|Saint Maria de Mattias|
|Feast: February 4
St Maria de Mattias - 1805-1866
Maria de Mattias was born and baptized on February 4, 1805 in Vallecorsa, a small village in the mountains of central Italy, about 50 miles southeast of Rome, on the border between the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Her father, Giovanni de Mattias, came from a family that was prominent in the village and relatively well-to-do. Her mother, Ottavia de Angelis, was the second wife of Giovanni de Mattias. Maria was their seventh child, but only the second one to survive into adolescence. Maria's sister Vincenza was about 11 years older than she was, her brother Michele was 3 years younger, and her brother Antonio was 5 years younger.
Maria was born into a period of constant political turmoil. The civil life of Vallecorsa was marred by the feuding of a number of competing factions. The small kingdoms and republics on the Italian peninsula were constantly at war with one another. Politics and religion were intermixed, as the pope was also a ruler. Napoleon wanted to be emperor of everything. Because winners became losers and then winners again, those who were on the outs often holed up in rugged mountain enclaves and lived by raiding and intimidating the peasants and villagers. Commerce was disrupted; in the face of economic uncertainty and lack of steady work, young men who found it easier to live by banditry joined those who were outlaws for political reasons. The gang leaders became popular and romantic figures.
Maria was a lively and restless child. Because her family had property and wealth, it was not safe for Maria and her brothers to play outside—the bandits made a practice of kidnapping children for ransom. Maria's frazzled mother did not have the patience to cope with her daughter's active and impulsive nature, but her father was patient and gentle with her. The stories from scripture that Giovanni de Mattias told Maria delighted her and impressed her deeply. Maria needed to have her father at her bedside every night, telling her stories until she could fall asleep.
Although she was very afraid of men, the teenage Maria did like to look good. She was proud of her long blond hair, and spent hours before her mirror, posing and arranging her clothes. At other times, Maria would sit alone in her room, with the curtains drawn so that she could see out but not be seen. Maria's life was boring. Since her father did not think his daughters should be taught to read and write, Maria could hardly read, though she embroidered samplers with the alphabet.
Stirrings of conversion and encounters with the Missionaries
Maria was confirmed at age ten, and made her first communion a year later. She wanted to receive the eucharist often, but her confessor permitted her to do so only once a month. For a long time, Maria did not connect her revulsion to dancing and partying with her attention to her appearance and her need for people's admiration—after all, she was the mayor's daughter. One day in 1821, when she was sixteen, Maria's glance was drawn away from the mirror to the picture of Our Lady nearby. Maria heard the Lady speak to her, saying "Come to me." Maria began to converse with Mary and to pray for her help. She also began to read, devouring the many spiritual books that the family had. Maria continued to spend hours alone in her room, but now she now went to the opposite extreme, feeling she must deny herself every kind of pleasure. In her conversations with Our Lady, Maria gradually came to realize that her behavior was still self-absorbed. Maria desired to dedicate her life completely to God, but was uncertain about how to go about this. There was no one in Vallecorsa to guide her.
In Lent of 1822, Gaspar del Bufalo and a mission team came to Vallecorsa. For three weeks, the whole town was caught up in the drama of a Precious Blood mission. The mission preaching had two aspects: sermons on themes that terrified—death, judgment, punishment, hell—and sermons on themes that consoled and gave hope—God's love, mercy and forgiveness, Mary's compassion, heaven. Maria's imagination was completely captured by Gaspar's sermon on hell. She could not sleep; as she gazed at the flame of the oil lamp in her room, images of the flames of hell reverberated. The svegliarini passed under Maria's window, hooded men singing and clanging chains. Maria heard "The Lord has promised certain times in which he wants to wait to see if you will be converted." Maria slept little that night, but she was calm and resolved in the light of the new day. Gaspar's preaching on the love of God, who sent his Son to pour out his blood that all might be saved, and his reflections on the prodigal touched Maria as deeply as his preaching on hell. Maria heard Gaspar's invitation to imitate Jesus by giving our lives for our brothers and sisters as addressed directly to her. As a result of the mission, Maria's disdain for the world began to change; the love of neighbor and desire to do everything she could to bring about conversion and salvation of those whom Christ loved, so characteristic of Maria's letters and teaching, began to emerge.
