Saying "No" to the Pope: St. Angela Merici

What if you met the Pope?

Have you ever imagined yourself meeting the pope? Perhaps you have wondered what it would be like to have a private audience with the Holy Father. What would you say? What might he say to you? What if he asked you to do something? What would you do?

When St. Therese of Lisieux was fifteen years of age, she went with her father and her sister Celine on a pilgrimage. When she was in Rome, she was able to meet with Pope Leo XIII to receive his blessing. Although the priests heading the pilgrimage had told the pilgrims to not speak to the Holy Father unless spoken to by him, Therese was not going to let the opportunity be missed to ask the pope a question. She had hoped and prayed that the Holy Father would intervene and allow her, despite it being unusual, to become a Carmelite nun at the tender age of fifteen. After asking the pope who was a bit hard of hearing, she was less than thrilled with the pope's response to her request which did not resolve her issue. However, as he suggested, it was God's will and within a year, she entered the Carmel.

When St. Frances Xavier Cabrini met with the same pope--Pope Leo XIII--years before St. Therese's visit, she was trying to discern what she should do with her newly founded order of religious. The burning question for her was where they should expand? Despite her lifelong desire to be a missionary to China, the pope, instead suggested that Mother Cabrini take her sisters to the West, to the United States to serve the growing population of Italian immigrants. Her response to the pope was a "Yes", and not long after her audience with Pope Leo XIII, Mother Cabrini, who did not enjoy ocean travel, was on a boat with several other sisters headed for New York City.

However, there was one saint who famously responded to a pope's request with a firm "No."

An Early Life Filled with Deaths

St. Angela Merici (1474 - 1540) was born in Desenzano which is a small town in the Lombardy region of Italy. When she was only ten years of age, Angela and her older sister became orphans when both parents died. The two young girls went to live with an uncle who lived in nearby Salo. 

Angela then lost her sister quite unexpectedly, and her passing away was quite troubling for Angela not least of all because she knew that her sister had died without receiving the sacraments to prepare her for death. She would later recount that in response to her prayers, she did receive a type of vision that assured her that her sister was in Heaven.

By the age of twenty, Angela had entered the Third Order of St. Francis and had experienced another family death when her uncle passed away.

Back Home Again and a New Order of Business

Not knowing what to do after the death of her uncle, she returned to her hometown. Her friends and family pressured Angela to get married, but she refused as she had made a vow to God that she would not marry, but would instead dedicate her life to God.

Angela became very concerned at the condition of many young girls in Desenzano who had received little or no education in either religious or secular matters and were without much hope for their futures.

With the money saved from her dowry, Angela had purchased a small home for herself. She began to invite young women to come to her home where she took it upon herself to teach them the faith. She taught them how to pray and the tenets of the faith as she prepared them to receive the sacraments. Her small apostolate grew as word spread among the friends of the young girls about the kind young woman who opened up her home to others.

Around this time, Angela received another vision that confirmed her in her ministry and showed the direction of the apostolate for the future. Angela was to found a religious order of consecrated virgins who would serve young girls in a manner similar to what she was doing out of her own home. Unlike other orders, the unmarried women would not live in a community. Instead, they were to remain celibate, live in their own homes or with their families, and be of service to their neighbors.

Angela continued her work from her home which was quite successful due to her natural talents of being winsome and an organized leader. Then, a wealthy couple invited her to start this new type of "school" in nearby Brescia. The apostolate was a resounding success in its second edition.

Soon Angela established other groups in other towns. Young women were joining her group to serve, and young girls were benefiting from the order's ministry focused on education, especially religious education.

Not Seeing the Holy Land

In 1524, at the age of fifty, Angela was given the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the way to the Holy Land, her group stopped on the island of Crete. As she was praying in a church, she lost her eyesight. Apparently, somewhat unfazed by her sudden blindness, Angela continued on her journey and visited all of the shrines scheduled for the itinerary of the pilgrimage. Instead of seeing, she felt with her hands with the same enthusiasm as if she could see.

On the way home from the pilgrimage, she once again prayed in the same church on the island of Crete. At this point, the Lord restored her sight and left her with an important lesson. Angela must not close her eyes to the needs of those around her and to what God had called her to do.

Saying "No" to the Pope

The next year, 1525, was a Jubilee year, and Angela traveled to Rome in order to receive the plenary indulgence. Pope Clement VII had learned of the holiness of Angela and the service that she and her sisters provided to young women in several towns in northern Italy. The Holy Father invited Angela to meet with him.

When Angela met with the pope, he heard in more detail about what she had organized. Very impressed, the pope asked her to remain in Rome and to organize a group of women to provide services to the ill. Remembering her vision and the many hours in prayer in which she had sought to do God's will, Angela had to politely, but firmly, tell the Holy Father, "No" as she did not believe it was God's will.

Making it Formal

The conversation with Pope Clement VII proved to be a catalyst for Angela to begin the process of formalizing her new order. She wrote a rule that would serve to shape and direct the ministry of the consecrated women.

Angela had long had a devotion to St. Ursula who was a tenth century martyr. As the daughter of English king, Ursula refused a political marriage to a pagan prince. In response to her faithfulness to God, Ursula was killed. It was under this saint's patronage, that Angela placed the new order that would later take on the name of the Ursulines.

The order was unique in that the women were not cloistered and did not wear a special habit. It was also the first women's teaching order. The order would maintain the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but those would be lived out within the context of the individual homes of the sisters.

Although the order had been formalized in its structure and organization, it would not receive formal approval and recognition from the Holy See until four years after Angela's death in 1544.

Before her death in 1540, Angela would see twenty-four groups of women started that ran schools and orphanages. And, Angela would serve as the first "Mother and Mistress" for three years, after her election in 1537.

When she died, Angela was buried in the habit of a Third Order Franciscan, and she was buried in the church of St. Afra in Brescia where the Ursuline rule had been developed and accepted by the group.

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