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Justice and Peace (english)

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Saint Angela Merici, a woman of peace and justice

We are accustomed to seeing in Saint Angela Merici a woman of piacevolezza, reaching out to others in a peaceful manner. We might be tempted to think that her background favored this gentleness. However, a study of the context in which she lived reveals a period of exceptional violence. The scenes of violence reported by the mass-media were then habitual. What is exceptional, is that she reacted with non-violence to violent procedures. In this talk, we shall therefore point out
1° the violence existing in Angela’s times,
2° her way of reacting to it ;
3° her teaching on peace and justice

I. VIOLENCE IN ANGELA’S TIMES

When we picture the beautiful and peaceful Lake Garda, or Angela’s peaceful family life in the small town of Desenzano, given over to agriculture and commerce, we may forget the particular climate of violence and injustice during the fifteenth and sixteenth century in the North of Italy. Warfare, neglect of human rights, especially that of women were constant. You can read about such forms of injustice every day in the newspapers. All you need is to change the names of the persons and places.

During the sixteenth century “Italian Wars” the soil of Italy was particularly devastated. We must remember that during that period, Italy was not a single country, but divided into several independent ones, for example, Milan, Venice, Lombardy, the Papal States and so on.

The Grezze in Desenzano were near the road leading from Brescia to Venice, a road often used by the armed forces from different countries. They usually grabbed their food on the way, to the dismay of the local inhabitants; crops and cattle were confiscated for the benefit of the passing armies and the poor peasants had no way of defending themselves.

On June 1st, 1509, the French King Louis XII, went through Desenzano, together with Cardinal Amboise - he had nothing of a cardinal except the title - who was to rule over the towns along Lake Garda. During the three succeeding years, those who claimed for justice and liberty were sent to prison, tortured and executed, and their belongings confiscated. When Saint Angela Merici in her prayer (Chapter V of the Rule) mentions the monstrous and frightful wild beasts and shapes (v. 21), disturbing her in her prayer, she might be remembering some of the horrible events of that specific period ?

When she came to Brescia in 1516, the citizens had just lived through four unbearable years. Since the Carnival of Tears under the troops of Gaston de Foix, the city had been subject to different invaders, each one repeating the same forms of violence: people being massacred, women raped, and buildings destroyed or confiscated. In 1515, several thousand young Brescians left to fight for their country. After the battle of Marignan, only 500 of them returned alive, and when they came to the gates of the town, no one dared open them, for fear of the soldiers then in power.

Angela’s arrival coincides with a period of deep hatred and vengeance between the leading Brescian families. Some had sided with the French, others with the Germans, the Spanish or the Venetians. Luigi Avogadro was put to death with his two sons, Tomasso Maggi likewise, Luigi and Lorenzo Porcellaga were dramatically executed. We can recognize here the very names of some of Angela’s “Matrons”. The last Spanish and German invaders required that the city give them their pay, but its whole treasury had already been robbed. They therefore organized a riot in which many Brescians fell as victims. To calm the soldiers, the city officials had recourse to enormous taxes putting unbelievable pressure on the poor citizens already starving and ruined.

The Brescian historian, Pasero, wrote “It was an epoch when the people of Brescia decided to make justice individually”. He then describes the acts of vengeance and the killing in the streets. The news of Charles V’s armies coming closer to Brescia in 1529 caused general panic within the city, for two years before, in 1527, the armies of Charles V had ruined and burnt the city of Rome. No one was spared: the houses were systematically plundered and the Romans had to bear unheard of violence. Even the monasteries of women were attacked. Details of these horrifying events were known in Brescia, so all those who were able to do so, left the city in great numbers. (This coincides with Angela’s leaving for Cremona with Augostino Gallo).

