. The people then began to file one by one to the coffin to give her thanks, to speak with her, to say goodbye to her, to ask her for prayers in heaven.
Lastly, the funeral car arrived to translate her mortal remains to Tuscania. Corpus Domini’s parents greeted her for the last time while the Servidoras intoned various hymns to Mary. Then, the people were requested to exit the Church so that the monastic community could come out to greet her before they closed the coffin.
The grill of the Church’s choir was opened and the sisters of the community who with so much charity had accompanied and cared for her in last moments, approached the coffin. The hymns to Mary continued as they entrusted the soul of our dear sisters to her. The funeral ushers very respectfully made the sign of the cross and began to seal the coffin. As the hymns continued, the doors of the Church were opened once again so that the coffin could be lifted into the funeral car that would take her to the Monastery of Tuscania.
Sr. Corpus Domini had arrived in her beloved Monastery in Pontinia two months before and she make the resolution to live each day as a gift from God to prepare herself for the final encounter with Him. How many times must she have meditated and made hers the words of Psalm 84: “My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord…Blessed are those who dwell in your house! They never cease to praise you.” This was her desire: to die in her contemplative cell, surrounded by her community, to die in the House of the Lord.
TUSCANIA – Monasterio “San Pablo”
A few hours later, her mortal remains arrived to Tuscania. An arch of flowers and a path lit by candles decorated the entrance to the Church of the Monastery of St Paul. Everything was adorned with white flowers to receive the body of the spouse of Christ. The songs of the monastic community of the sisters of the International Juniorate accompanied the entrance of the remains of Maria del Corpus Domini into the Church. Beholding all these images brought to mind the words of Psalm 44: “All glorious is the king’s daughter as she enters, her raiment threaded with gold; In embroidered apparel she is led to the king. The maids of her train are presented to the king. They are led in with glad and joyous acclaim; they enter the palace of the king.” This text is beautifully applied to the Holy Virgen Mary, but it is also used as a hymn in the liturgy of Investiture or religious profession (Audi Filia) precisely because it describes one who leaves her people and her father’s house to follow the Divine King.
Thus, everything was harmoniously prepared with simplicity and solemnity: the grand crucifix above the wall, beneath it the monastic choir with its grille, the tabernacle, the altar, and the coffin sealed containing the body of our beloved sister, and on top of it a Cross of Matara, her picture, and a crown of real flowers.
Twenty three years ago, Sr. Maria del Corpus Domini prostrated herself on a carpet before the altar of St Peter’s Church (Sezze), as a sign of her perpetual gift to God, giving testimony that she loved Jesus Christ as her only Spouse. In Tuscania, the closed coffin containing her remains, rested over a carpet being like a second prostration this time to tell us with an eloquent silence (paraphrasing St. Therese) that she did not regret having giving herself to Love, Jesus Christ, and that now nothing could separate them.
In this Church, both communities, the contemplatives and the juniorate sisters, spent the night accompanying her remains with hymns and prayers.
The funeral took place at 11 am on March 24th. The Holy Mass was presided by Rev. Fr. Diego Pombo, spiritual father of the Servidoras. Seventeen priests and four deacons were present. In addition to the Servidoras, there were IVE Seminarians from San Vitaliano Seminary in Montefiascone, numerous lay people, friends, and family members.
The Holy Mass was sung by the contemplative community follow the book of exequies prepared by Sr. Corpus Domini herself.
Everything was solemn during the liturgy and mad us thing of the grandeur of the heavenly liturgy which she was now rejoicing in.
During the Sermon, Rev. Fr. Arturo Ruiz Freites spoke of the soul, its immortality, and of eternity. He referred to the extraordinary gift of our sister, the first to cross the ocean to live poverty. He spoke of her love for our Congregation, her fervent prayer for the unity of its members, and her special prayers for priests.
