Saint Angela Merici (+1540) lived and died in Italy, growing up to adulthood during the tumultuous events of the early Reformation (she went to eternity five years after the erstwhile chancellor and martyr Thomas More, and six years before Martin Luther faced his God).
Yet Angela’s own life was not involved in these external events. She responded to grace from a young age, dedicated to a life of prayer, contemplation and detachment. She ended up founding an Order dedicated to Saint Ursula, an early virgin martyr whose life is surrounded by legend, which would change the world. Left an orphan in her teen years, Angela and her sister were raised by relatives. Renowned for her beauty, Angela could have had her choice of suitors, but instead chose the ‘better part’, consecrating herself to God. It was revealed to her in a vision that she was to lay the groundwork for an order of virgins whose work would be to educate neglected and abandoned Italian girls, so that they might take their proper role in society, especially as mothers who would in turn educate their children.
Angela began a community of consecrated teachers, who would live a religious life ‘within their own homes’, so they could carry out their apostolic work without being enclosed in a convent. The ‘Ursulines’ were the first female Order to do so, quite ahead of her time really. In forming future mothers in her schools, Angela was likely well aware of the old proverb that ‘the hand that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rules the world…’
Saint Angela displayed the same spirit of gentleness and charity of a future great educator, Saint John Bosco (whom we celebrate in a few days), three centuries before his own work with young boys in Italy. As Mother Angela wrote to her spiritual sisters:
You also ought to exercise pleasantness towards all, taking great care especially that what you have commanded may never be done by reason of force. For God has given free will to everyone, and therefore he forces no one but only indicates, calls, persuades. Sometimes, however, something will have to be done with a stronger command, yet in a suitable manner and according to the state and necessities of individuals; but then also we should be impelled only by charity and zeal for souls.
The Ursulines, as the Order is colloquially known, was widespread soon after Sister Angela’s death, and Angela’s selfless followers through the centuries have taught countless numbers of young women. Alas, like many religious Orders, all too many went somewhat off the rails in the latter decades of the twentieth century, but the principle ecclesia semper reformanda, (‘the Church, always in need of reform’) also applies to the various communities in the Church, and we may always hope. God has His ways of which we know little.
What we do know is that Saint Angela, whose incorrupt body lies in the northern Italian town of Brescia, is in heaven interceding for her Sisters, her students, and for all of us. We could use a few more good women like her.
Saint Angela Merici, ora pro nobis!