Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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July 23, 2001
Saint Bridget of Sweden

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«Where is Christ's true flock?» This was the question that came from the mind of a young Swedish woman, Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad, when she realized that her classmates belonged to different Christian denominations. Did Jesus Christ not express His ardent desire to lead all the sheep into the only fold, under the watch of just one shepherd? (cf. Jn. 10:16). In the solitude of the great pine forests she dearly loved, the young woman prayed to her heavenly Father to show her which fold He would like all to be gathered in. One day, while a wonderful peace spread in her soul, she perceived these words: «Yes, my daughter, one day I will show it to you.»

«With the help of God,
everything can be overcome»

Elizabeth Hesselblad was born in the village of Faglavik, in the Västergötland province of southwest Sweden, on June 4, 1870. Members of the Lutheran denomination, the majority in Sweden, her parents had her baptized at the church a few weeks later. Coming from the rural lower middle class, the Hesselblads operated a grocer's shop that did not fair well, which obliged them to set up shop in 1871 as booksellers and stationers in Falun, in central Sweden. Elizabeth's father, Auguste Robert, was a good and sensible man, with an artist's temperament. Karin, her mother, a practical, clever, and hardworking woman, gave birth to thirteen children, nine boys and four girls; three children would die in their early years. Elizabeth was the tenth. Family life helped to enrich her sociable and particularly balanced temperament. The Hesselblads were devout, and went to church every Sunday. From her youth, Elizabeth understood that all human life must be dedicated to knowing God and serving Him.

Seriously ill with diphtheria and scarlet fever when she was seven, Elizabeth recovered; but at the age of twelve, a new illness caused stomach ulcers and internal hemorrhages which would cause her to suffer relapses for the rest of her life. She later wrote, «God gave me early on the grace to understand that difficulties are sent to be conquered. With God's help, everything can be overcome, but, without His support, all effort is useless.»

In 1886, the family's poverty obliged Elizabeth to look for work. Two years later, having come up against difficulties in Sweden, she decided to leave for America, in order to help her family financially. Arriving in New York on July 9, 1888, she entered a school for nurses at Roosevelt Hospital. She often took care of workers injured on the building site of the future Saint Patrick's Cathedral. One day, she heard an injured Irishman repeat in his sufferings: «Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!» This invocation seemed improper to her. She wrote, «He shouldn't speak like that; it's not Christian… Catholics have strange expressions.» One night, she ventured out alone in a terrible storm to call a priest to see a dying Catholic who wished to be reconciled with God. «May God bless you, dear little sister, for your attention and zeal,» said the priest to Elizabeth. «Unfortunately, you cannot yet understand what a marvelous service you render to so many people… One day, you will understand; you will find the way.» In her search for the Church of Christ, Elizabeth visited many sanctuaries of all creeds. She loved the silence of the Catholic churches—but why do the faithful there genuflect so often, why do they make so many signs of the cross? Is it really necessary to express one's faith exteriorly? In keeping with her convictions at that time, she thought that faith, in order to be pure, must be kept secret.

«I am the One you seek»

In 1894, Elizabeth returned to her native land for a month of vacation. Shortly after her return to America, she wrote, «To leave one's country a second time is more difficult than anything one can imagine.» At this time, she met the Cisneros family, who welcomed her into their home, and to whose service she would devote herself from then on.

To usher in the twentieth century, the Cisneros went to Sweden, to the Hesselblad home. Elizabeth and the Cisneros sisters then organized a trip to Europe. In Brussels, Elizabeth accompanied her friends, fervent Catholics, to the Corpus Christi procession of the Blessed Sacrament, which was held at Saint Gudule Cathedral. In her personal notes, she wrote, «I didn't know that the bishop was carrying something… Seeing my two friends and many other people kneel, I moved back behind the large portal so as not to offend those around me by staying standing. I thought, 'Before You alone, Lord, I kneel; not here!' At this moment, the bishop who was carrying the monstrance reached the portal. My anxious soul was suddenly filled with gentleness and I heard a voice, which seemed to come at the same time from outside and from the bottom of my heart, tell me, 'I am the One you seek.' I fell to my knees… There, behind the church door, I made my first adoration before our Divine Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament.»