Religious and social violence seconded military violence :
From 1525 on, German immigrants, most of them merchants and craftsmen, were forced to leave their country because of financial difficulties and came to dwell in Brescia. They brought with them their Lutheran faith and economic prosperity. Members of the leading Brescian families sympathized with them out of person interest. The Venetians, politically opposed to the Papal States, freely printed Protestant literature, read secretly by the citizens in small groups belonging to the wealthy families. Many former religious openly preached doctrines opposed to Catholic faith. During the night of March 26, 1527, a mocking procession went through the town, singing sacrilegious litanies. People suspected young people belonging to the leading families to have organized this, for the Town Council never brought the investigation to a conclusion. The following year, in 1528, The Council chose three citizens for searching out, punishing, and expulsing those who were suspected of heresy.

During the same period, in the Val Camonica near Brescia, several so-called witches were burned at the stake. Some violent protests arose against this practice, saying that “these women were more in need of instruction than persecution”.

Women were often victims of social violence. In looking through the town records I was appalled to see how many adolescents, from 12 to 15 years of age were married to older men in their sixties. Women, exhausted by frequent child bearings often died young. In these circumstances, it was not rare that men would marry successively three or four women during their lives.

Marriages were currently pre-arranged by the families for political or financial advantages. For example, Princess Christine of Denmark was obliged to marry Francesco Sforza for political reasons. She was then 13 years of age. As the niece of Charles V, her marriage was to confirm the peace treaty between the Emperor and the duke of Milan. At that time, Francesco was already so ill, that he had to drag himself along, leaning on two sticks. He died shortly after the wedding. What future was there for this young adolescent, obliged to marry someone she did not know, of whose language she was ignorant, and who was already doomed to die ?

The town records also recall another form of violence: The lists of family status reveal that many illegitimate children grew up in their father’s family, together with the legitimate ones. We can understand how much their wives had to undergo.

To end this list of violence, which is certainly incomplete, we can also mention violence coming from nature. Saint Angela Merici underwent frightening storms at sea, while returning from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In Brescia she went through a devastating earthquake, as well as floods which destroyed the crops, washed away the cattle, and caused an unheard of famine among the people.

Events such as these are still going on today : massacres in Africa, hostages executed in Irak, women being abused, people fleeing from their country because of war, persecution or economic hardships, young people being exploited, families broken up.

Yes, indeed, as Angela wrote in her Fifth Counsel, she was living - we are living - in a miserable and treacherous world, where there is never either rest or any true contentment, but only empty dreams, or bitter hardships, and every kind of misery and wretchedness (v. 4-5)

II. ANGELA’S REACTIONS IN HER VIOLENT WORLD

Her biographers have depicted her as a woman of peace within a climate of violence. We have several examples of these in our days : Martin Luther King in the United States, Abbé Pierre, in France, Mother Teresa of Calcutta in India, Nelson Mandela in South Africa and many others. What they all have in common is their radiating peace coming from inner strength and peace of soul.
In her own times, Saint Angela Merici strove to make peace between enemies, families and citizens of Brescia, despite an atmosphere of war. She counseled people, helping them reach inner peace.

Peace in warfare

After having been conquered by the French, the German and Spanish troops, and finally liberated by the Venetians on May 25, 1516, Brescia finally was facing peace. When Saint Angela Merici arrived there, every family could count its dead, every neighborhood had its ruins. People had suffered from violence, famine, and excessive poverty.

Saint Angela Merici encountered a climate of utter desolation when she came to Caterina Patengola, an aristocratic widow who had lost her husband, her sons and her only daughter, as well as her in-laws. At forty-eight, she was left alone with a single grandchild, a little Isabella four years of age. After a year spent in consoling, encouraging and advising this bereaved woman, Angela succeeded in leaving her in peaceful spirits. Moreover, Caterina from then on adopted a boy orphan, had him educated and trained for a job, until he was able to live on his own. When this boy left her, Caterina adopted another one. We can therefore conclude that Angela not only brought peace to Caterina, but persuaded her to forget her own grief and to help others in their plight.

Social Peace

Another form of peace-making undertaken by Angela was of social order : reconciling an employer with his servant. After her pilgrimage to Mantova, on the way home, Saint Angela Merici made a detour for Solferino, then governed by Prince Aloysius Gonzaga, Lord of Castigilione. This future grandfather of St Aloysius Gonzaga was nothing of a saint! He was known as an irascible, hard and tyrannical man. Romano declared,

"Master Aloysius had banished into exile one of his servants, who was a friend of Angela’s" (Rom. 7)

According to Nazari, he was a relative of Angela’s, which would justify the special care and affection she had for him. It seems that the Prince had already heard about Saint Angela Merici. He probably was honored that she requested to greet him, maybe curious to see that woman, maybe influenced by his wife, Caterina Anguisola who was as pious, gentle and good as he was difficult. So, he let her in, as well as Romano, probably never dreaming of the object of Angela’s visit. Nazari goes on to say :

"He (the Prince) welcomed her courteously... She pleaded in such a way that she obtained mercy for her relative. He was rapidly called back from exile and his belongings given back to him". (NV 12).

That the Prince would give him back his job, was already a success, but that he would give back what he had confiscated was really unheard of! The news spread rapidly. No wonder that from that moment on, according to Romano, Saint Angela Merici was called several times to plead in favor of small folk unjustly condemned by some member of the leading families.

Peace between family members

Agostino Gallo is the one who testifies that Angela had a gift for peace-making. He says :

"When she had the opportunity to do so, she never failed to bring peace between husbands and their wives, between sons and their fathers, between brothers and sisters and many other relatives. She counseled and comforted every one as much as she could." (Ga 9v).

Notice that Gallo is explicit about Angela’s way of bringing about peace : First she listened, consoled, and finally counseled. And we could add, that most of all, she prayed. It is too bad that Gallo did not leave us a concrete example of this, perhaps out of confidentiality.

Peace between citizens

Romano also testifies about Angela’s peace-making :

"Many persons from the city of Brescia came to see her, some to ask for the grace of her fervent prayers, others to appease some dissensions between citizens and the city’s noble families. I remember, among other examples, that of the dissension between Master Filippo Sala and Master Francesco Martinengo. No one had succeeded in calming them, nor appeasing them, neither the duke of Urbino and the Governors and other noble citizens of the city."

These two men had decided to fight each other to death in a duel. At least their wives were on good terms, for they had pleaded together for high-ranking officials to intervene. As no one succeeded, they came to Angela as a last resort.

It is difficult to identify them, for the town archives reveal several men bearing the same two names; One Filippo Sala was a particularly violent man, had already slaughtered several people, and killed his own sister in a fit of anger. On the other hand, the Martinengo’s had several acts of violence and vengeance on their hands. However, we did find that a certain Francesco Martinengo and Filippo Sala were at odds over a question of money : Francesco had never been repaid the loan he gave to Filippo. Both were married, had children, and lived in the same neighborhood.

According to Faino (ch. 40), Angela began by praying, then she had the wisdom of visiting individually in their own homes each one of these enemies, more sensitive to arms than to words of peace. Saint Angela Merici, as peace-maker, did find the words that calmed their anger. History does not record that they were good friends “ever after”, but at least they decided not to kill each other.

Peace among the heads of state

Shortly after Angela Merici returned to Brescia after her pilgrimage to Rome, according to Romano, the Duke of Milan came to Brescia and lodged at Saint Barnabas (Rom 8). In fact, Francesco Sforza had been exiled from his own country of Milan, tried to get refuge at Crema, but the inhabitants, fearing retaliation from Charles V’s troops, never let him in. He finally ended up in Brescia, broken and ill. The Duke was a pious man. Romano adds :

" When he heard about sister Angela and her holy way of life, he called for her. She went to him and was greeted with respectful words of welcome. The Duke requested that she consider him as her son, together with all his subjects. She expressed much gratitude about this. (R 8). After several words of comfort, she promised to pray His Divine Majesty at the Duke’s intentions. (Nazari, Vita, 3).

Shortly after this meeting, Saint Angela undertook her first pilgrimage to Varallo, the “Holy Mountain”, where a Franciscan, Bernardino Caimo, former Guardian of the Holy Places in Jerusalem, had built life-size duplicates of several sanctuaries, to inspire those who would never be able to make the trip to Palestine. In 1528 Saint Angela could have seen only the small churches already erected, those reproducing the mysteries of Christ’s childhood and those of His Passion.

