Thursday, February 4, 2010

An Obedient Rebel

St. Maria De Mattias (1805-1866) was born at Vallecorsa (Frosinone) in Italy, into a relatively well-to-do family. Her father, Giovanni, was the city's mayor. She had an older sister, Vincenza, and two younger brothers, Michele and Antonio: the only survivors out of seven children born to Ottavia De Mattias, Giovanni's second wife. It was a time of constant political turmoil. Vallecorsa endured constant feuding between several rival factions. Politics and religion were intertwined, since the Pope was a ruler and Napoleon was ambitious to become emperor of everything. Civil unrest, unemployment, economic uncertainty, banditry, intimidation of peasants and villagers, and gangs of young people were as alive then as they are today in many parts of the world. Because the De Mattias family possessed property and wealth, they were potential targets, particularly for the kidnapping of children. As a result, Maria and her brothers were forced to play inside most of the time.

Maria was lively and restless by nature. Her mother found it difficult to cope with her impulsiveness and activity. She was definitely a "Daddy's girl", drawn to Giovanni's patience and gentleness. As a child, she learned from him about the Scriptures and about Jesus, the Paschal Lamb, who had shed his Blood for the sins of humankind. Yet,even with such a strong male father figure, Maria was very afraid of men. As she grew, proud of her long blond hair, she spent hours in front of the mirror, posing and arranging her clothes. At other times, her moods would result in her sitting alone in her room, curtains drawn, experiencing a common teenage affliction: boredom.

During her adolescence, Maria's spiritual inclinations increased, despite some of the strictures, particularly with young girls, often imposed by well-meaning confessors in those days. At age 16 Maria became especially devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She also discovered in the Crucified Christ the supreme proof of the infinite love of God for every person. She began to feel the need to devote her whole self more completely to God through the adoration of the mystery of the Cross and through service to others.

In 1822 St. Gaspar del Bufalo, a Roman priest and founder of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood, brought a mission team to Vallecorsa. Gaspar's preaching, for which he was noted throughout Italy, touched her very deeply. Shortly after the mission, the political situation in Vallecorsa worsened and her father was even imprisoned. Maria found herself isolated, and was reluctant to speak about her situation, particularly her spiritual experiences, with the missionaries. St. Gaspar returned to visit Vallecorsa twice in 1823. In 1824 he sent Fr. John Merlini to preach the Lenten mission and to oversee the founding of a Precious Blood Mission House in Vallecorsa. Merlini and his team made special effort to set up associations for various groups in the town. Maria was drawn to Fr. Merlini, though she she was fearful of approaching him because of her severe personal scruples and doubts. She eventually worked up the courage to go speak with him and Fr. Merlini put her completely at ease: so much so, that those initial conversations developed into a beautiful friendship lasting the rest of Maria's life. Very early on, John Merlini discerned in Maria qualities which made her ideal for becoming the leader of an order of religious women which St. Gaspar and Fr. Francesco Albertini already had in mind. After much prayer and many discussions between Maria, St. Gaspar, and John Merlini through the next ten years, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ became a reality in Acuto (Frosinone) in March, 1834. The spirit of the Congregation is expressed well in the words of St. Maria De Mattias: “Charity toward God and toward our dear neighbor”.

Despite Maria De Mattias' difficult life, her courage, perseverance, and loving spirit enabled her to touch untold lives throughout central Italy. She struggled with physical illness: asthma, fevers, physical exhaustion. Yet she made arduous journeys to mountain towns, instructed people, particularly young girls and married women, by the hundreds, and preached from balconies and standing on tables in town squares. Merlini, in his letters, often urged Maria to take better care of herself. She died on August 20, 1866 at the age of 61.

In her lifetime Maria De Mattias remarkably implemented the universal call to holiness and mission envisioned much earlier by St. Gaspar and his missionaries of the Precious Blood. She had the knack of adapting the church calendar and devotions for ordinary people in practical ways, and for fostering the spiritual life of busy people. She foresaw the tremendous potential of women in the ministry of evangelization in the Church and the world.

Maria, overcoming her own natural flaws and insecurities, displayed how prayer and mission can be integrated. Though she knew herself to be a rather frail, sometimes fearful, person, she became attuned to Christ's compassion for all humankind, expressed in the shedding of his Blood out of love. This gave her a tremendous appreciation of love's power and an unshakeable determination to share that among the others with whom she worked.

As might be expected, her strength as a holy woman, even something of a religious rebel, attracted hostile reaction and abuse from Church officials. The archpriest of Acuto referred to her as a "would-be priest". A bishop reminded her of the passage in 1 Timothy, excluding women from preaching. Yet those who knew her best respected, supported, and encouraged her. Merlini constantly advised Maria to listen to her heart and to her own good judgment.

Fr. Michele Colagiovanni, C.PP.S., in his book Obedient Rebel: The Story of Maria de Mattias makes a poignant observation: "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 up to a deeper appreciation of our communion in the blood of Christ."

Holy God, in your loving plan you adorned Saint Maria De Mattias
with exceptional gifts of grace so that in the Church she might be a
witness to the blood of Christ; grant that, through her intercession,
we may faithfully adore the Lamb without blemish who died and rose
for us, celebrate with thanksgiving the new and eternal covenant in
his blood, and with zeal proclaim to all peoples the power of the love
of Christ crucified. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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