Ursuline roots find sustenance in the spirituality and life-style of St. Francis of Assisi. Franciscan Friars opened new avenues of prayer and ideas of innovative religious life-style for the young Angela Merici.
Angela and the Franciscan Third Order
It was in Salo, when Angela was already orphaned and living in her uncle’s home, that she first felt an inner call to a deeper relationship to Jesus. Francis’ enthusiasm for Christ and his life commitment to evangelisaton and to simplicity of life attracted Angela. In her pursuit to know and follow Christ more intimately, Angela joined the Franciscan Third Order (Franciscan Tertiaries), lay people who associated themselves with the aims of the Franciscans and with Franciscan spirituality and who were allowed the privilege of receiving Holy Communion frequently, a practice not generally available in an era when parish priests were more often absent than present to their people. Angela, like Francis, valued the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of Christian love and life. Both appreciated the companionship of others in their mutual search for Christ.
The Franciscan Vision
Francis was born in the Umbrian city of Assisi in 1182. Born of wealthy parents, Francis early years were focused on enjoying life. Neither study nor his father’s business appealed to him! Some stories of his early years, however, indicate that he had a compassionate heart for the poor and unfortunate he encountered. Experiences of war, illness, and in prayer, led Francis towards a new life of simplicity and poverty, a life dedicated to Christ and to the poor and needy. In 1210, with eleven companions, Francis visited Rome to request approval of a brief and informal rule of life, based on an imitation of the poverty, celibacy and obedience to God’s will, which characterised the life of Jesus. Francis’ new Order – the Friars Minor – placed love of Christ, poverty of life style, respect for God’s creation, the work of evangelisation and reconciliation, and service of all God’s people, but particularly of the poor and the ill, at the centre of Franciscan life.
A Common Treasure!
Angela’s spirituality has clear Franciscan elements: Christ-centredness, poverty, a spirit of service and reconciliation, radical newness. Christ was the centre of life for both Angela and Francis. For Francis, his way of living was an imitation of Jesus’ life, poor, celibate and obedient; for Angela, it was living as spouse of Christ. Angela sums up what it means for her sisters saying… “they have Jesus Christ for their one and only treasure.” Just as Francis has declared his treasure to be the following of the poor, the healing and the forgiving Christ, here Angela acknowledges her relationship with Jesus to be treasured centre of her life and mission.
Francis and his friars, in their radical poverty and faith, were to be a vital saving presence in a church that had grown complacent, negligent and corrupt. Angela, likewise, some three hundred years later, saw a like need to reform the Church and revitalise the faith of the Christian community. As courageous and determined as Francis and his mendicant friars, Angela’s response was to invite women to a radically new way of consecrated witness to Christ, lived, not in the conventional monastic setting but rather out among the people of God. Underlying her daring initiative was Angela’s conviction that women have a vital role to play in keeping Christian discipleship alive. What a relevant insight for our Church today!
Francis’ undying love of Christ, his concern for God’s Church, for the people of God, and his life of prayer, of radical poverty and Christian service are echoed clearly in Angela’s life, her prayer and her writings. The significance of Franciscan influence in her life is underlined, finally, in her request that she be buried in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary.