Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
Although not common, some older images and statues of St. Francis of Assisi show him balancing three orbs on his shoulders. They appear to be globes, heavenly realms, or the earth, the moon, and the sun. But the three orbs represent the three orders in the Franciscan family – the first order for men, the second order for women, and the third order for the laity who desired to live by the Franciscan rule. Today’s saint, Angela Merici, was a third order Franciscan, a lay woman who followed a strict rule of Franciscan life outside of a convent.
Angela’s holiness, mystical experiences, and leadership skills ultimately led her beyond her Franciscan commitment to found her own community of “virgins in the world” dedicated to the education of vulnerable girls, or, in common parlance, at risk youths. She placed the community under the patronage of St. Ursula. The community, after Angela’s death, was formally recognized as the Ursulines, and gained such renown for their schools that they came to be known as the female Jesuits.
St. Angela saw the risk that uneducated girls in her own region of northern Italy would end up being abused sexually or financially and sought to counter this possibility through education. She gathered a like minded group of virgins around her into a “company,” a military word also used by St. Ignatius in founding his “Company of Jesus” around the same time. St. Angela organized her city into districts which reported to a “colonel” who oversaw the education and general welfare of the poor girls under their care. St. Angela’s cooperators did not understand their dedicated virginity as a failure to find a husband or a rejection of religious life in a convent. They emulated the early Christian orders of virgins as spouses of Christ who served the children of their Beloved in the world.
Living in the first part of the 16th century, St. Angela was far ahead of her time. Teaching orders of nuns became normative in the Church throughout the centuries, staffing Catholic schools throughout the world. But nuns did not always do this. It had to start with someone, and that someone was today’s saint. Bonds of faith, love of God, and a common purpose knitted her followers together into a religious family that served the spiritual and physical welfare of those who no one else cared about. Women make homes. Men just live in them. St. Angela sought to change society one woman at a time by infusing every home with Christian virtue emanating from the heart of the woman who ran it. She trained future wives, mothers, and educators in their youth, when they were still able to be formed.
The Papal Bull of Pope Paul III in 1544 which recognized her community stated of St. Angela Merici: “She had such a thirst and hunger for the salvation and good of her neighbor that she was disposed and most ready to give not one, but a thousand lives, if she had had so many, for the salvation even of the least… with maternal love, she embraced all creatures…Her words…were spoken with such unheard of effectiveness that everyone felt compelled to say: ‘Here is God.’”
St. Angela Merici, infuse in our hearts that same love which motivated you to leave behind worldly joys to seek out the vulnerable and the forgotten. Help us to educate the ignorant, to school the uneducated, and to share with the less fortunate, not only for their spiritual and material benefit but for our everlasting salvation as well.”
More from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Foundress of the Ursulines, born 21 March, 1474, at Desenzano, a small town on the southwestern shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy; died 27 January, 1540, at Brescia.
She was left an orphan at the age of ten and together with her elder sister came to the home of her uncle at the neighbouring town of Salo where they led an angelic life. When her sister met with a sudden death, without being able to receive the last sacraments, young Angela was much distressed. She became a tertiary of St. Francis and greatly increased her prayers and mortifications for the repose of her sister’s soul. In her anguish and pious simplicity she prayed God to reveal to her the condition of her deceased sister. It is said that by a vision she was satisfied her sister was in the company of the saints in heaven.
When she was twenty years old, her uncle died, and she returned to her paternal home at Desenzano. Convinced that the great need of her times was a better instruction of young girls in the rudiments of the Christian religion, she converted her home into a school where at stated intervals she daily gathered all the little girls of Desenzano and taught them the elements of Christianity. It is related that one day, while in an ecstasy, she had a vision in which it was revealed to her that she was to found an association of virgins who were to devote their lives to the religious training of young girls. The school she had established at Desenzano soon bore abundant fruit, and she was invited to the neighbouring city, Brescia, to establish a similar school at that place. Angela gladly accepted the invitation.
In 1524, while making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she became suddenly blind when she was on the island of Crete, but continued her journey to the Holy Places and was cured on her return while praying before a crucifix at the same place where she was struck with blindness a few weeks before. When, in the jubilee year 1525, she had come to Rome to gain the indulgences, Pope Clement VII, who had heard of her great holiness and her extraordinary success as a religious teacher of young girls, invited her to remain in Rome; but Angela, who shunned publicity, returned to Brescia. Finally, on the 25th of November, 1535, Angela chose twelve virgins and laid the foundation of the order of the Ursulines in a small house near the Church of St. Afra in Brescia. Having been five years superior of the newly-founded order, she died.
Her body lies buried in the Church of St. Afra at Brescia. She was beatified in 1768, by Clement XIII, and canonized in 1807, by Pius VII. Her feast is celebrated 31 May.