The following is a reflection given by Sr. Janet M. Peterworth, OSU, at a student Mass at Bellarmine University on January 21, 2024, honoring St. Angela Merici with the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville as invited guests.
“When change wants to happen, it looks for people to act through.” This is a line from author Joanna Macy. When I read it, it caused me to stop and pay attention. I believe we see that quote lived out in today’s readings about Jonah and about the first four apostles to be called by Jesus. “When change wants to happen, it looks for people to act through.”
Later this month, we are going to remember a woman, Angela Merici of Brescia, Italy, that change took hold of. She was a woman who embraced change and yet…and yet… she was very ordinary—just a peasant woman, a 16th century woman of the renaissance, a woman who had no clear idea of how change was going to act through her. In fact, she was really old [for that time]—she was past 40—before change began to act through her. However, Angela did have a religious experience—an encounter with God of some kind—when she was a young teen. That was the impetus for everything she did the rest of her life.
When Angela moved to Brescia, a good–size town in northern Italy, that’s when change took hold of her. she befriended some Christian women who lived in that town. They began to work together, and they had a special interest in mothers and the young women around Brescia who were working as maids or even indentured servants in the homes of wealthy Brescians. However, Angela had an extraordinary ability to relate to all kinds of people. According to Sr. Martha Buser, OSU, in her book, Also In Your Midst, Angela related to “the wealthy, to the poor, to the young and to the old, to people in all walks of life.” She had close friends who were women, that is true, but she also had close friends who were men.
But how exactly did change act through her? Well, Angela felt the need to organize her women friends and so she dictated some standards for them to live by; some counsels to encourage them; and a last will and testament to guide them after she died.
You see she did not see her followers as nuns who lived in a monastery. Rather, she saw them as women who lived in their own homes or in the homes of others, but who all committed to a virginal love. She saw them living in their usual way, but they did not engage in the social life of the times. They were not looking for a handsome prince nor a wealthy duke nor a successful farmer (for that matter) they were to see themselves as a spouse of Christ. Their first love was to be Jesus and their refuge was to be at the foot of the cross—not in the arms of man or behind the security of a monastery wall. She named her group The Company of St. Ursula after St. Ursula, who was her inspiration. Today her daughters are known as Ursulines, and they are all over the world—not just here in Louisville.
Now all this may not seem like much change to you, but in the 16th century Renaissance era where a woman’s worth was valued either by her attachment to a man or to her life behind a monastery wall—it was a significant change. Women learning about the scriptures—even learning to read the scripture! Women were coming together to pray in groups—even doing it without the clergy! Women going about doing good works for others just because it was the right thing to do! This was change! Change wanted to happen, and it acted through Angela Merici.
Now fast forward to today to 2024. Where are the people that change is looking to act through today? Are those people at Bellarmine? Are those people in this chapel now? Is change looking to act through some people sitting in your pew? Is change looking to act through you? If you knew you could not fail, would you let change act through you? If not you, who? If not now when? When change wants to happen, it finds people to act through. So, be alert!
I leave you with these words of Saint Angela:
Do something. Get moving. Be confident. Risk new things. Stick with it. Get on your knees. Then be ready for big surprises.
In Veritatis Amore!