March 21, 2014

Angela Maria Astorch

The Mystic of the Breviary

Feast Day : 12th November

Scandal-hit Nun Has Her Veil Removed

In the mid 1600s, an investigation into allegations that some Spanish Capuchiness Poor Clare Sisters were having inappropriate relations with Jesuit Fathers resulted in the Mother Abbess, Sister Mary Angela, and her Vicaress being ‘de-veiled’ and reduced to the status of penitents. The Sisters, fleeing from floods which severely damaged their newly founded Monastery in Murcia, had found temporary shelter in the Jesuit summer residence in the nearby mountains. A second investigation, however, quickly ensued and this showed that the allegations were groundless.  The ‘de-veiled’ penitent Sisters, victims of false rumours spread by a spite-filled local gossip, were returned to the status as Capuchin Poor Clare nuns with their innocence vindicated. The priest whose findings led to the Sister’s demotion was publically reprimanded for the sloppiness of his original investigation. For Mother Mary Angela Astorch, the Abbess concerned, and her Sisters this false accusation was but one more obstacle in their path that they had to overcome to get their new foundation at Murcia off the ground.  They had already seen off an arduous carriage ride from their home at Zaragoza and plagues and flooding which hit the town shortly after their arrival. Murcia was the location of one of the earliest Capuchin Poor Clare Monasteries in Spain but the life-story of Mother Mary Angela Astorch, the Abbess, will be forever linked with the earliest days of the first Monastery of Capuchin Poor Clares in Catalonia, founded at Barcelona by the pious widow and Servant of God, Mother Angela Margaret Seraphina Prat.

A Very Young Postulant

Mother Mary Angela Astorch was given the name Jeronima Mary when she was baptized in Barcelona in 1592. She had lost both her parents by the age of five and was reared by a nanny. At around the age of seven, the little girl came down with a very serious illness and, according to contemporary witnesses’ reports, actually died but she was brought back to life again through the prayers of the aforementioned Capuchin nun, Mother Angela Margaret Seraphina. With a special dispensation from the local Bishop, Jeronima was received as a postulant at the Capuchiness Monastery of Saint Margaret in Barcelona when she was only eleven years old. Her older sister Elizabeth was already a nun there. Her other two siblings were older brothers. One of these died in childhood and the other became a Servite religious priest. When she had entered the enclosure, Sister Mary Angela, as jeronima was now called, had brought along the six volumes of the Latin breviary but her love for Latin books gave rise to fears regarding her humility and she was forbidden to read Latin. Because of her young age, she had to wait until she was 16 years old before she was received as a novice on the 7th of September 1608. Her own sister, as Mistress of Novices, was balanced and detached in directing her and Sister Mary Angela soon progressed in virtue and knowledge of her vocation.  She made Solemn Profession on the 8th of September 1609. 

Sister Mary Angela’s Able Leadership

Sister Mary Angela was elected to the local community Council in 1612 and in 1619 she and five others made up the founding Community of Capuchin Poor Clare Sisters at a new Monastery in Zaragoza. In that Monastery, Sister Mary Angela, who even as a novice, had been entrusted with assisting with the formation of her fellow novices, served as Mistress of Novices from 1614 to 1623 and from then until 1626 she directed the formation of newly professed Sisters. In 1626 she was elected Abbess at such a young age that special permission had to be sought from the Holy see to allow her to take up office. As Abbess she immediately set about having the Constitutions of the Spanish Capuchin Poor Clares approved by Pope Urban VII.  These Constitutions, approved in 1627, were observed by Spanish Poor Clare Monasteries and their Daughter Houses for over three hundred years. Nowadays, however, all Capuchin Poor Clare Nuns throughout the world observe the 1986 Constitutions of the Capuchin Order of Saint Clare(Ordo Sanctae Clarae Capuccinarum).  Mother Mary Angela insisted that the Sisters study the Rule of Saint Clare continuously and had it read publicly in the refectory each month so that even illiterate Sisters could learn it. She made sure that the Liturgy of the Hours was celebrated with due dignity each day in the Monastery’s Choir.  In her spiritual conferences she spoke so well that one bishop said he regretted that she was not a priest. As a mother to the community, she took care of the sisters and was ready to serve them wherever the need arose, willingly taking her turn working in the kitchen, the laundry, the infirmary or the garden.  She shared the monastery’s alms with the poor and generously  gave away the clothes that the novices had brought with them when they left home.  

Her Love for the Saints and the Divine Office

Mother Mary Angela Astorch’s spirituality was completely biblical and liturgical. Her devotion to the Child Jesus, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Passion of Christ, the Eucharist, the Good Shepherd and Mary the Mother of the Good Shepherd were typically Capuchin Franciscan. What distinguishes her from other mystics of her age is the central place the Divine Office, the Scriptural Word of God, the writings of the Fathers plays in her spirituality. All the mysteries of Christ and of Mary, the angels and the saints were part and parcel of her spirituality. She would chat easily with the saints at prayer and she harboured a particularly deep devotion to twelve favourite saints, whom she called her “heavenly consistory” and on whose virtues she modelled her life. But as time went by, the Breviary came to inspire and encapsulate her spiritual life more and more. And Blessed Pope John Paul II called her the mystic of the Breviary when he beatified her in 1982. 

Another New Foundation

Mother Mary Angela lived in Zaragoza thirty years during which time the community of Nuns grew in number and quality and soon was too big for the Monastery there. Mother Mary Angela’s desire to further expand the Order was fulfilled when she was asked to found in Murcia a Monastery dedicated to the “Exaltation of the Blessed Sacrament” in 1645. There the Capuchin Poor Clare Sisters would devote itself, above all, to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in reparation for sacrileges against the Eucharist. Mother Mary Angela saw all of Christology summed up in the Eucharist and she succeeded in having the still very rare practice of daily Communion introduced among her Sisters. Therefore heedless of the hardships involved, she immediately accepted this invitation. In fact all the journeys that she and her Sisters had to undertake in order to found new Monasteries always involved a great deal of hardship. For example, on one occasion, their carriage overturned and on another the coach driver fell under the carriage wheels. Only the prayers of the Sisters revived him. In 1647, a plague ravaged the town of Murcia but, luckily, none of the Nuns fell victim to it. The Sisters lives were again spared when the town was hit by severe flooding in 1651 and 1653 but their Monastery was so badly damaged that the Community had to take refuge in the Jesuits’s summer residence of Las Eremitas in the nearby mountains. 

'Alone with the Alone'

On finally returning to the Monastery she continued as Abbess until 1661 then stepped down from office so as to devote herself completely to contemplation, “alone with the Alone(sola con el Solo)” Suffering from intermittent epilepsy fits since early 1665, she went to meet Jesus, her Bridegroom, on the 2nd of December of that year, after singing the Pange Lingua Eucaristic hymn as she lay dying. She was seventy five years old. Her incorrupt remains, which have lain in the sanctuary of the Monastery chapel since 1683, were deliberately damaged by anti-clericalists during the Spanish Civil War. Sister Mary Angela Astorch was beatified in 1982.

"It happens to me very, very often that, while singing the psalms, His Majesty communicates with me through interior sensations the very thing which I am singing in such a way that I can say that I am truly singing the internal feelings of my spirit and not the composition and verses of the Psalms." - Blessed Mary Angela Astorch

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