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: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”