Soon-to-be-beatified Italian woman pioneered faith-based feminism

By Courtney Mares for CNA

Armida Barelli. / Archdiocese of Milan

Rome, Italy, Apr 15, 2021 / 12:11 pm (CNA).

Armida Barelli, a lay Catholic leader who formed “generations of conscious and motivated women” in the faith, will be beatified after the Church approved a miracle attributed to her intercession.

Born in Milan in 1882, Barelli came of age at a time when Italy’s first secular feminists emerged from the women’s suffrage movement, adding calls for divorce rights and more non-religious schools to their campaigns.

She served as president of the National Girls Youth of Catholic Action for more than three decades, helping young women to be formed in “a Eucharistic spirituality” and to recognize their equal “baptismal dignity” with men, according to the vice postulator for her sainthood cause, Ernesto Preziosi.

“She had a unique way of enhancing ‘the feminine genius’,” Preziosi said.

“Ultimately, hers was not a feminism seen in the wake of the secular and socialist movements then present; for her and for the young women gathered in the National Girls Youth of Catholic Action, the dignity and freedom of women had a spiritual foundation, nourished by formation,” he said in an interview with CNA’s Italian-language sister news agency, ACI Stampa.

“In fact, she mobilized thousands of young women — without following in the footsteps of secular feminism which was then in the process of spreading — helping them to find their baptismal dignity and substantial freedom with recognition of equal dignity with men, all rooted in a Eucharistic spirituality,” he said.

Barelli was raised in an upper class family in Milan, where she was educated by Ursuline nuns in primary school before being sent to a boarding school in Menzingen, Switzerland run by the Francsican Sisters of the Holy Cross.

She refused multiple advantageous marriage proposals arranged by her parents, feeling drawn instead to dedicate herself to the Lord and serving the poor, particularly orphans and children of prisoners.

Under the spiritual guidance of Franciscan Fr. Agostino Gemelli, Barelli discerned a lay vocation as a Third Order Franciscan in 1910.

Blessed Cardinal Andrea Ferrari, the archbishop of Milan, asked her to help found the city’s Catholic women’s chapter of Catholic Action and then recommend her abilities to Pope Benedict XV.

At first, Barelli did not especially want to accept her archbishop’s invitation to lead the women’s group, Preziosi said. “But then noticing the difficulties with which the young women lived at that time, she accepted the challenge and went on to work tirelessly, reaching unimaginable results … in the formation of the Catholic laity.”

Barelli met with Pope Benedict XV in 1918 for a private audience in which he appointed her as president of National Girls Youth of Catholic Action.

Serving in that role from 1918 to 1946, Barelli formed “generations of conscious and motivated women,” Preziosi said.

Known as Ida to her friends, Barelli had an strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which helped to spread among the Catholic women she encountered.

“For her, the Sacred Heart is the ‘Heart of the King’, the merciful love of Christ, which invests every human action,” Preziosi said.

“She lived her faith with ever greater depth, a faith that led to an encounter with Christ himself, loved and present. It is a faith that is simple and strong at the same time, lived as a response to the call of the Lord,” he said.

Barelli went on to help found the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, collected a fund to open an orphanage in northern China, and founded the Secular Institute of the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ together with Fr. Gemelli.

She died in 1952 after suffering for three years from a progressive chronic illness. Barelli’s cause for sainthood was opened by the Archdiocese of Milan in 1960. Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed her Venerable in 2007 in recognition of a life of heroic virtue.

On Feb. 20, 2021, Pope Francis approved a miracle attributed to Barelli’s intercession, paving her upcoming beatification.

The miracle involved the healing of Alice Maggini, who was hit by a truck while riding her bicycle in 1989 in Prato, Italy after which the doctors predicted severe neurological repercussions.

Maggini’s family invoked the intercession of Barelli, who was then a Servant of God, and Maggini was completely healed in a scientifically inexplicable way and did not suffer any later consequences of the injury up until in death in 2012.

The current president of Italy’s Catholic Action, Matteo Truffelli, welcomed the news that Barelli will soon be declared a “Blessed.”

“Traveling down unexplored paths in the proclamation of the Gospel, Armida met thousands of young women, arousing in all of them a creative, daring, courageous and enthusiastic faith, and stirring in them the desire to involve many other people in this mission,” Truffelli said.

“In the diocesan associations of Catholic Action, there have been and still are numerous examples of women like Armida, who have continued her legacy over the years by carrying on with contagious enthusiasm their ‘elder sister’s’ work of evangelization.”

Preziosi said: “The testimony of Armida Barelli is that of a Christian laywoman who takes her life in hand, who loves the Church, who allows herself to be questioned by her time and spends her entire life proclaiming the love of God, which she saw in the Sacred Heart. A woman who, serving a great ideal, shows us the way to a conscious Christian vocation.”


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