Feast Day: January 27th
Sometimes the Lord’s call comes amidst a constellation of positive elements – talents, affinities, capacities, charisms – that come together in one particular person. Think of the boldness combined with theological acumen of St. Paul, or the fervor and energy and love for the Gospel of St. Ignatius Loyola, or the patient and merciful character of Mother Teresa. This is not simply “following your heart”, for we all know how far our instincts and character can carry us far from the Lord and living out of His love, yet at the same time, God’s call often does fit with some of our own inclinations and proclivities.
Other times, our vocation, our call, grows from a place of pain and loss. Here still, God does not call us to something that is disingenuous from who we are, but He can often surprise and transform us by His graces of conversion, conviction, or consolation. Notice that this fits as well with the examples above: St. Paul – who’s life was turned upside down on the way to Damascus; St. Ignatius Loyola, who was moved to turn aside from the glorious life of the battlefield; and St. Mother Teresa, who lost much in leaving her family and religious community to serve the poorest of the poor.
This second means seems to be the one that we see especially operative in the life of St. Angela Merici. Born of Italian farmers in 1474, she lost both her parents by the age of ten, after which she and her older sister Giana we raised by an uncle, but sadly, she lost that older sister a few years later, and by the time Angela was 20, she also lost her uncle. Of course, we only have a sketch of her story – we don’t know the waves of grief and struggles with responsibility that may have swept over this young woman – and yet by this time in her life she had already grown to a deep level of intimacy with the Lord. From Him she received the consolation that her sister had entered heaven (she died without receiving the Last Rites, and so had no chance to prepare to meet her Judge) as well as the first urgings to devote her life to the Lord, choosing to become a third-order Franciscan.
She was a beautiful young lady and worked hard to dislodge from her heart any of the many temptations towards vanity that were offered to her. She felt no call towards the contemplative life and ended moving back to her hometown where her brothers still worked the land. How did she feel walking through her childhood home again? Did the weight of those losses crash down on her anew? What was happening in her heart as she contemplated her future? We fruitfully ask these questions because they are the same questions that we confront in our own lives sometimes.
Perhaps she could not see the Lord at work right then, but we can because it was there, back home, that she came to know many young girls poor, stuck without education, not knowing Jesus, and she began to invite them into that home, to care, and teach, and love them. And it was there, over the years to come, that other women joined her in that mission of helping to raise and restore those hurting girls. They dedicated themselves to prayer and penance and charity in their homes, and entrusted themselves to the patroness of St. Ursula. Eventually Angela would more formally establish the group with a rule, working towards becoming a religious order, the Ursuline Nuns, in the decades to come. Her mission stemmed from her own early suffering: “disorder in society is the result of disorder in the family”, she would say. The Ursulines would be the first nuns to set foot in our country in 1719, and came to our diocese in 1857 at the request of Bp. Juncker, where they would establish multiple different schools and educate many thousands of young-people over a century and a half.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin visited the Holy Land during Christmas break 2015-2016. It was moving to see all the actual places where so much of the Bible happened. St. Angela Merici also was able to go on pilgrimage to the land of Jesus (in 1524). She did not get to see any of it though because she was struck with a fluke episode of blindness during the entire trip (being spontaneously healed on her journey back). Like so much of her life, she astonishingly took it as another cross to carry with Jesus, and came back with greater faith and love than when she left.