After the ceremony, Elizabeth hastened to tell her friends about the grace received. From this day on, although suffering sometimes serious doubts and marked by interior struggles, she became ever closer to the Catholic Church.

On the way to full communion

One of the practices that held Elizabeth back is Catholics' devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the saints. She held from her Protestant upbringing an exclusive attachment to the mystery of Christ, the only Savior. «How could I believe in the intercessory power of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the saints? Doesn't this lessen the merits of the Passion and the Death of Christ? Isn't this a blow to the glory and honor we owe God alone?»

Little by little, Elizabeth was reconciled with the doctrines of the Catholic Church—the Blessed Virgin was united with the work of the Divine Redeemer, to which she provided unequaled cooperation though her obedience, her faith, her hope, her ardent charity, so that supernatural life might be given to souls. She thus became, in the order of grace, the Mother of us all. After her Assumption into Heaven, Mary's role in salvation did not end. Her maternal love renders her attentive to her Son's brothers whose pilgrimage is not complete, until they reach the blessed homeland. For this reason, she is invoked in the Church by the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, Mediatrix, without taking away from the dignity and efficacy of Christ, the sole Mediator. The Church professes without hesitation the subordinate role of Mary… It recommends Mary to the hearts of the faithful, so that this support and maternal help might help them to cling more closely to the Mediator and Savior.

When she passed by a Catholic church, Elizabeth would enter to adore the Blessed Sacrament, but she still hesitated to make the decisive step of conversion. At this time, one of her two Cisneros friends entered the Visitation Convent in Washington. Outraged in her affection at the thought of permanently losing such a dear friend, Elizabeth asked herself, «How is it possible that a religion that asks for such heartrending sacrifices can be true?» And yet, Jesus Himself was the first to call His apostles and disciples to leave everything to follow Him, not without promising them a marvelous reward: If you seek perfection, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor. You will then have treasure in heaven. Afterward, come back and follow me… Moreover, everyone who has given up home, brothers or sisters, father or mother, wife or children or property for my sake will receive many times as much and inherit everlasting life (Mt. 19:21, 29).

The wheat and the chaff

Elizabeth, who wished to convert to a Church all of whose members were saints, was astonished at the shortcomings she noticed in Catholics. The teachings of the Gospels shed light on this reality, for Our Lord spoke of the wheat and the chaff mixed together in the field of the father of the family, as well as of the net cast into the sea which draws in all sorts of fish (cf. Mt. 13:24-51). The Church, Christ's holy and immaculate Spouse, is made up here on earth of both righteous souls and sinners. Only in Heaven will all its members be perfect. Elizabeth understood that the Catholic Church is the true «fold» established by Christ. She was convinced from that point on that each day spent outside this fold was wasted time.

In the declaration Dominus Jesus, of August 6, 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recalls that, «Just as there is one Christ, so there exists a single Body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: a single Catholic and Apostolic Church» (no. 16), which conforms to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: «This is the sole Church of Christ… which our Savior, after His Resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care (cf. Jn. 21:17), commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it (cf. Mt. 28:18 and ff.), and which He raised up for all ages as the pillar and mainstay of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him» (Lumen Gentium, no. 8). The faithful likewise must not imagine that the Church of Christ is simply a group of Churches and ecclesial Communities; nor do they have the right to believe that this Church of Christ no longer remains anywhere today, in such a way that it is only a common goal to be sought after by all the Churches.

Nevertheless, «the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation» (Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 3). In addition, the members of these communities are not responsible for the separation which dates back many centuries. The example of Elizabeth Hesselblad and her family, where true Christian virtues were practiced, shows that «many elements can be found of sanctification and truth, that is, in those Churches and Ecclesial Communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church» (Dominus Jesus, no. 16).

