When she was 56, Angela Merici said “No” to the Pope. She was aware that Clement VII was offering her a great honor and a great opportunity to serve when he asked her to take charge of a religious order of nursing sisters. But Angela knew that nursing was not what God had called her to do with her life.
She had just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. On the way there she had fallen ill and become blind. Nevertheless, she insisted on continuing her pilgrimage and toured the holy sites with the devotion of her heart rather than her eyes. On the way back she had recovered her sight. But this must have been a reminder to her not to shut her eyes to the needs she saw around her, not to shut her heart to God’s call.
All around her hometown she saw poor girls with no education and no hope. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century that Angela lived in, education for women was for the rich or for nuns. Angela herself had learned everything on her own. Her parents had died when she was ten and she had gone to live with an uncle. She was deeply disturbed when her sister died without receiving the sacraments. A vision reassured her that her sister was safe in God’s care — and also prompted her to dedicate her life to God.
When her uncle died, she returned to her hometown and began to notice how little education the girls had. But who would teach them? Times were much different then. Women weren’t allowed to be teachers and unmarried women were not supposed to go out by themselves — even to serve others. Nuns were the best educated women but they weren’t allowed to leave their cloisters. There were no teaching orders of sisters like we have today.
But in the meantime, these girls grew up without education in religion or anything at all.
These girls weren’t being helped by the old ways, so Angela invented a new way. She brought together a group of unmarried women, fellow Franciscan tertiaries and other friends, who went out into the streets to gather up the girls they saw and teach them. These women had little money and no power, but were bound together by their dedication to education and commitment to Christ. Living in their own homes, they met for prayer and classes where Angela reminded them, ” Reflect that in reality you have a greater need to serve [the poor] than they have of your service.” They were so successful in their service that Angela was asked to bring her innovative approach to education to other cities, and impressed many people, including the pope.
Though she turned him down, perhaps the pope’s request gave her the inspiration or the push to make her little group more formal. Although it was never a religious order in her lifetime, Angela’s Company of Saint Ursula, or the Ursulines, was the first group of women religious to work outside the cloister and the first teaching order of women.
It took many years of frustration before Angela’s radical ideas of education for all and unmarried women in service were accepted. They are commonplace to us now because people like Angela wanted to help others no matter what the cost. Angela reminds us of her approach to change: “Beware of trying to accomplish anything by force, for God has given every single person free will and desires to constrain none; he merely shows them the way, invites them and counsels them.”
Saint Angela Merici reassured her Sisters who were afraid to lose her in death: “I shall continue to be more alive than I was in this life, and I shall see you better and shall love more the good deeds which I shall see you doing continually, and I shall be able to help you more.” She died in 1540, at about seventy years old.
In Her Footsteps:
Take a look around you. Instead of just driving or walking without paying attention today, open your eyes to the needs you see along the way. What people do you notice who need help but who are not being helped? What are their true needs? Make a commitment to help them in some way.
Saint Angela, you were not afraid of change. You did not let stereotypes keep you from serving. Help us to overcome our fear of change in order to follow God’s call and allow others to follow theirs. Amen