In the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, about the life of St. Thomas More, More arrives at his home after a late-night meeting with Cardinal Wolsey about King Henry VIII’s divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Upon his arrival, an eager young man, Richard Rich, asks Thomas More if he has a post in court for him. More says that he has found a post for him as a teacher. Upon hearing this news, Rich is crestfallen. More consoles him by saying that he might be a “good,” even a “great,” teacher. Rich responds, “If I was, who would know it?” More quickly responds: “You. Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.”
As a teacher, those affirmations resonate. Yet there are others who labor in the Lord’s vineyard whose only audience is God: the contemplatives. Most of the time, we do not see the ramifications of our actions and choices—let alone the people who make hidden sacrifices. These days, it is uncommon to have a vocation to a contemplative order. But the Church has always understood that the sacrifices and prayers of contemplatives are on the front lines in the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The monks of Silverstream Priory in Ireland recently brought one such contemplative nun to my attention, a woman whose only audience was God and a few close family and friends. Sister Maria Bernadette of the Cross was a Benedictine Nun of Perpetual Adoration in Poland who lived from 1927 to 1963. Her short but impactful life was recently brought to light in the book For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself.
Sister Bernadette was born as Róża Maria Wolska on July 3, 1927, in Poland, and her family nicknamed her Rozmarynka (little Rosemary). Sister Bernadette’s mother, when pregnant with her, was tempted to abort her daughter upon receiving medical advice from her gynecologist that her health was too poor to carry the baby to term. A family friend persuaded her to keep the baby at the risk of her life. Both mother and child survived, and her mother gave birth to three more children.
As she grew up, Rozmarynka loved life, and she had a “strong will and inexhaustible energy.” She loved reading novels and poetry, developed her talents of singing and art, knitted and sewed, and played volleyball. After World War II, when she was in her late teens and early twenties, she took trips with friends to ski, hike, bike, motorbike, canoe, horseback ride, and sail.
Rozmarynka was a remarkably ordinary woman who lived life well while struggling to make ends meet and help support her family. And yet God called her to the contemplative life. While living in Kraków, she became a lay oblate at the Abbey of Tyniec, and she eventually discerned a call to the religious life. In 1951, she joined the Monastery of the Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
In the monastery, Rozmarynka’s religious name became Sister Bernadette of the Cross. While living her hidden life in the monastery, she was characterized by her “common sense, childlike simplicity, maturity, and godly charm, that is, sincerity.” Sister Bernadette was not a great visionary or mystic who could be found levitating in the chapel, and she was not a perfect angel. She simply and obediently submitted herself to her superiors, and she accepted God’s will as it presented itself in her life as she learned to die to her own “choleric” will. She followed the ordinary path to holiness. By doing so, she developed the virtue of humility, which her superiors and contemporaries attest was one of her defining characteristics. With the virtue of humility, she prioritized God first and understood how creation is always secondary to the Creator: “Remembering that which IS—that is why God graciously tears down our plans, built on nothingness, so that we may anchor ourselves in Him” (70).
And yet she offered more to God than the death of her will; she offered her life. In her breviary, Sister Bernadette kept a bookmark with a quotation from her order’s foundress, Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament: “To be a victim is to accept every tribulation.” With this field of vision, Sister Bernadette desired to offer herself as a “holocaust” to God. Specifically, she wanted to offer her life in reparation for the infidelities of the priesthood. The stories she heard of priests abandoning their vocation in Communist Poland hurt her.
In 1963, her body was in pain, and she had lesions on her reproductive organs. She was sent to a Communist hospital for a routine surgery. Before her surgery, she suffered physically and mentally, and she petitioned God: “Cut me in strips, but let them return to You and give You glory.” After her surgery, complications arose. She was in terrible pain caused by a “twisted bowel and intestinal adhesions.” Due to neglect on the part of the Communist doctors, little could be done to fix the botched surgery.
Yet Sister Bernadette tied her sufferings to Christ’s, and she found happiness in this suffering. On her deathbed, she confided to her superior, Mother Celestyna: “But that is not at all why I want to die; suffering is also a great happiness. I want to suffer as much as possible for a few more moments, there is no more suffering there…I feel a great power inside me. It is not from me, but from Him.” On April 30, 1963, at thirty-five years old, Sister Bernadette, like Christ, died at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Until recently, Sister Bernadette’s life and death have not been well-known. Like many contemplatives, her sacrifice was hidden. She followed the ordinary Benedictine path to holiness by denying herself and picking up her cross daily; she died to her will. She also offered her life and paradoxically found life in death.
The life of Sister Bernadette of the Cross, as written in For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself, is a story worth reading and sharing with anyone who has suffered in today’s crushing culture. Her life is a reminder of the ordinary path to holiness, which the book’s afterward notes is nothing less than “perseverance in prayer, a fundamental openness to and trust in God’s providence, and a this-minute readiness to give ourselves completely to the obligations of our state in life. The fruits which accompany such living are joy, hope, trust, and peace.”
Alongside this willingness to submit joyfully to Divine Providence, we see in Sister Bernadette’s life someone willing to offer up everything for God. Do we know the full extent of Sister Bernadette’s sacrifices? No. But we also do not know the full extent of our own suffering and sacrifices. The pain over the death of a loved one, anxiety over inflation and uncertainty of the economy, or the rejection felt by losing a job due to vaccine mandates can all be used for the greater glory of God (ad maiorem Dei gloriam) when tied to the Cross. While these sacrifices may seem fruitless, God sees them. After all, not a bad public, that.
[Image: Róża Maria Wolska (Sister Maria Bernadette of the Cross)]