Books recommended and reviewed by Fr. Bellusci
for Christian growth and awareness.
for Christian growth and awareness.
This book review, written on July 23/2019, memorial of Saint Bridget of Sweden.
I obtained a copy of The Most Extraordinary Woman in Rome while leaving the Bridgettine Guest House in Turku, Finland. In fact, my Finnish friend, Father Tuomas Nyyssölä, recommended and obtained the book for me; the kind Bridgettine Sister in her distinct grey habit removed the book from the bookcase and gave it to me.
Marguerite Tjader writes a beautiful biography drawing from the memoirs Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad, canonised by Pope Francis in 2016.
Tjader presents the intense spiritual journey of the Swedish-born Hasselblad (1870). The account of Hasselblad’s life operates at several levels: Hasselblad’s conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism; becoming a Sister of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour (permission granted by Pope Pius X, 1906); struggles to establish a Branch of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour (OSSS); acquiring the Carmelite convent where St. Bridget had lived (1350-1373) for the Bridgettine Sisters; assuring the use of the Bridgettine Roman guest house for its original purpose, Swedish and Scandinavian Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome; finally, the transition to an ecumenical enterprise where work the Catholic convent also contains a chapel serving Lutheran Scandinavians
Hesselblad’s affiliation with the Order founded by St. Bridget with the Swedish monastery at Vadstena was problematic from the start. St. Bridget’s Order whose spirituality reflected the Roman Catholic monastic tradition given its own particular charism by St. Bridget herself. Roman Catholic spirituality builds on God’s grace so that men and women can live celibate lives dedicated to God, life of study, prayer, silence and penance. Nuns and monks, and the Bridgettine had double communities, these cloistered individuals, kept relics, and prayed for the souls of their benefactors because in Catholicism one can pray with relics and can pray for the deceased. Catholics celebrating Saints’ feasts, the highly valued Marian devotions, the sacrifices of individuals for their Church, monasteries and convents, lands donated, all reflected a spirituality of faith and works and that is Roman Catholic and the medieval world of St. Bridget of Sweden. The insignia of her Order, Amor Meus Crucifixus Est, “My Love is the Crucified,” reflects precisely the image of five wounds of the Bridgettine habit. This visual expression of Christ’s passion with its rich medieval origins, reflects a Catholic spirituality that is lived by God’s grace. Hesselblad understood this and her mission was to pray for the conversion of Lutherans to the Roman Catholic Church.
The sixteenth century Lutheran Reformers rejected Roman Catholicism and certainly the monastic life as a powerful expression of Catholic spirituality. The Roman Catholic monasteries in Lutheran lands were confiscated, reduced to bare rocks, and their Churches replaced with Lutheran ecclesial communities.
So, what did Hasselblad have in mind? As a convert to Catholicism and identifying with her Swedish origins, she found her place in religious life, and the Order founded by St. Bridget. She strongly felt the Order should be present in Rome -- in the house where St. Bridget had lived. Hasselblad resolved to have an apostolic branch of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour with a contemplative life established in Rome. Docile to the Holy Spirit and the experiences she had in the different Bridgettine monasteries across Europe, Hasselblad patiently discerned where God was leading her and her Sisters. She remained committed to acquiring the original house of St. Bridget, the house used by Scandinavian Roman Catholic pilgrims.
Years of struggle and obstacles to surmount, Hesselblad acquired the Bridgetine House at Piazza Farnese in 1931; the Bridgettine branch she envisioned as part of the Bridgettine Order finally received papal approval in 1940.
Hesselblad clearly had evangelising efforts as an objective in her early years as a Bridgettine Sister reaching out to her fellow Swedes and Scandinavians ultimately with the aim bringing Lutherans back to their Roman Catholic faith. Her interaction with the secular Societas St. Birgittae in Sweden, a cultural society preserving a national figure, distances us from Catholic spirituality leaving us with nothing more than with a Swedish heroine and costumes of medieval Bridgettines. One of the drawbacks of the Reformation is the ongoing attempts to nationalise and politicise religion whether it’s King Henry the VIII as Head of the Church in England or King Gustav Vasa I of Sweden in control of the Lutheran Church. The Saints who are meant to be universal “catholic” figures, become national property for a museum, archives, or department of antiquities.
The Roman Catholic faith transcends culture. The beauty of Catholicism is we can honour any saint as our own beloved patron or patroness breaking through cultural, regional and national barriers. The beautiful work of Hesselblad with evangelising objectives as she had known from her own personal experience as a former Lutheran, the final chapters in Tjader’s book seems to obscure Hesselblad’s vision: Is Hasselblad’s goal an apostolic branch of Bridgettines? Establishing a pilgrim house in Rome for Scandinavians? Or obtaining a Bridgettine convent to include a Lutheran chapel?
The work published in 1972 with a second edition in 1987 is available at the Bridgettine Guest Houses with its inhouse publication, Sisters of Saint Bridget, at the Generate House in Rome.
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
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