Faino tells us that Angela had a specific object in mind in making this pilgrimage, that of pleading for peace between the heads of state fighting one another in her own country.

When she arrived at this holy place, she shed so many tears, prayed so intensely, and made such severe penance, that before returning she felt great confidence in God that peace would be obtained. (F 37-38)

In fact, some time afterwards, in 1529, a Treaty of Peace was signed in Cambrai, a French city, between the representatives of Charles V, Venice, France and the Papal States.

These facts, which represent probably a fraction of Angela’s undertakings, reveal Angela Merici as a woman of peace and a peace-maker in her own context. She realized how much people were craving for inner peace and she responded to that need. Prayer, attentive listening, counseling and active reconciliation were the ways in which she answered the call of Jesus to live according to the spirit of the Beatitudes as “peace-maker”. Her Writings reveal how much she invited her daughters to follow in her footsteps.

III. A CALL FOR PEACE IN ANGELA’S WRITINGS

Although Saint Angela Merici was so actively a messenger of peace in her own culture, it is rather surprising that in her Writings she only mentions the word twice: In the Fifth Counsel, she says, They should seek to spread peace and concord where they are (v. 16), and in the Last Legacy : To you all I give the kiss of peace (v. 27). We could gather from this that the word “peace” was perhaps less in use than today, and that the specific reality of peace was expressed differently. What do we find in Angela’s Writings as means to maintain and promote peace ?

- 1° Concern for those who are worried and in need of peace.
- 2° Specific actions for safeguarding a state of peace.
- 3° Concern for preventing all that would alter this peace.
- 4° Encouragement to keep peace among the sisters.

1- Concern for those who are worried and in need of peace

a. those who feel incapable of carrying on their responsibilities.

The Prologue to the Counsels, addressed to the local superiors, reveal many encouraging words. They can be applied to each one of us, as we all find it difficult at times to bear our own responsibilities.

"This charge must not be a burden for you; on the contrary, you have to thank God most greatly that He has deigned to see to it that you are among those He wants to spend themselves in governing and safeguarding such a treasure, His own..."(v. 12).
"Do not be afraid of not knowing and not being able to do what is rightly required...Have hope and firm faith in God, for He will help you in everything" (v. 14-15).
"Without doubt, as He has given you this charge, so He will give you also the strength to be able to carry it out, provided you do not fail for your part." (v. 16).

In our different missions, we ourselves suffer or are in touch with people who suffer from unrest, grief, fear, or discouragement. Angela Merici has peace-giving words for them and incites us to help them reach inner peace.

b. Those who are discouraged

If you see one faint-hearted and timid and inclined to discouragement, comfort her, encourage her, promise her the blessing of the mercy of God; lift her heart with every consolation (Couns. 2, 8).

c. Those who are sad and shaken

"Especially for those you see disconsolate, doubtful and faint-hearted, enlarge the scope of the promises, which will not go unfulfilled". (Couns. 5, 40).

d. Those who are in fear of the future

"Let them hold this as most certain: that they will never be abandoned in their needs. God will provide for them wonderfully. (Couns. 5, 31)." (Av 5, 31).
"Do not trouble yourself about any of your temporal needs, because God, and He alone; knows, can and will provide for them, He who wants nothing for you but only your good and your joy (R 10, 16-18).

e. Those who feel overwhelmed by their difficulties

You must not be frightened, ...I have this firm and unquestioning faith and hope in His infinite divine goodness, that not only shall we easily overcome all dangers and adversities, but also, to our great glory and jubilation, we shall defeat them. We shall even spend this very short life ours in consolation, and our every sorrow and sadness will be turned into joy and gladness. (R Prol. 22-23; 25-27).

2. Specific actions for safeguarding a state of peace

Angela’s counsels and advice although addressed to the leaders of the Company, contain a very practical and meaningful message for all those who want to be artisans of peace in their own surroundings.

