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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.