After the last prayer while Iesu corona virginum was begin sung, her coffin was blessed. Salve de los cielos was intoned as the seminarians carried the coffin on their shoulders to begin the procession to the cemetery led by the processional cross and followed by the incensor, priests, family, the SSVM… all walked step by step as the psalms which Corpus Domini herself had chosen were being sung. The sun was brilliant and the sky blue making us think of her eternal destination. The bells rang festively.
As we neared the cemetery, her body passed to the shoulders of her sisters.
Upon reaching the mausoleum of the Poor Clares where her body would be interred, the last prayers of the rite were recited: “May choirs of angels escort you into paradise; and at your arrival may the martyrs receive and welcome you; may they bring you home into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the holy angels welcome you, and with Lazarus, who lived in poverty, may you have everlasting rest.” Songs to Mary both polyphonic and traditional followed next as ropes lowered the coffin. Among contemplatives, she was interred, she who had wish to live and die as such.
We returned to the monastery with souls full of gratitude to our Lord for the heavenly moments that He allows us to live and we shared a small feast. Our Religious Family was preparing to celebrate the first vespers of the Solemnity of the Incarnate Word and of the 33 years of foundation for the IVE. Maria del Corpus Domini who for 25 years had celebrated that feast on earth, now contemplated face to face this mystery in the solemn celestial liturgy united to God and to her beloved brothers and sisters of her congregation. Those very brothers and sisters that He had given to her on earth. “She told me that at last she understood what God wanted from her. It was to no longer be occupied with things of this world, but to be an intercessor. ‘Even when I am in heaven’ she told me ‘ask me for many things’ ” (Testimony of Mother Siempre Virgen).
Posthumous writing of sister Maria del Corpus Domini: “The story of a Cyrenian. Reflections on the time of illness and perserverenace.”
“As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.” (Mt 27,32)
I would like to begin this reflection with the figure of Simon of Cyrene, because the illness of leukemia which began in May of 2015, was so abrupt and unexpected, suddenly feeling a cross placed on my shoulders, one that I did not ask, nor looked for … exactly like the Cyrenian!
I was asked to write something about the second part of my vocation, as the discovering and the entering of religious life and subsequently contemplative life had already been written about on a previous occasion. It was asked that this second part be about the 25 years of first profession of vows that I will celebrate this upcoming March 21. Instead, I would like to refer to my last two years of life marked by a grave illness, one of the diseases that causes tumors in the blood, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
It has been a journey very similar to that of the Way of Santiago di Compostela…full of milestones, sacrifices, pain; but also moments of rest and comfort, finally arriving at the joy of acceptance. Acceptance of the illness and even more so of the Adorable Will of God, although mysterious. Truly seeing the illness as a gift, a sublime gift of the enamored Spouse that wants to beautify and prepare His bride for the wedding; enriching in this way the one who lives it and all those who surround her, starting with her own family.
Even Blessed Maria Gabriella of the Unity experienced something similar as she expressed to her mother in a letter written June 7, 1938: “…the Lord, as you know, has always favored me with special graces, but now with this illness He has given me the greatest of all. I have totally abandoned myself into the hands of the Lord and I have received so much… There is no greater joy than that of being able to suffer something for the love of Jesus and for the salvation of souls. Be happy as well, my mother, and thank the Lord for this great grace He has bestowed on all of you and on me”.
After acceptance came trust. The work of faith, of believing and of laboring to believe in each moment to be in the Greatest Hands, even though not always fully comprehending the Lord’s designs; in fact according to my doctors I was at the end of my life already at least two times. Right after the beginning of my illness, as soon as I had finished the first round of chemotherapy, the doctors said that I had responded well and that all would be okay. Instead, exactly after one year of intensive care (the reason why I was living outside of the monastery with the Mothers in the Procura in Rome) the illness became aggressive and no longer responded to any therapy. It was June 2016, precisely the same time the General Chapters of our two Institutes were starting. I understood that the Lord asked this sacrifice for the fruits of these meetings. I was told that my case was advanced and that my situation was grave… How many times I was told that I was in a grave situation … how many times I had received the anointing of the sick … how much time the Lord had gifted me to prepare myself for the encounter with Him … all Mercy!!! The great privilege to be called and to be conformed to the image of Jesus Crucified, this is the grave illness … to be able to say with St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Gal. 2, 20) Our intelligence is confounded, because we do not understand what our Lord wants, because we cannot plan anything … when you do not know if you will live for another month or not, … everything truly changes.