Immediately after the Lenten mission, the people of Vallecorsa were enthusiastic about supporting a Precious Blood Mission House. The practical details of opening a mission house were not easily resolved, however. The bandit situation and the authorities' growing desperateness to restore order complicated things. Maria's father, the mayor, was involved in a number of political difficulties, and was eventually imprisoned. Maria was more isolated than ever, and reluctant to discuss her spiritual experiences with the missionaries who visited Vallecorsa. Gaspar visited Vallecorsa early in 1823 and did some of the mission preaching the following Lent. In 1824, Gaspar sent Giovanni Merlini to preach the Lenten mission and to supervise the founding of a House of Mission in the town. Merlini and his team put a great deal of effort into establishing a series of associations for girls, women, boys, men, and priests, involving all of Vallecorsa in the work of the mission house. Maria felt drawn to Merlini, to confer with him, but she had scruples and doubts even here—she worried that her attraction to the dynamic young missionary was a temptation! She finally approached him, and was completely at ease. Maria's conversations with Merlini were the beginning of a relationship that lasted for the rest of her life. From the very first, Merlini wondered if Maria was the right person to found the community of women that would complete the work planned by Gaspar and Francesco Albertini during their exile. Merlini was in Vallecorsa often, dealing with the mission house, and he preached the Lenten mission again in 1825.
Merlini put Maria in charge of the Daughters of Mary, the association for girls. She began to invite the young women of Vallecorsa into her home on Sunday afternoons for prayer and devotions; sometimes Maria would speak from her heart as well as leading them in prayer and adoration. Soon, older women of the town began coming as well. The De Mattias house was becoming a school.
Adoration and mission
Gaspar del Bufalo and Francesco Albertini were exiled from Rome in 1810, because they refused to take the oath to Napoleon. They had worked together before; Albertini had invited Gaspar to preach at the founding of the Archconfraternity of the Precious Blood on December 8, 1808. While they were in northern Italy, their conversations led them to envision a community of priests and brothers, a community of sisters, and a range of lay associations, all motivated by the same spirituality and sharing in the same mission: to enliven people's faith through devotion to the blood of Christ. Gaspar and Albertini described the community of sisters in a document called the Fundamental Articles. The exiled priests were moved frequently; Gaspar and Albertini were separated after 1811. When the period of exile came to an end in 1814, Albertini was made a bishop, and Gaspar and his colleagues opened their first house of mission on August 15, 1815. While the missionaries and their work flourished, finding a group of women who truly shared in the vision and mission and a town that was committed to providing education and formation for girls and women took twenty years longer.
Gaspar supported Merlini's work with Maria, and delegated him to be her spiritual director and mentor. Conditions remained unsettled in Vallecorsa. The other possible seeds of a women's community did not germinate. When one of the other communities of Maestre Pie (pious teachers) was able to start a school for girls in Vallecorsa in 1827, Gaspar and Merlini suggested that Maria join them, as an apprenticeship in community life. Maria stayed with the Trinitarians for about three years. Meanwhile, plans were made to send her to found a house in Norcia, whose bishop, Gaetano Bonnani, was a Precious Blood missionary and one of Gaspar's earliest collaborators. When the plans for a house in Norcia fell through, Maria began to wonder if she had been presumptuous, if God was displeased with her for imagining that she could found and lead a community. She considered the cloister, as she had before encountering the missionaries.
At some point during these years, Gaspar and Maria had a significant conversation about her vocation. Maria's longing for prayer and her desire to give herself fully to God sparked questions in her. Gaspar's compelling response was that she could find holiness anywhere, that her urgency to save souls did not mean that she should withdraw to a monastery. Finally, near the end of 1833, the place and conditions were right, in Acuto.