Deal with others gently and respectfully

Nothing favors peace more than the way in which we daily deal with others. Therefore, Angela Merici insists on attitudes of gentleness and respect, of kindness and understanding.

"Please, I beg you, willingly strive to lead them with love and with a mild and kindly hand, and not imperiously nor harshly, but in everything, willingly be gentle. Pay attention to Jesus Christ who says: “Learn from me, that I am gentle and meek of heart”... So you also must strive to do, and use all possible gentleness.
Above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone, and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels". (3rd Leg. 1-4, 7, 8-11).

Be concerned about people around you living in peace with every one

When they are visiting their sisters in different parts of the town, the local leaders are invited to help them live in peace with their surroundings.

"Let the four virgins have especially this as their task, that is, to visit every fortnight.. all the other virgins, their sisters, who are scattered through the town, to comfort them and help them if they should happen to be in some situation of disagreement or other trouble" (R 11, 8a-9).

Angela is human and foresees the case when the local leaders would have some difficulty dealing with their superiors, the lady governors of high aristocratic rank, in charge of the general good of the Company. These are not members and might have haughty ways of treating the sisters. Saint Angela Merici therefore advises to find ways of living this with peace of heart, by seeking good advice,

"If you have something in your heart that disturbs you in them, you may rightly and without scruple talk about in confidence with some person who is good and faithful in many respects and ways." (Couns. 3, 13).

See that social justice be observed

Angela points out very specific cases to be attended to: sisters not receiving their salary or their inheritance. They certainly could not live in peace being victims of social injustice. She therefore arranges that they might receive juridical aid, even at court if necessary, from the four men or “agents” responsible for safeguarding the legal interests of the members of the Company. (R 11, 15-19).

She also requires to be watchful, so that each member of the Company be treated with respect and work in a life-giving atmosphere so as to feel at home and live honestly (R 11, 28), and be spared the many moral dangers afflicting young girls away from their families, as in today’s world, if people did them any wrong, or wanted...to lead them into the danger of doing something wrong (R 11 10-12).

3. Concern for keeping interior peace and preventing anything that could alter it.

Romano and Gallo reveal that Saint Angela Merici was active as a spiritual leader, enlightening others, calming their doubts, giving counsels, encouraging those who came to her for specific advice. Both witnesses, state that many people, found their peace of soul through her gentle words. What did she say to them? Angela’s Writings reveal how she encouraged others to live in peace with the Lord and with one another.

In peace with the Lord

Inner peace is a real longing for many people today, finding themselves in a meaningless world, without any sense of values. Angela’s teachings could give sense to their lives by referring them to the voice of their conscience, their sense of duty, their peaceful relations with others.

Inner peace is a gift of the Holy Spirit who is unceasingly speaking to our hearts (R 8, 14), as does an upright conscience. He can be heard all the more clearly as we have our conscience more purified and clean. (R 8, 15). Inner peace is given to us as we do our duty, fulfill God’s will, as we obey God and live peacefully with others, or, as Angela Merici put it, as we obey every creature for love of God” (v. 17), without striving to argue that we are right nor trying to dominate others.

She shows us a path of peace through joy, trust, and hope in God :

"Although at times they will have troubles or anxieties, nevertheless this will soon pass away and be turned into gladness and joy... Let them hold this as most certain: that they will never be abandoned in their needs. God will provide for them wonderfully". (Couns. 5, 29, 31) They must not loose hope... "these little ones, poor as they are, will find consolation and comfort". (Couns. 5 32, 34).

Saint Angela Merici also warns us of all that prevents inner peace from growing within us. These recommendations concern evil thoughts, envy and ill-will, discord and evil suspicion and any other wicked desire and purpose (R 9 7-9). She knows how much the ideas we ruminate on can stifle the peace given to us by the Lord.

In peace with others

If Angela Merici seldom uses the word “peace”, she often stresses attitudes which favor peace: harmony, union, and concord with others :

"My last word to you,...is that you live in harmony, united together, all of one heart and one will. Be bound to one another by the bond of charity, esteeming each other, helping each other, bearing with each other in Jesus Christ." (Couns. 9, 1-2,).

