Tribunal explored Slovakian nun’s cause for sainthood

Nissa LaPoint

Months of investigation into an alleged miracle in Denver credited to a Slovakian nun ended in a Mass Feb. 28 on the John Paul II Center campus when secrecy was sworn and evidence was sealed.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila celebrated the closing Mass in the Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary, which ended in the ceremonial sealing of a 695-page document chronicling the Denver Archdiocese’s collection of some six testimonies, medical records and evidence of the alleged miracle.

The detailed investigation could lead to the canonization of Blessed Zdenka Schelingová, a Sister of the Mercy of the Holy Cross, who would become Slovakia’s first woman saint.

During the Mass, members of the investigative tribunal took oaths of secrecy and a wax seal was stamped on the documents before its long trip to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.

“This is a very significant process in the life of the Church,” said Stephen Garbitelli, a judge and notary for the Metropolitan Tribunal. “Although this relates to a specific event that happened here in Denver, the implications of it affect the whole Church.”

Eager for her sainthood, three nuns from the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross arrived last week from Slovakia and Switzerland to attend the closing Mass.

“We were very much touched by this fact that Sister Zdenka is working on other continents, not just in Europe,” said Sister Mariga Brizar, general superior of the order in Slovakia, through a translator. “We’ve felt how much Sister Zdenka touches the hearts of the people who work on this process and other people around.”

Father Ludovit Pokojný, the postulator who will deliver the documents to Rome, came to Denver for the investigation.

“In my opinion many events have happened already. For example, the spiritual changes of the people,” said Father Pokojný, through a translator. “I think this cause of beatification has improved the holiness of the people of the Archdiocese of Denver. But I don’t know what God really wants through events here in Denver. … Why has Zdenka made herself present in such a strong way here in Denver?”

A martyr for priests

Blessed Zdenka, born Cecilia Schelingová on Dec. 24, 1916, in Krivá, Slovakia, is celebrated for her heroic courage in aiding persecuted priests and enduring torture during communist rule in the 1950s.

The path to her martyrdom began at a young age when her parents instilled in her and her 10 siblings a deep faith and sense of sacrifice.

She attended school in the mountains of northeastern Slovakia until the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Cross visited her class. She was moved to join the order and entered the Slovak Province at age 15 in 1931.

While still a candidate, Cecilia attended nursing school and specialized in radiology. She made her first vows in 1937 and received the name Zdenka.

Many who worked with Sister Zdenka in Slovakian hospitals knew her as loyal and reliable. Her sisters remember her fondness of patients and manner of living in God’s presence.

She once wrote: “I wanted to do God’s will without paying attention to myself, my comfort or my rest.”

Communists enveloped the country in 1948 and began to persecute the Church. Sister Zdenka learned one of her patients, a priest suspected of being a Vatican spy, would be shipped to Siberia to his death.

The nun decided to slip sleeping pills into a guard’s tea, allowing the priest to escape.

After her daring deed, she prayed: “Dear Lord God, for his life I offer my own. Help him to live and to reach safety.”

She attempted to help other priests and seminarians flee but was caught and arrested.

Sister Zdenka endured interrogation and brutal tortures by police before she was sentenced to 12 years in prison for treason.

She quietly endured continued torture for several years as she was transferred from one prison to another and brutally kicked and mutilated. After becoming terminally ill from the torture and living conditions, authorities released her in April 1955.

She died on July 31, 1955, at 38 years old. Her remains lie in the Church of the Holy Cross in Bratislava.

When Blessed Pope John Paul II declared her martyrdom, he called her a “radiant example of faithfulness in times of harsh and ruthless religious persecution.”

“Sister Zdenka did not hesitate to risk her life so as to assist God’s ministers,” the late pontiff said during her beatification Sept. 14, 2003.

A closed tribunal

Blessed Zdenka’s story reached the archdiocese when then-Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., was approached about a potential miraculous event attributed to her intercession. Father Pokojný, the postulator, felt there was sufficient evidence to petition for a diocesan investigation.

The investigation began in May 2013 by Archbishop Aquila, who first selected two medical doctors to review evidence.

“As a result of their report, Archbishop (Aquila) decided to proceed,” Garbitelli said.

The archbishop selected members to investigate the alleged miracle in a secret tribunal.

Their task was to formally collect evidence on behalf of the pope, said Father Giovanni Capucci, judicial vicar of the tribunal.

On Oct. 16, the investigation opened and a series of interviews—all taped, transcribed and signed—were conducted of those familiar with the alleged miracle. Each page of the findings was notarized and sealed. Father Ludovit Pokojný will hand deliver the documents to the Vatican.

Ultimately, Rome will decide if a miracle took place.

“It might take months. It might take years,” Father Capucci said. “The outcome could be negative in that they see there is no miracle. Nonetheless, this has left a spiritual growth in all those who have been involved in the process, which we cannot deny.”

Blessed Zdenka’s life
1916: Born in Krivá, Slovakia
1931: Joins the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross
1933-35: Attends nursing school
1936-37: Enters novitiate and makes first vows
1937-52: Works in hospitals as a nurse
1952: Arrested and incarcerated by communist regime
1955: Released from prison as terminally ill and dies
2003: Beatification by Pope John Paul II

 

Blessed Zdenka’s thoughts and prayers

“Where there is love there will also be nails, thorns and the cross.”

“Holiness does not depend on all kinds of practices, but on an attitude of heart, which makes us humble, convinced of our own frailty.”

“Each one of us has to lose the knot of suffering of pain. Is there a knot? Yes; for when we are tied to ourselves we are unable to move. Once we are detached from everything, there are no knots any longer!”

“My God, I wish that each of my heartbeats may rise up to you, my origin and my goal, that each throbbing of my pulse may express my sincere sorrow for my sins, that each breath I take may be an act of perfect love for you …”

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.