The great grace of August 15, 1902

Having finally become certain that the fullness of grace and truth are found in the Catholic Church, Elizabeth waited no longer to enter. She spoke to Father J.G. Hagen, a Jesuit, who would become her spiritual Father, and asked him to receive her immediately into the Catholic Church before she was to leave shortly for Europe. «My dear daughter, how could I do that?» the priest replied. «I have just met you… »—«My Father, forgive me, but I have fought in darkness for twenty years; for many years I have studied the Catholic faith and have prayed for a strong faith… I now possess this faith, and I am ready to submit to an examination on all the points of doctrine.» The priest thus questioned the ardent neophyte. Finally, he told her, «I see no reason not to receive you into the Church. Today is August 12, and the 15th will be the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That day, I will receive you into the Catholic Church; the following Sunday, the 17th, you will be able to receive Holy Communion. Spend these few days in retreat and come to see me twice a day for lessons.»

During the ceremony of admission into the Catholic Church, Elizabeth received a particular grace that she translated in these terms: «I returned to kneel in my place, and the entire world seemed to me to disappear. It would be impossible to describe this impression. The only reality that I saw, that I felt, was God; my sole desire from then on was to see Him as we will see Him face to face, on the eternal morning.»

At the end of 1902, Elizabeth left on pilgrimage for Rome. She visited there the Piazza Farnese, the house where Saint Bridget of Sweden lived for 19 years, and which was at that time home to a Carmelite community. Upon Father Hagen's advice, she returned to the Eternal City in March 1904, to dedicate herself entirely to God and to try to continue there the work of Saint Bridget. That year, her brother, Thur, also converted to Catholicism.

Elizabeth applied to the Carmelite Convent that attracted her in this former home of Saint Bridget. The Prioress, Mother Hedwig, hesitated to accept her because of her weak health, and offered to take her for a period of probation. Soon Elizabeth fell seriously ill and even received Extreme Unction. Slowly, she recovered and could lead the regular life. She held out against her family's pleas urging her to return to Sweden. Her heart was consumed with a twofold desire: to promote the return of her country to Catholicism with a view to Christian unity, and to spread devotion to Saint Bridget and Saint Catherine of Sweden. With her Superior's consent, she received at that time the gray habit of the Brigittines and made her profession, in the hands of Father Hagen, on June 22, 1906, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Mother Hedwig blessed her, saying, «I return you to Saint Bridget and Saint Catherine (Saint Bridget's daughter), who sent you to me.»

In the footsteps of Saint Bridget

Born in 1303 to an aristocratic Swedish family, Saint Bridget was wed to a devout Christian with whom she had eight children, and with whom she had an intense prayer life. After her husband's death, her intimate union with Christ was accompanied by particular charisms, under whose inspiration she founded the new monastic Order of the Most Holy Savior, devoted to contemplation of the Passion. This Order spread in northern Europe. As Scandinavian countries were separated from Catholic unity over the course of the sixteenth century, the Swedish monks and nuns were dispersed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only a few isolated monasteries of Brigittines remained in Europe.

All of Sister Elizabeth's efforts would be aimed at establishing a foundation of Brigittines. In 1911, English postulants arrived in Rome and, with Sister Elizabeth, moved into a property loaned by the Carmelites. On March 4, 1920, she became Abbess of the Order of the Holy Savior, which was canonically established. During 16 years of struggle, Mother Elizabeth, who referred to herself as a «useless piece of wood,» laid the foundation for an edifice destined to work continuously for the glory of God. She assigned her religious three goals: «Contemplation, adoration and reparation.»

