By CAROLE BRESLIN
In 15th-century Europe, women were not seen and rarely heard. Education was reserved for men or for the cloistered women in the convents, but certainly not for young women of the laity. Young women who had no family were placed in a most precarious situation.
Then through a providential series of incidents, the Lord prepared a young maiden to begin the work of educating and caring for young women. Long before the “women’s liberation movement,” which in reality is Marxism cloaked in a different name, Angela Merici empowered women to help other young women forge their way in safe environments.
On March 21, 1474, Angela Merici entered the world, the second daughter of a faithful Catholic family. She was born at Desenzano del Garda on the southwest shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy. One of the most beautiful areas of Italy, it is located near the foothills of the Alps in the far northeast section of the country.
Angela and her sister lived a quiet normal life until they lost their parents 15 years after the birth of Angela. Mercifully, the girls were taken in by an uncle who lived about 30 miles southwest of Desenzano in a city also on the shores of Lake Garda. While living with their uncle, they continued in their Catholic formation.
Soon, however, tragedy struck again. This time Giana Maria, Angela’s older sister, died when Angela was only 20 years old. Since Giana had died so suddenly that she did not receive Extreme Unction, as it was called at the time, Angela grieved deeply for her. Angela prayed tirelessly for the repose of her sister’s soul.
Her dedication to prayer led her to become a Franciscan by joining the Third Order of St. Francis. She increased her prayer life and sacrifices for Giana, seeking some sign that she was in Heaven. God answered her prayers when she received a vision during which she learned that her sister was at peace in Heaven with the saints.
Angela’s piety was complemented by her humility and modesty. She possessed a great beauty of body as well as of soul. Her crowning glory was her luxurious head of hair. Recognizing that the admiration she received stemmed from worldly motivations, she sought to do away with that which could be construed as a temptation. This temptation, she realized, could be a near occasion of sin for her in terms of personal vanity. Furthermore, it could be a trial for others as well, if they admired that which was created more than they admired the Creator.
Therefore, in a gesture of humble zeal, she chopped off her hair and rubbed soot into it to change the color. Evidently, we may surmise from this, that Angela possessed the fair hair and complexion typical of the northern Italians.
In 1494, Angela returned to her home town of Desenzano. Her travels helped to see the challenges of destitute young women. During this era, women did not go out of the house. Their lifestyle called for them to tend to the needs of the home. Even nuns, who were the most educated of women, lived in cloisters.
Oddly enough as much as the Church promoted education, no order of nuns who focused on teaching existed.
There was no organization in the Church which could see to these poor women who were receiving no education but, even worse, were receiving no religious formation. As Angela knew from her personal experience, there can be no peace where there is no knowledge of Christ. Her heart ached for these girls who lacked the knowledge of God.
To address the dilemma, she organized a group of women, fellow Franciscan tertiaries — after she received another vision. This one revealed a company of virgins working for the Church to lift the girls out of their misery. Similar to the methods of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, these women would go out into the streets, gather the girls, and begin their formation.
They did this with no power, no sponsors, no funds, and no buildings. They had nothing to offer but themselves and their love for the marginalized women. They opened their arms and their homes to improve the lot of any girl willing to follow.
Angela and her associates met regularly for prayer and meditation. She urged them to “reflect that in reality you have a greater need to serve [the poor] than they have of your service.” Apostolic endeavors founded on prayer are built on the rock of Christ, not on sand.
So successful was their work that Brescia and other cities of Italy sought their service in establishing similar programs. Soon word spread far and wide about the work — even to the Pope himself.
In 1524 she left northern Italy to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Places in Jerusalem. While she made a stop in Crete, she lost her sight — she became completely blind. However, this did not deter her. She continued her journey to visit the places where Christ lived and died.
Angela completed her quest and began her trip home, again stopping in Crete. While praying in front of the very same crucifix where she had lost her eyesight, she regained her eyesight.
In 1525, she went to Rome to gain the indulgences for the Jubilee Year. Pope Clement VII, learning of her presence in Rome and fully aware of her good works, asked her to stay in Rome to begin a home for young girls. She respectfully declined, saying she did not wish to have the fame and praise that would go with his attentions and patronage.
St. Angela returned to Brescia where ten years later, on November 25, 1535, she began the Company of St. Ursula with 12 other virgins in the Church of St. Afra. Like other third orders, the women would remain in the world but would lead lives of celibacy and prayer while seeking to be of service to their neighbors. On March 18, 1537 she accepted the office of superior of the order.
Nearly three years later, she died on January 27, 1540.
At the time of her death, there were 24 sites that were serving the young and unmarried women. The order received approval by Pope Paul III in 1546. Angela was beatified in 1768 and canonized in 1807. Her feast is celebrated on January 27.
Dear St. Angela, virgin and mother of religious, help us to help the many abandoned and suffering women in our society. Help us to see the ways that we can reach out and serve those who are lonely and destitute. May we follow your example of loving our neighbor and serving them. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)