What it takes to minister to those in great need

Today, 2 Mar 2012, is the feast day and 80th anniversary of the death of St Angela of the Cross Guerrero y Gonzalez, the Spanish foundress of the Congregation of the Cross. As with all those Saints who have ‘of the Cross’ in their name, her life was marked both with great trials and with particular devotion to the sufferings of Jesus.

St Angela of the Cross Guerrero y Gonzalez was born in Seville, Spain in early 1846. Of the 14 children born to her mother, only 6 survived infancy, so Angela’s family was well acquainted with grief. Perhaps this is why her mother developed a deep devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows – who is the aid of all those sunk in sorrow and to the Assumption of Our Lady – which assures us that God will keep His promises of eternal life to us and that He will reward all that we suffer for His sake in this life; and encouraged these devotions in her children. Praying the Rosary, honouring Our Lady and regular personal sacrifice to aid the poor marked Angela’s formative years.

While still young, Angela’s father died. Not having a male breadwinner in the family meant that the children had very little education because they needed to work from a young age to help support the family. In Angela’s case she was employed at a shoe factory. The lady in charge of the young employees was full of faith, so one day when she found Angela in an ecstasy she knew what to do and arranged for Angela to meet Fr Torres Padilla, a learned and holy spiritual director. From then on he would be used by God to guide her on her spiritual journey.

Since Angela had been given a desire for religious life, his first task was to help her try out her vocation. At age 19 she spent time with the Carmelites and at age 22 she spent time with the Daughters of Charity. Both orders determined that her health was too frail for the rigours of religious life under their Rules. Back to the shoe workshop she went to wait and pray for God’s will to be revealed. At the age of 25 under Fr Torres’ guidance she made private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. By 1873 parts of God’s mission for her life had been revealed, firstly that to minister to the poor in a way that kept their dignity intact required the acceptance of a life of radical poverty and secondly that God wanted her to fully embrace all that was needed to conform her whole life to that of Jesus hanging in agony on the wood of the Cross.

 On the feast day of Our Lady of the Angels ( 2 Aug) 1875, Angela and three companions took up God’s challenge and privately consecrated themselves to God. To minister to the sick was their initial apostolate, but this rapidly expanded to include all various needs of the poorest of the poor. Starting in a small room with a shared kitchen the Company of the Cross began, and soon attracted many vocations ; so many that larger lodgings were needed. Angela was very concerned that their living quarters were very plain and simple, filled with silence, and decorated with cheap representations of the Stations of the Cross (such as only the poor could afford).

The order was formed none too soon, as an epidemic broke out in Seville in 1876 and the sisters showed great heroism in caring for the epidemic’s victims. Whatever the poor were in need of, whether it be food, money, shelter, medicine, education, nursing, clothing, the sisters were to provide out of their own labour and from the alms given to them – but it had to be given to each person in need with great love.

The accounts of Angela’s life are mostly silent about what happened between the early years of the order and her death on 2 March 1932. Despite her lack of education, Angela still managed to write some 4000+ letters. Founding a religious order is never without trials, be they obtaining recognition and approval by the Church for the Rule, the ups and downs of establishing convents at various places, and the misunderstandings that normally come when someone starts something new and radical under the influence of the Holy Spirit. During Angela’s life 23 convents were established.

To minister to someone in great need in a way that uplifts the needy requires the humility of a person of no status, true experience of what it is like to lack necessities and an acceptance and contentment with such deprivation. Only such a life can truly speak to the poorest of the poor where they are at. This is what the Crucified Jesus called Angela and her companions to live. We thank God for all the good that has come from their faithfulness to that call.

St Angela of the Cross Guerrero y Gozalez, pray for us.