Maria's plans for Acuto included far more than a school. Drawing on the Fundamental Articles, she envisioned a complete program of devotions, spiritual formation, and retreats, educating women and girls in the faith and its practice—a mission house for women directed by women. The school opened on March 4, 1834. The people of Acuto were enthusiastic and responsive. A key piece of Maria's work was a boarding school, where other young women could be given spiritual and practical formation as members of the community and trained as teachers. Maria began to draft a rule, based on the Fundamental Articles. What characterized the community from the beginning was its distinctive combination of adoration and apostleship. A daily hour of adoration, to which lay auxiliaries were soon invited, anchored their lives. In these hours, fifteen minute reflections by one of the sisters alternated with fifteen minute periods of silence. When confessors would allow it, Maria encouraged the sisters to receive communion daily, a daring intimacy and opportunity for nourishment we sometimes take for granted, but a radical breakthrough and break with the piety and practice of the time. Meditating on the decades of the rosary and Jesus's seven sheddings of blood in the chaplet of the Precious Blood framed their days. When Merlini sent Gaspar the first draft of Maria's rule, he commented that the lifestyle of the sisters should not be austere, because of their heavy apostolic work. Merlini and Gaspar and Maria pondered the question: how should the sisters express their commitment? Should they take formal vows, or make a pledge of fidelity as the missionaries did? Would vows nourish their apostolic work, or entangle them in church restrictions that would hinder it? This question would persist; it would be twenty years more before all the details were settled and a rule finally approved. In the meantime, Maria and her companions lost no time in living out their spirituality and mission. In addition to the school, groups for older girls who were not yet married and for married women met every Sunday afternoons for instruction and prayer.
Word of what Maria was doing spread throughout the villages and towns of central Italy. There was great need for schools for the children and catechetical instruction for both children and adults. Mayors and bishops besieged Maria with requests for teachers. As often as she could be away from Acuto and Rome, Maria made the arduous journey to visit the small communities scattered throughout the mountain towns. Many of these places had no resident priests, so instructions and devotions led by the sisters were the only regular source of spiritual life. Maria describes her visit to Vallerotonda in 1860: "giving instructions to the girls and married women; in the evening there are about a hundred, but on Sundays there are around three hundred, not counting the men who stand outside." Maria preached from balconies and standing on tables in town squares. In her letters to Merlini, Maria continually expresses doubts about speaking in public, about her satisfaction at the number of people seeking confession and communion in response, and about enjoying the peoples' praise. Merlini replies that her joy is not contrary to God's will.
In his letters, Merlini often urged Maria to take care of herself. Maria struggled against illness all her life. She suffered from asthma, and often succumbed to fevers (treated by having leeches suck her blood). Even when she was physically exhausted, Maria was full of energy for the work and the travels it required. The rapid growth of the community, the scarcity of resources, and the press of the people's needs often resulted in friction and disputes that Maria had to resolve. Political upheaval in Italy and throughout Europe continued, and was accompanied by anti-clericalism in some places. Maria often had to contend with other women drawn to the spirituality of the blood of Christ; rivalries seemed to prevail rather than cooperation among those who wanted to be associated with the missionaries. When Maria died on August 20, 1866, in Rome, she was 61 years old. The community had over fifty schools in Italy, and had spread to Austria, Germany, and England. The missionaries and the adorers wanted to have her buried in Santa Maria in Trevio, the missionaries' mother church. Since burial in churches was no longer allowed, due to concerns about hygiene, they had to ask Pope Pius IX for permission. Although the pope did not grant this request, he himself purchased a tomb for Maria. Maria was declared blessed in 1950.
Maria's legacy to us
Maria implemented Albertini's vision of the universal call to holiness and mission. She was highly creative, adapting the church calendar and the devotions of the people in practical ways, fostering the spiritual life of busy people. Maria saw women's potential for being active agents of evangelization, salt, light, and leaven in their homes. Maria saw that the call to adoration and mission was extended to all. This was concretely expressed by inviting lay auxiliaries to adore and pray alongside the sisters. Her vision of church and the participation of the laity anticipate Vatican II; indeed, we might say that Maria helped fashion a church capable of conceiving what was born at Vatican II.
Maria's example of adoration as active participation, as a loving relationship with God which motivates us to compassionate service, to living for others as Jesus did, invites us to a new understanding of an old concept, in a way that integrates prayer and mission. Maria's sense of what God had done for her and her feelings of unworthiness led her to a tremendous appreciation of God's love and a desire to let the same love and compassion flow in her life. At times in the history of the church, reflection on the frailty of humanity has led to harshness rather than compassion. Since Maria's sense of the frailty of humanity was shaped by a spirituality of the blood of Christ, it unleased in her the immense power of love. The 1857 rules and constitution crystalize Maria's vision of Christian living—the community is "patterned and shaped into a living image of that divine charity with which this divine blood was shed and of which it is the sign, expression, measure and pledge."