She insistently exhorts the Lady Governors to be watchful so as to keep a spirit of peace among the sisters :

"Be on guard and take care especially that they are united and one in will... So if you become aware of even the slightest shadow of such a plague, remedyitat once, according as God will enlighten you (10th Legacy, 6-7, 14-15).

Angela also suggests specificattitudes, words and acts favoring peace through harmony, different stepsleadingtopeace with one another.

The first attitude capable of disarming others is that of truth and sincerity: they should say yes, yes and no, no, as Jesus Christ teaches (R 9, 14).

Real sincerity also includes recognizing our own limits before others. For example, in her chapter on obedience Saint Angela Merici asks for an act of reconciliation once a week (R 8, 12), because she is conscious of our all being limited people.

Furthermore, we cannot ask of others what we do not live ourselves. She therefore insists on giving “good example”; Live and behave in such a way that your daughters may see in you a model. And what you want them to do, do it yourself first. (Couns. 6, 1-2)

The message is clear : if we want to be peacemakers, we are to be ourselves women of peace.

Another step would be that of understanding others, considering them deeply and individually ; one by one, and not only their names, but also their conditions and character and their situation and state. (Test. 2, 1-3). And Angela Merici adds : this will not be difficult, if you consider them with true love” (Test. 2, 4).

It is not enough to know others well, we further have to accept them as they are, bear with them (Couns. 8, 5), Angela Merici says, with patience and charity (4th Leg. 6). Therefore look at others with real love (Couns. Prol. 11), at any rate with love excluding harsh judgments :

"It is not up to you to judge the handmaids of God; He well knows what He wants to make of them, Who (as Scripture says) can turn stones into children of heaven" (Couns. 8, 5-6).

Our love in peace will include esteem and respect :

"You must consider in what manner you must esteem them, for the more you esteem them, the more you will love them; the more you love them, the more you will care for and watch over them" (Couns. Pro. 9-10).

This esteem is based, not on the other’s qualities, but on a view of faith, for :
"All are creatures of God, she says, and you do not know what he wants to make of them" (Couns. 8, 2).

Therefore, she is full of hope in the progress anyone can make.

In our search for different steps that help us to be real peace-makers, we are coming to a point that seems most important in Angela’s teaching, that is , to show others real affection and graciousness. She herself was an example of this. Gabriel Cozzano, her secretary, asserts that the greatest sinner, and therefore the most difficult and disagreeable person, was the type of person she would welcome with the most kindness and gentleness, even with tenderness. Her advice betrays her inner feelings :

"Be gentle and compassionate" (Couns.2, 1).
"You will achieve more with kindness and gentleness than with harshness and sharp rebukes" (Couns. 2,3).
"Above all let them be humble and gentle, and let all their behavior, their actions and their words be with charity, and let them bear everything with patience, for with these two virtues especially, one crushes the head of the devil". (Couns. 5, 17-18)
.

Angela Merici knows well that when facing violence and oppression, it is not the head of the devil we feel like crushing, but that of our enemy. She then reminds us of Christ, gentle and meek of heart, and adds,

"You also must strive to do likewise and use all possible gentleness". (3rd Leg. 7).

Angela Merici does not only exhort us to be patient, gentle, gracious, she also encourages us to act and says They should seek to spread peace and concord where they are (Couns. 5, 16) and these are our last words.

Through her examples of peace-making, through her teachings in favor of peace among the sisters and others, through peace of conscience, and through her radiant and joyful peace, Angel is truly a messenger of peace. In our times of dissensions, wars, and rivalry, she invites us to be as she was, real witnesses to the peace which Christ alone can give. As Saint Augustine said, “If you want to make peace, begin by putting peace inside yourself. Then you will be able to be a peacemaker”. We know that any lasting action in favor of peace is based on inner strength which the Savior alone can bestow, He who has vanquished the world. If His peace dwells within us, it will irradiate from one person to another and make us real messengers of peace.

Sister Marie SEYNAEVE
Ursuline of the Roman Union

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