Yes, everything truly changes in front of the possibility of death, our way of thinking truly changes, our worries, our love towards others, mercy takes the upper hand … one understands what’s really worth it and what’s not. Two passages from the book of Sirach come to mind: “Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand, so are these few years among the days of eternity.” (Sir. 18, 10) And: “In whatever you do, remember your last days and you will never sin.” (Sir. 7, 36)
At this point, I want to add a reflection about one’s own perseverance, because more than once I have contemplated about the marvel of being able to die having persevered, by the Grace of God, in the vocation that He has given me and in the Congregation where He has called me and where He has so greatly loved me. It is an immense Grace that I desire for all the members of our Institutes; it is an intention for which I have prayed, pray and will pray from Heaven. I have said to myself, what would it be like for a soul to be on death’s bed having been unfaithful and having abandoned her first love … I wonder how many regrets one must feel in that situation, even if certainly the Mercy of God will not abandon her …
Therefore, I also thought, during our entire life we must defend and fight to conserve our vocation, just as St. Peter said: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more eager to make your call and election firm, for, in doing so, you will never stumble.” (2 Pe. 1, 10)
That does not mean, though, that there will be no temptations throughout our life, or darkness, dryness, trials of all types. Deep down, we all know the quote from Sirach: “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials.” (Sir. 2, 1). However, when it happens to us, we forget … Permit me to share something very personal, I was tempted, many times, to abandon my vocation. Instead, the jealous Spouse of our souls never permitted me to fall … He always intervened just in time, through the motions of the Good Spirit, by my asking for help from my spiritual director and my superiors and even more. Here I will tell you a little secret … my constant prayer requesting the grace of perseverance in my vocation that I have elevated to the Lord from the first days of my novitiate (1991) until today in every Holy Mass, as was recommended to me while a novice. I have never forgot to pray it not even one day. It is also good and fruitful to read the article written by Fr. Buela on the subject of perseverance which is published in Servidoras I, I strongly recommend to read and reread it, it has done me much good.
St. Paul speaks about a battle that we can apply perfectly to our vocation and the fight in order to persevere “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground.” (Eph. 6, 12-13)
To Timothy: “Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Tim. 6, 12)
We can also apply to the theme of perseverance this exhortation of St Paul to Timothy: “This saying is trustworthy: If we have died with Him we shall also live with Him; if we persevere we shall also reign with Him. However, if we deny Him He will deny us. If we are unfaithful He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Tim 2, 11- 16)
I think how wonderful it is that as I come close to death I am able to share the same sentiments as St. Paul, which I apply to the grace of perseverance in the religious vocation, the Saint writes: “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearance.” (2 Tim. 4, 6-8)
All of these thoughts come to my mind as I come close to death, this is the reason why it is so wise of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the spiritual exercises, who recommends that before making any resolution, one must consider in the moment of death which decision one would have liked to have made. It is true that in front of eternity each decision has a much different weight.
Throughout my illness, many superiors have asked me to pray for vocations and for the perseverance and unity of our members and for our faithfulness to our charism, something that I have always done, am doing and will continue to do in Heaven if the Lord calls me. I believe that there is no sweeter death (even one with much physical suffering) than that of a spouse of Christ (in other words a religious and nothing more), who finally falls into the arms of her beloved Spouse. He who was looked for in faith and hope during her earthly life.
May the Lord give me the sublime grace to be found ready when He comes to take me. From the day of my birth in a Christian family and through the whole of my life (25 as a religious), I have been an object of predilection of the Infinite Mercy of God … may He bring to fulfillment this work that He has begun in me, so that I can eternally sing of His Mercy!
Sr. Maria del Corpus Domini, SSVM
February 26, 2017