The hostile reaction of the arch-priest of Acuto to Maria's talks, his constant labeling of her as a "would-be priest," and the perplexity of the bishop who invoked 1 Timothy's exclusion of women from preaching are familiar to many women who volunteer or work in catechetical and formation ministries today. Side-by-side with these frustrating stories are encouraging ones: the openness of the bishops who did support Maria and the clergy who praised and acknowledged her work. Above all, we have the correspondence of Maria and Giovanni Merlini, radiating trust, respect, honesty, and affection. Whenever Maria found Merlini's advice distressing, she let him know! As mentor and spiritual director, Merlini encouraged Maria to listen to her heart and her own judgment. What endures for all of us who are involved in something new as Companions is Maria's faithfulness in spite of mixed feelings, her worries and doubts and courage and overwhelming charity towards her opponents.
Maria's devotion to the blood of Christ, in an era when she could not receive the Precious Blood, calls those of us who have the privilege of sharing in the cup to a deeper appreciation of our communion in the blood of Christ.
Obedient Rebel: the Story of Maria de Mattias, by Michele Colagiovanni, C.PP.S., translated and edited by Sr. Pauline Grady, ASC.
Compendium of the Life of Maria de Mattias, by Giovanni Merlini, C.PP.S. translation by Sr. M. Kevin Rooney, ASC, Sr. Pauline Grady, ASC, and Sr. Angelita Myerscough, ASC.
The letters of Blessed Maria de Mattias, English translations prepared by Sr. M. Evelyn Gorges, Ad. PP.S., in 2 mimeographed volumes (made available to us by Sr. Toni Longo, ASC, Columbia province)
The Apostolic Spirituality of Maria de Mattias: Conferences Prepared for ASC Spirituality and History Programs 1979-1982 (made available to us by Sr. Therese Wetta, ASC, Wichita province)
At the Heart of the Christian Life: The Charism of Gaspar del Bufalo as the Basis for a Lay Spirituality, John A. Colacino, C.PP.S., 1993.
February 4 Maria de Mattias, Virgin Memorial Maria de Mattias was born in Vallecorsa, Italy, February 4, 1805. Inspired by St. Gaspar del Bufalo and following his advice, she founded a congregation of women, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, to adore the Lamb of God who gave his blood for all, and to collaborate in the redeeming work of Christ through loving service to the neediest. For thirty four years she was guided in her life and mission by the Venerable John Merlini, third moderator general of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood founded by St. Gaspar. She died in Rome, August 20, 1866, was beatified by Pope Pius XII, October 1, 1950, and canonized by Pope John Paul II, May 18, 2003.
All you peoples, clap your hands,
The Gloria is said.where solemnity is celebrated
Father most holy, who in your loving plan
A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah
The word of the Lord came to me thus:
But the Lord answered me,
Then the Lord extended his hand and touched my mouth saying,
The word of the Lord.
R. Lord, give us the joy of proclaiming your word.
O God, you are my God whom I seek;
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
Thus will I bless you while I live;
I will remember you upon my couch,
My soul clings fast to you;
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter
Beloved, thus says the Lord: “You will be holy, because I am holy.”
He was known before the foundation of the world
The word of the Lord.
VERSE BEFORE THE GOSPEL
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
She went immediately and announced to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord”.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John
On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning,
So she ran and went to Simon Peter
Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping.
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there,
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
Mary went and announced to the disciples,
The Gospel of the Lord.
The Profession of Faith is said where solemnity is celebrated
PRAYER OVER THE GIFTS
Let the dew of your Spirit, O Lord,
The mission of Saint Maria de Mattias
It is truly right and just,
You, Father, are the source of life and font of holiness;
In her life you offered us a sign of your love
And so, with all the Angels and Saints,
Blessed are those who have been called
May the Body and Blood of Christ,
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