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Spreading the work of a genius

ITALIAN author Professor Querciolo Mazzonis recently passed through Brisbane on the mission that drives him – spreading his passion for the life and teachings of Ursuline foundress St Angela Merici.

The 42-year-old Professor Mazzonis is among those who regard the 16th century saint as a spiritual revolutionary, a “genius” who moved feminine spirituality into a whole new phase

The professor was keynote speaker on May 11 at a Melbourne College of Divinity Conference on female spirituality in religious orders from 1400 to today. He was then invited by the Australian Ursulines as part of the order’s celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the canonisation of St Angela.

And interestingly it was in the Australian Ursulines that this ardent believer in the work and life of St Angela, said he had found many reminders of foundress’ original vision

He stopped briefly in Brisbane before heading back to Italy after attending Ursuline gatherings in Canberra, Sydney, Armidale, Brisbane and Toowoomba.

During these events he explored topics dealt with in his recently published book Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy: Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540).

In conversation, Professor Mazzonis was quick to make clear the reasons for his enthusiasm for the life of the Ursuline foundress

“Angela was a genius – she moved history forward by a new synthesis of material available to create a new type of spirituality for women,” he explained.

“Angela wrote the rule for the Company she founded … few women did this at that time.

“Those that did, like St Clare and St Teresa of Avila, were ostracised by many of the clergy.

“She was also very democratic in her approach – wealth had nothing to do with leadership roles.

“Leadership was done through an election process.”

Interestingly at that particular period of the Church’s history, women’s spirituality had come to occupy a revered place in society.

Indeed so significant was the impact of St Angela and other holy women, that the professor said the history of the Middle Ages could not be properly understood without reference to them.

The early 16th century was a time of economic and demographic crisis and political instability, Professor Mazzonis explained.

“Several dukes and secular rulers contended for the assistance of these women, seeking protection for their cities.

“Popular faith at the time sought refuge in the miraculous.”

In 1516, aged about 40, Angela Merici had arrived in Brescia and was soon held in high esteem at all levels of society.

She was asked to intervene for divine assistance and provided help by counselling people on various civic matters, such as making wills, marrying children and solving familial problems.

Angela also read sacred books and her interpretations of the Holy Scriptures attracted many people, especially preachers and theologians.

By the early 1530s her fame had spread beyond Brescia, and it was around this time that she started to put into practice her radical vision for a Company of women dedicated to mystical union with Christ, the “brides of Christ”.

“What Angela Merici did was for the first time in history to propose a structure for the life of these spiritually enlightened women,” Professor Mazzonis said.

To many at the time though, this rule must have seemed anarchic.

There were so many aspects of traditional religious life that Angela did not think were relevant to religious experience, the professor said.

“Among aspects Angela considered irrelevant were convents, rituals of consecration, solemn vows, a habit, life led in common and hierarchies.

“However, the figure of the uncloistered ‘bride of Christ’ was disturbing in many respects – a dangerous alternative to the Church’s monopoly of religiosity.

“Inevitably in the years that followed Angela’s death, attempts were made to tone down such a radical interpretation of religious life.

“For example, the Archbishop of Milan Carlo Borromeo, drastically altered the aims and structures of the order in the late 1500s.

“The addition of the habit, vows and ceremony of acceptance brought the Company into line with the more traditional religious orders.

“Works included teaching and charitable work such as in hospitals.”

It was in Australia that Professor Mazzonis said he had found reminders of Sr Angela’s radical vision for a new model of religious organization to underpin feminine spirituality.

He said there were some significant differences he had noticed between the Ursulines here and those he was most familiar with in Brescia.

“The order in Italy follows the more traditional aspects of Roman religious life. While working in a number of diverse ministries, the nuns wear habits and live in convents.

“Of course there are varied interpretations of the rule – there are after all 43 varieties of Ursulines.

“In Australia, the Ursulines seem to have more freedom and independence – they don’t wear habits; they live on their own or in twos and threes.

“Also they seem to have a wider scope of ministries, being involved in Parish work, counselling, health care and education, to name a few.”

Overall, Professor Mazzonis said he had found his meeting with Ursulines around Australia “an enriching experience”.

“The nuns’ perceptions gave me new insights,” he said.

“It was also reassuring that many of my interpretations of St Angela’s life and teachings were very much in line with many of those of Ursulines I met.”

The professor is now planning another book on female spirituality in the Middle Ages, using St Angela as a starting point.

Angela Merici was canonised by Pope Pius VII in 1807.

Further major celebrations are planned for the 200th anniversary of St Angela’s canonisation in Armidale in September.

The celebration will also mark the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the Ursuline Foundation in Australia, and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of St Ursula’s College Kingsgrove.

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