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Culture in action

04 September 2021

The enterprise of Armida Barelli and Agostino Gemelli

When thinking about the life of Armida Barelli what comes to mind is the Latin motto, ad impossibilia nemo tenetur [nobody is held to the impossible], but only in so doing to reverse it. Everyone is bound to desire the impossible, because, if they really believe in it, they might just obtain it. Armida Barelli’s life, which is exceptional in its apparent normality, is punctuated with episodes that a good fiction scriptwriter would mark with a blue pencil as “improbable”. Yet, all these things really happened, and are documented and documentable. She was a cashless cashier, as throughout her life she launched ambitious initiatives, but which started from a total lack of adequate funding. A shy pasionaria, who was reserved and discreet by temperament, but gave six speeches a day to the girls of her beloved GF, the Gioventù Femminile [Girls’ Youth], with the aim of making them understand the importance of an informed and conscious vote.  A globetrotter who was willing to travel at any time even when her health began to falter. A founder of social movements and networks even when the temptation of seclusion appeared in her life. The list of paradoxes could go on. As an online discussion forum of students at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, a university that without this woman’s tenacity would never have been founded, state, “Her secret weapon? Her connection with the beyond”.

At the center of these comments is the cause of beatification of “Miss Barelli”, now on the home stretch. Armida’s faith was rock solid, solid, not trivially sentimental, from which unexpected successes and real miracles have sprung, not only post mortem. The term “worship of the heart of Jesus” could mislead those who do not know its history; there is nothing naïve or corny in her devotion, as the term “heart” in the Bible indicates the seat of the will, what we would call today emotional intelligence.

Armida trusts the locomotive of Grace, and she lets herself be transported by what she encounters and faithful to the method of not having a method.  She invests all her energies in obeying the present, while being certain of only a few great things, which are her will to change her ways and even make U-turns when the signs of Providence require it. At 18, she promised her friends, “I will never be a spinster, I will be a Sister Elizabeth missionary in China or the mother of twelve children, and the first child will be called Elizabeth. Remember all that Ida Barelli will be a nun or a mother, but never a spinster”. Armida did not want to live only for herself, and this her obsession. Her passion for life won the trust of a man with a difficult temperament, who was hard and authoritarian (to use a euphemism) like Edoardo, alias Agostino Gemelli. He was called, and not by chance, the Terrible, not the Magnificent, by his professors, once he became rector of the newly founded university.

The encounter with Father Gemelli changed her life. Or rather, it derailed the lives of both of them towards paths which were impossible to imagine before and with projects that were so ambitious as to border on madness. Armida fell madly in love with the Franciscan charisma - the same charisma that had already kidnapped Edoardo’s heart - and entered the Third Order with the name Elisabetta (in homage to the Hungarian saint; as she had always wished in her dreams as a girl). She then began working with her friends Olgiati and Necchi, in symbiosis with Father Gemelli. Today, in the twenty-first century, they have given their names to streets and classrooms in the area around the Milanese Catholic University.

“It should be clear that in 1921, one hundred years ago - writes Caterina Giojelli in her lively portrait of the ‘Barelli tornado’ - when the university was inaugurated, she was anything but a simple or foolhardy fundraiser. Born in 1882, into a middle-class family, she was educated at the prestigious Swiss college of the Franciscan nuns of Menzigen. A polyglot like few maître à penser of the time, she had, however, hesitated a little before following Father Gemelli in the ambitious foundation of the university. She did not feel like an intellectual, but the Sacred Heart of Jesus discovered in Switzerland and in the clear faith of a fellow student oriented all her choices”.

No longer “the obsession of science for science’s sake or culture for culture’s sake, but everything for religion’s sake”, Gemelli wrote to her in 1919. Not an erudite fixation but a service to the world, which is open to the unexpected and to the surprises of Charity with a capital C, which does not reside from the clouds and beyond, but has placed its tent in the midst of men. On seeing her in action, Cardinal Ferrari asked her to found the Catholic Women’s Youth. The indefatigable Miss Barelli began to travel the length and breadth of Italy to tell women how precious their contribution was, and to help them study, motivate them to work and spur them to commit themselves personally in politics or in the great archipelago of civil society, in the family or in the workplace.

Poor of everything (even of time and health) Armida became a magnet for funding and subscriptions. Thousands of micro-donations, and also “special effects” such as the sudden capitulation of Count Ernesto Lombardo, at first skeptical about the feasibility of the project, who wrote a check with many zeroes to finance the future university (the million needed to purchase the building in Via Sant’Agnese). Day after day, Armida supported her work, and the work of her “different twin”, Edoardo Gemelli, who chose the name of Agostino to emulate his determination and depth of thought. Barelli wrote at the end of the war, “You know that the vote has been granted to women. It is a new exercise in political activity for us: we must prepare ourselves, we must understand what the social principles of the Church are in order to exercise our duty as citizens. We women are a force in Italy”.

Armida knew well that wealth (the real one) is in the eyes of those who know how to look at the world with the eyes of a child, in the gift of a changed gaze. “How marvelous the sparkle of the sun on the water of the sea. They are myriads of diamonds that the Lord gives even to the poorest”, she used to repeat as a young girl, during the vacations from work in her parents’ print shop. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but only if they are jewels that need not be bought, that remind man of his eternal horizon, as free as light on the sea.

by Silvia Guidi

A graphic novel for Armida

Armida Barelli marked the first half of the twentieth century with her desire to strengthen the presence and the Catholic faith in Italian society. A graphic novel, which is scripted and illustrated by Pia Valentinis and Giancarlo Ascari. The volume recounts her life and her extraordinary encounters with other protagonists of Italian Catholicism over a period of half a century of history, which in addition to Agostino Gemelli, included Giuseppe Toniolo, Benedict XV and Pius XI. The book is entitled “Armida Barelli - Nulla sarebbe stato possibile senza di lei” [Armida Barelli - Nothing Would Have Been Possible Without Her], and is edited by the journalist and writer Tiziana Ferrario. The book was realized in collaboration with the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and the Giuseppe Toniolo Institute. The book, published by Franco Cosimo Panini, and with the historical guidance of Aldo Carera and Ernesto Preziosi, was published on the occasion of the centennial of the Catholic University. A traveling exhibition is also planned with the graphic novel plates.  On February 20, 2021, Pope Francis authorized the Congregation of Saints to promulgate the decree that will bring Armida Barelli, whose miracle has been recognized, to the altars. The beatification ceremony is scheduled for 2022.