In May 1923, Mother Elizabeth went to Sweden for the 550th anniversary of Saint Bridget's death, in Vadstena, where she had founded her first monastery in 1343. The saint's relics had been brought from Rome; the ceremonies were marked by the participation of numerous Protestants. A crown offered by Prince Eugene carried this dedication: «To the greatest woman of Sweden.» Mother Elizabeth wished to establish a monastery in Sweden, but local Bishop Müller advised prudence, owing to still lively prejudice against religious orders. A «Saint Bridget Rest Home» led by several sisters was then founded in Stockholm's suburbs; there a few patients and guests seeking spiritual rest found accommodation. For the first time since the sixteenth century, to the great surprise of the population, religious sisters wearing the habit could be seen in Sweden.

On her way back to Rome, the foundress stopped in Lugano, in the south of Switzerland, to establish a Brigittine convent there. Yet another was soon founded in England. In October 1928, the Carmelites left Saint Bridget's house in Rome, and the following April, Mother Elizabeth and her religious moved in, realizing a thirty-year dream. In 1935, the permanent founding of a Brigittine convent took place in Vadstena, in spite of some Swedes' displeasure. Then, in April 1937, twelve Brigittines took to the seas to establish a foundation in southern India. Today the Brigittines have several dozen houses in Europe, Asia, and America.

During the Second World War, Mother Elizabeth's charity was deployed in all areas: first towards her own religious sisters in war-torn countries, then towards the suffering of Rome (as many as 60 people were given refuge at Piazza Farnese), especially the Jews. From Sweden, a country spared by the conflict, she had essential commodities rushed to the House of Saint Bridget. Her charity was considerate, supernatural, enthusiastic, sometimes heroic. She showed no partiality—at the end of 1945, she equally helped Italian Communist refugees, Germans and Poles.

Good zeal for the cause of unity

In the Constitutions of the Order of the Holy Savior, Mother Elizabeth called her religious to devote themselves in a permanent and fundamental manner to the cause of Christian unity. She composed and had the sisters recite an invocation to Saint Bridget: «With confident hearts, we turn to you, Saint Bridget, to ask, in this time of darkness and lack of faith, your intercession for those who are separated from the Church of Christ. By the clear knowledge you had of the cruel sufferings of our Crucified Lord, sufferings that were the price of our redemption, we beg you to obtain the grace of faith for those who are outside the One Flock, so that the scattered sheep might thus return to the one true Father.»

Mother Elizabeth's apostolic zeal knew no bounds. She contributed to the conversion of the Baptist Minister Piero Chiminelli, author of a biography of Saint Bridget; she likewise had close ties to the former Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel (Eugenio) Zolli, who converted to Catholicism in 1946. Yet her most important apostolate remained hidden: her life was permeated with prayers and sufferings offered for the unity of Christians.

Her last months were marked by physical suffering due to a weakening of the heart. Thanks to deep faith in the value of the redeeming Passion, she wrote, «Suffering is one of the greatest blessings that God can give to a soul.» She never complained, but spoke joyfully of her impending death: «I am at the station, waiting for the train.» She recited the Rosary continuously, confident in Mary, of whom she had written, «The Blessed Virgin is closer to me than my own body; I feel that it would be easier to break my arm, my leg or my head than to distance me from the Blessed Virgin; it's as if my soul were chained to her.» Spontaneously from her lips came acts of acceptance of the will of God and of offering of herself.

The day before her death, Mother Elizabeth gave her blessing to the sisters and, holding her raised hands in a solemn gesture, looking to the heavens, she murmured, «Go to Heaven with hands full of love and virtues.» She then received the sacraments; her last moments were calm and peaceful. She died on Easter Wednesday, April 24, 1957.

After declaring Saint Bridget, as well as Saint Catherine of Sienna and Saint Edith Stein Patronesses of Europe on October 1, 1999, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Mother Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad Blessed on April 9, 2000. Let us make our own this beautiful prayer composed by the new Blessed: «O my God, I thank You for everything You have given me, I thank You for everything You refuse me, and for everything You take away from me.»

With this thought, we pray for all your intentions, including your beloved deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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