St. Angela Merici (1470?-1540)
Angela has the double distinction of founding the first teaching congregation of women in the Church and what is now called a “secular institute” of religious women. As a young woman she became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis (now known as the Secular Franciscan Order), and lived a life of great austerity, wishing, like St. Francis, to own nothing, not even a bed. Early in life she was appalled at the ignorance among poorer children, whose parents could not or would not teach them the elements of religion. Angela’s charming manner and good looks complemented her natural qualities of leadership. Others joined her in giving regular instruction to the little girls of their neighbourhood. She was invited to live with a family in Brescia (where, she had been told in a vision, she would one day found a religious community). Her work continued and became well known. She became the center of a group of people with similar ideals. She eagerly took the opportunity for a trip to the Holy Land. When they had gotten as far as Crete, she was struck with blindness. Her friends wanted to return home, but she insisted on going through with the pilgrimage, and visited the sacred shrines with as much devotion and enthusiasm as if she had her sight. On the way back, while praying before a crucifix, her sight was restored at the same place where it had been lost. At 57, she organized a group of 12 girls to help her in catechetical work. Four years later the group had increased to 28. She formed them into the Company of St. Ursula (patroness of medieval universities and venerated as a leader of women) for the purpose of re-Christianizing family life through solid Christian education of future wives and mothers. The members continued to live at home, had no special habit and took no formal vows, though the early Rule prescribed the practice of virginity, poverty and obedience. The idea of a teaching congregation of women was new and took time to develop. The community thus existed as a “secular institute” until some years after Angela’s death.
The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (4:1-20)
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times. Then Jesus said, He who has ears to hear, let him hear. When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!' Then Jesus said to them, Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop— thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.
Hearing the word
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)
One of the truly great contributions to civilization made by Christianity is its insistence on the inalienable dignity of each person. Especially among some secular humanists there is a denial of the validity of this concept of dignity. For instance, the philosopher John Aldergrove has written that dignity, regardless of its meaning, cannot justify the claims that are attached to it — claims which are precluded by the observations of David Hume. Now, it may be that philosophical work on the foundations of human dignity still needs to be done in order to answer the objections of those who deny it. Nevertheless, under pressure from the religions of man and in particular from Christianity, in fact the dignity of each person has come to be recognized by the world. Yet it is a truth that is easy to forget because the individual can be quickly lost, forgotten and swept away in the ebb and flow of the tides of history. A person rises suddenly from his obscurity and gradually captures the organs of power — Bonaparte, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao. There is set in motion a pattern of war and seizure. Armies march and clash, thousands — perhaps millions — are lost from this life. What is to be said of all the ordinary persons thus sent spinning down the drain of death and obscurity? They have been used and forgotten. Alternatively, consider the countless persons who have spent their lives in the search for pleasure and immediate satisfaction. Perhaps it has been, not instant pleasure, but power or possessions they have sought. Still, their brief spans have been without consequence. They have forgotten their own dignity and have built nothing upon it. Lives without number have been like the seed that is scattered here and there and has come to nothing. We may say that much of human history is evoked by our Lord’s parable in our Gospel passage today. “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.”
The fact is that often there is not a lot that an individual can do to radically change the circumstances of his life. Granted many exceptions, generally if a person is born poor he will not end his life immersed in riches. The effect of circumstances is considerable — so much so that there have been many who have seen the human being as simply the product of his circumstances. He begins his adulthood with what he takes to be a happy marriage, but ten years later all has broken down and prudent observers cannot say it has been his own fault. He had bad luck in the circumstances of his marriage. Again, he is a well-qualified man and yet due to circumstances he has lost his job and it is very difficult for him to find work again. His entire life is affected by the circumstance that he has little money. Or again, he has, despite his best efforts, two or three extremely difficult children. It virtually breaks his heart. There are so many things in life that can thwart and stultify the flourishing of man’s dignity and potential. The question is, is there any way the dignity of a person can flourish, whatever be the circumstances that come his or her way? Let us put it in the context of our Gospel passage today (Mark 4: 1-20). How can a person yield a harvest in his life, even if his circumstances be hopeless in their natural potential? Our Lord gives the answer. If we receive the word of God and resolutely put it into practice, receiving and accepting it with a good heart, that word will yield the harvest that God our creator wants. And so it is, for example, that the person who remains in an iron lung all her life can pass from this life with dignity unimpaired and wonderfully enhanced. She has striven to live in gratitude and every day has kept close to Christ her Saviour. Or consider the wife with an impossible husband who, day by day lives in union with Christ, is unfailingly patient and kind with her husband, and wins out in the end by drawing him back into the practice of religion. She has not been the product of her circumstances because she has been good soil for the word of God.
If we wish our lives to be a success no matter what the circumstances might be, then we have before us the key to it. The key lies in our attitude to Christ and his word. The most important “circumstance” in life is that we make the decision to be a disciple of Christ and to receive his word in faith and obedience. That word comes to us in the teaching of the Church and in reading the Church’s Book, which is the inspired Scriptures. Let us be like the good soil in our Lord’s parable, receiving the word of Christ with joy and faith, and putting it generously into practice.