Q&A with Fr John Flader: Blessed Imelda died of love

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Holy Eucharist
Imelda had a special devotion to the Eucharistic presence of Our Lord in the Mass.

“A friend, whose daughter is going to make her first Communion told me that she is praying to Blessed Imelda Lambertini, the patron saint of first communicants. I hadn’t heard of her. Who is she?”

Imelda Lambertini was born in 1322 in Bologna, Italy, the only child of Count Egano Lambertini and Castora Galuzzi.

Her parents were devout Catholics, known for their charity and generosity towards the poor of Bologna. Her mother taught Imelda to cook and sew for the poor and she cultivated in her child an eagerness to perform the Corporal works of Mercy.

Even in childhood Imelda showed unusual piety, taking delight in prayer and often going off to a quiet corner of the house, which she decorated with flowers and pictures to make it into a little oratory.

She had a special love for the Eucharist and would often attend Mass and Compline (Night Prayer of the Divine Office) at a nearby Dominican church.

On her fifth birthday Imelda asked to receive Holy Communion, but the custom at the time was for children not to make their first Holy Communion until at least the age of 12.

When she was only nine her parents, both of whom were getting on in years, were surprised when Imelda asked permission to go to live with the Dominican nuns at the nearby monastery of Val di Pietra.

As difficult as the decision was, her parents sensed the depth of their child’s desire and entrusted her spiritual formation to the Dominicans.

Her pleasant disposition soon endeared her to all the nuns and her zeal to enter into the religious life of the convent edified them. It seems the nuns allowed her to wear the Dominican habit, to pray with them, including chanting the Divine Office, and to follow their way of life to the extent that it was possible for such a young girl.

Girl at her first communion.
The priest then gave Imelda her first Holy Communion after witnessing a bright light above her head and a Sacred Host suspended in the light.

Imelda had a special devotion to the Eucharistic presence of Our Lord in the Mass and the tabernacle and she ardently desired to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion.

She repeatedly asked to be able to do so but the nuns had to tell her gently that she would need to wait until she was older and better prepared. Because of her burning desire to receive Our Lord she would ask: “Tell me, can anyone receive Jesus into his heart and not die?”

The saints, whose stories she had learned from her parents and from the nuns, became her “secret companions”, and they probably had a role in nurturing her longing to receive Jesus in Holy Communion. And so Imelda continued, with the earnestness of a child, to get to know Jesus more deeply and to desire to receive him all the more.

When she was 11, shortly before the feast of the Ascension, Imelda asked once again, with great insistence, to make her first Communion. The nuns relayed this request to the chaplain, but he agreed with the nuns that she was still too young.

Then on the Vigil of the Ascension, 12 May 1333, Imelda was present with the rest of the community at Mass, praying quietly while the nuns received Communion and longing to do so herself.

When the nuns had left the chapel, one of them was clearing the altar when she heard a noise and looked up to see Imelda kneeling before the tabernacle with a bright light above her head and a Sacred Host suspended in the light.

The nun quickly called the priest and he hurried forward to see what was happening. Seeing that it was indeed a host which had somehow miraculously appeared, he realised that Jesus himself was making his desire known. After all, he had said “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.” The priest then gave Imelda her first Holy Communion.

The prioress allowed Imelda to remain for some time in thanksgiving, and then sent for her to go to breakfast. They found Imelda still kneeling where they had left her, a smile on her face. When they called her to come, she did not react. Her body was still. In fact, she had died of love and joy. She was now with Jesus whom she loved so much and whom she desired so ardently to receive.

Imelda was beatified by Pope Leo XII in 1826. Her remains are kept in Bologna at the Church of San Sigismondo, beneath a wax effigy of her likeness.

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