Unable to invite Rome's priests to mark Holy Thursday in St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis…
We have a friend in Little Nellie of Holy God
If there is one thing I’ve learned during these months of separation from the Eucharist, it’s this: I need to ask that my love for God becomes less of a habit and more of a fervent devotion.
I know countless people who have experienced a deep ache during this time, desiring to receive the Eucharist more than anything else. And while I do truly want to be able to go to Mass and receive Our Lord, my pain has been more deeply felt in realizing how complacent I am.
So, after my diocese announced that public Masses would be available later in the month, I began praying for a renewed love and desire for the Eucharist. I began calling on some of my saintly intercessors — namely St. Thérèse, who has always been my patron, and Blessed Imelda, whose young love for the Eucharist quickly made her a favorite of mine. (For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Blessed Imelda, look her up. Long story short, she died of love after receiving her first Communion at age 11.)
During this time, I came across an even younger saintly example whose story might be my new favorite.
My newest friend is Little Nellie of Holy God, a 4-year-old who inspired St. Pope Pius X to lower the age requirement for receiving first Communion. This Irish Catholic born in 1903 had a strong devotion at a very young age and was always talking about Holy God — a title no one taught her to use. After her mother died when she was only 3 years old, she was sent to live with the Good Shepherd Sisters. The sisters were amazed at Nellie’s love for God and the Eucharist. Not only did she request that the sisters kiss her after they received Communion in order to get as close to receiving Christ as she was permitted, but she also shared that she had visions of “Holy God” and the Blessed Mother.
Soon after she arrived at the convent, the sisters discovered that Nellie had a crooked spine, which caused her much pain. Not long after, she developed tuberculosis. Yet her one desire during this time was to receive Communion. So as her tuberculosis progressed and she approached death, the local bishops granted permission for Nellie to be confirmed and given first Communion — at age 4. A couple months later, she died. And if her life wasn’t enough proof, Nellie’s body was found to be incorrupt a year after her death, a testimony to her holiness.
It’s stories like Nellie’s that prove to me, time and again, not only the truth of the Real Presence, but that I am far behind in faith. And yet maybe this is exactly where God wants me to be. Maybe this quarantine was another opportunity for the Lord to show me how much my love and faith is lacking so that he can transform it. Instead of allowing me to continue on in my habitual faith, God has given me the invitation to choose him once again — to ask him to replace my heart of stone with a heart of flesh (cf. Ez 36:26). For the Lord never forces himself upon us but is constantly inviting all of us to ask for a deeper ability to love.
As I think about the story of Little Nellie, I am reminded of the many people whose first reception of the Eucharist was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic — first communicants and those who were to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil. They have waited to receive Our Lord even longer than most of us, and I pray this prolonged waiting has allowed them to hear the Lord’s invitation to realize in a deeper way whom they will one day receive.
I pray, too, that this waiting has transformed our hearts in the same way, or at least paved the way for transformation. If, not, there is still time to ask for a child’s heart — one of simple faith that loves unreservedly.
Let us ask for the intercession of Little Nellie of Holy God and our other patrons that our hearts may expand with love like never before.
Ava Lalor is assistant editor for Our Sunday Visitor and editor for Radiant magazine.