Saint Angela of Foligno: New Year, New You
As we enter a new year, many of us turn our efforts toward self-improvement—establishing resolutions that we hope will build pathways to the better, brighter destination of December 31, 2015. It’s a beautiful thing—the desire and determination to change our ways for the better. It is also a beautiful thing that the New Year brings us such renewed hope in the capacity to change; which essentially comes, perhaps, from the sense of having a “clean slate”—so encouraging and motivating. Reflecting personally on the New Year and on the changes I hope to make in my own life and habits, I was struck by just how incredibly motivating that “clean slate” feeling is. It seemed to me suddenly that anything was possible. This reflection further brought to mind the words of one of my favorite priests: talking about confession during one Sunday homily he reminded the congregation that when we leave the confessional we have a “clean slate”—we’ve been renewed by the grace of God; and he challenged us to reflect on how relieving and encouraging it is to start fresh and take new, untainted steps toward virtue. Conversion, then, and sanctity become real possibilities. In light of all these considerations, I want to encourage all of us to reflect on the fruitfulness of God’s mercy and grace, and on the real possibility of conversion this year and each day, aided by the example of the life of St. Angela of Foligno, whose feast day it is today, January 7.
Life and Conversion
St. Angela was born into a wealthy, ruling family in Umbria in the mid 13th century. She lived in luxury and decadence throughout her young years and did not change her ways even after her marriage—continuing to pursue her every desire, indulgent and even adulterous. However, in 1285, plagued by the emptiness she felt in her lifestyle, she was driven to prayer and experienced a vision of St. Francis of Assisi. During her vision, St. Francis told Angela what steps she must take in order to be converted and begin leading a satisfying life centered on God. Angela immediatley sought the sacrament of reconciliation and experienced a deep sorrow for her sins while in confession. Under the guidance of her confessor, Angela began to dedicate her life to penance and prayer. Soon after her conversion, St. Angela, lost her husband, mother, and children to disease. Left alone in the world, Angela joined the Third Order of St. Francis and continued in her path toward profound conversion.
Death and Canonization
St. Angela died peacefully in 1309. She was beatified in 1701 by Pope Clement XI and was recently canonized by Pope Francis in October 2013 through the comparatively rare process of “equivalent canonization.” In "equivalent canonizaion" the Pope may choose to waive the common judicial process of canonization and declare a Blessed’s liturgical cult to be extended to the universal church. Esteem for St. Angela, her life, and her writings, has been expressed by many, including St. John Paul II, who called her “master of theologians” during his 1993 homily at the site of her tomb.
Legacy for the Faithful
St. Angela is recognized as a “great mystic” and visionary. She experienced trances during which she received many mystical revelations, which were eventually written down in her dictated works “Book of Visions and Instructions” and “Memoriale.” These works also record the story of her conversion and the early stages of her spiritual journey. As St. Angela grew in holiness, her reputation for charity, penance, and sanctity gathered a growing group of followers who sought to journey toward deeper understanding of and relationship with God under St. Angela’s instruction. St. Angela was a very effective spiritual teacher, and many benefitted from her insights and guidance. She encouraged dedication in prayer and dependence on God, claiming that
No one can be saved without divine light. Divine light causes us to begin and to make progress, and it leads us to the summit of perfection. Therefore if you want to begin and to receive this divine light, pray. If you have begun to make progress, pray. And if you have reached the summit of perfection, and want to be super-illumined so as to remain in that state, pray. If you want faith, pray. If you want hope, pray. If you want charity, pray. If you want poverty, pray. If you want obedience, pray. If you want chastity, pray. If you want humility, pray. If you want meekness, pray. If you want fortitude, pray. If you want any virtue, pray."
I find St. Angela’s humility throughout the process of her conversion incredibly inspiring. Her willingness to release her sinful past to the mercy of God and accept humbly the “clean state” offered by His grace resonates in my heart, that is so desirous of a “fresh start.” St. Angela is a wonderful saint for us to look to as we launch into a New Year, since her life testifies to the renewal that we are offered by God’s grace. Fortunately for us as Catholics, a “clean slate” does not come around only once every 365 days. It does not require champagne toasts or fireworks (although it might be nice to walk into a celebration every time we leave the confessional). It is as simple and as accessible as a visit to confession, a prayerful rededication of our hearts to God, and a openness to the strength He so willingly offers us when we set out in search of Him. I hope we all take every opportunity for conversion (and they are presented to us everyday) this year and for all the years to come. Happy New Year to one and all! St. Angela, Pray for us!