Pope Francis has written a new book preface commending the example of Venerable Armida Barelli, a lay leader who formed generations of Catholic women to be civically engaged in the early 20th century, including the pope’s grandmother.

The pope said that Barelli, who will be beatified in April, “fostered the conscious participation of women in social and political life, making a decisive contribution to the establishment of democracy in Italy.”

“The Church now points to her as a model of a woman who in her own humanity, with the intelligence and gifts that God gave her, was able to bear witness to God’s love.”

Ahead of Barelli’s beatification in Milan Cathedral on April 30, Pope Francis wrote a preface to a biography written by the vice postulator for her sainthood cause, which was published in Italian on March 29.

“La zingara del buon Dio” (“The wanderer of the good God”), by Ernesto Preziosi, tells the story of how Barelli “changed an epoch.”

Born to an upper-class family 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 Preziosi.

The author has described Barelli as having “a unique way of enhancing ‘the feminine genius.’”

“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,” Preziosi said in an interview with ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language sister news agency, earlier this year.

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In Pope Francis’ preface to the biography, published in full by L’Osservatore Romano on March 31, he lauded Barelli for encouraging so many women to be engaged with society as citizens and as Christians through her leadership in Catholic Action.

“Among them, I happily remember my grandmother Rosa, who met Armida in June 1924, when — on a visit to Asti — she attended the Conference of the Women’s Union, of which my grandmother Rosa was the diocesan leader,” Pope Francis said.

The pope has often affectionately referred to the example of his paternal grandmother, Rosa Margherita Vassallo, and keeps a letter that she wrote to him on the day of his ordination inside of his breviary, his daily prayer book.

“In years marked by the social and political tensions of the aftermath of the First World War and, later, by the advent of the fascist dictatorship with its nationalistic and racist trends, Armida Barelli worked hard to form a religious mentality among young women, to make them capable of taking an active role in society and confronting the novelties of the time with an independent judgment and conduct,” Pope Francis wrote.

“Barelli … lived her vocation, step by step, setting out on the path that led her to inspire a great movement of women, leading them to live their vocations to the full and to feel themselves living members of the Church and proclaiming the Gospel,” he said.

Barelli 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.

She discerned a lay vocation as a Third Order Franciscan in 1910 under the spiritual guidance of Franciscan Father Agostino Gemelli.

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After showing leadership as the founder of the Milan Catholic women’s chapter of Catholic Action, Pope Benedict XV appointed Barelli as the president of the National Girls Youth of Catholic Action in a private audience in 1918.

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

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

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 Father 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 the way for her upcoming beatification.

“Through her work, she contributed decisively to the promotion of young Christian women in the first half of the 20th century,” Pope Francis said.

“Her personal experience marks a decisive step in the vision of the laity: no longer in a minority condition, but the discovery of how that lay life, within the People of God, is a way to live holiness,” he wrote.