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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 11, 2024
Pope Francis prays during the Mass for the canonization of St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known as Mama Antula, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Feb. 11, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Argentina has its first woman saint.

María Antonia de San José de Paz y Figueroa, popularly known as Mama Antula, was declared a saint this morning by Pope Francis in a ceremony at the beginning of Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The congregation included Argentina’s newly-elected president, Javier Milei, whom Francis greeted and embraced at the end of Mass. (The two are scheduled to meet on Monday as well.) Others included Argentine government officials as well as ambassadors from different countries, together with 25 cardinals, 20 bishops, 230 priests and some 5,000 of the faithful from all continents, among them 500 pilgrims from Argentina.

The congregation included Argentina’s newly-elected president, Javier Milei, whom Francis greeted and embraced at the end of Mass.

At the beginning of the ceremony, a brief biography of the new saint was read aloud by Cardinal Marcelo Semeraro, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of the Saints. He recalled that Mama Antula was born in 1730 in northern Argentina’s Tucuman province. Little is known about her early life, he said, though other sources report that she was born into a well-to-do settler family, the eldest of three girls, and she grew up surrounded by Indigenous people and the family’s African domestic slaves. The Indigenous Quechua people called her Antula, their version of Antonia. At the age of 15, the cardinal said, she joined other girls and boys to assist the Jesuits in their work of giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius; they formed a group called the “Beate,” wore the black habit of the Jesuits and took private vows. She thus became a consecrated lay woman and lived in community with others of the same bent.

When the Jesuits were expelled from Argentina and the Americas by King Carlos III of Spain in February, 1767, they were forced to leave their missions, colleges and houses of prayer. Mama Antula, as she had become known, felt called to take up their work. With the approval of her confessor and the local bishop, she began to give retreats like the Jesuits did, first in the northern province of Santiago del Estero and then in many other places, while also reaching out to those on the margins of society.

While in Cordoba, she kept receiving invitations to come to Buenos Aires, and interpreting that as a sign from God, she set out for that city in 1779, “barefoot and with only a crucifix, because she had placed her security not in herself, but in God; she trusted that her arduous apostolate was His work,” as Pope Francis last Friday told 500 pilgrims from Argentina who had come for her canonization.

Despite obstacles in Buenos Aires from both the church and civil authorities, Cardinal Semeraro said, she persevered, and she continued her evangelizing mission for the next two decades. She also spent two years in Uruguay, the cardinal said. In 1780, she opened a house for the Spiritual Exercises and gave retreats to thousands of people over the last 20 years of her life.

In his previous role as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis played a key role in promoting Mama Antula’s cause.

The postulator of Mama Antula’s cause, Silvia Correale, earlier told America that among those to whom she gave the Spiritual Exercises were several men who became political leaders of Argentina after it gained independence from Spain 11 years after her death on March 7, 1799.

The cause for her beatification was opened more than a century later, in 1905, at the request of the Argentine bishops. But it was not until 2016 that a miracle—the cure of a nun—was officially recognized; it led to her beatification in Santiago del Estero. A second miracle, the cure of an Argentine man, Claudio Perusini, from a serious stroke, was recognized by the pope in October, 2023, and Francis set the date for her canonization for Feb. 11, the anniversary of the first apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes. Mr. Perusini—who had originally entered the Jesuits but later left and is married—was present today in the basilica with his wife and two children for the canonization.

In his previous role as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis played a key role in promoting Mama Antula’s cause.

In his homily at the Mass on Jesus’s curing of a leper in Mark 1:40-45, Pope Francis recalled that in those days a leper was treated as an outcast and ostracized; but Jesus, he said, with “the style of God—closeness, compassion and tenderness,” responded to the man’s plea for help, by touching and healing him.

“Fear, prejudice and false religiosity,” Pope Francis said, “are three causes of a great injustice. They are ‘three ‘leprosies of the soul’ that cause the weak to suffer and then be discarded like refuse.” However, “let us not think that these are only relics of the past. How many suffering men and women do we meet on the sidewalks of our cities! And how many fears, prejudices and inconsistencies, even among those who are believers and call themselves Christians, contribute to wounding them all the more! In our time too, there are striking cases of ostracism, barriers needing to be torn down, forms of ‘leprosy’ to be cured.”

Pope Francis encouraged the congregation to follow the example of Jesus, just as Mama Antula did, calling her “a wayfarer of the Spirit. She traveled thousands of kilometers on foot, crossing deserts and dangerous roads, in order to bring God to others. She is a model of fervor and apostolic courage.”

Two days before the canonization ceremony, Pope Francis spoke with Argentine pilgrims who had come to see her declared a saint. “The charity of Mama Antula, especially in the service of those most in need, imposes itself with great strength today in the midst of this society that runs the risk of forgetting that “radical individualism is a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate, a virus that is clever. It makes us believe that everything consists in giving free rein to our own ambitions,” he told them.

Francis concluded his talk to the pilgrims by hailing Mama Antula as ”a gift for the Argentine people, but also for the entire church.”

“She experienced what God wants of every one of us, that we may discover His call, each in our own state of life; for whatever it may be, it will always be synthesized in achieving ‘everything for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls,’” he said. “This premise, which is at the basis of Ignatian spirituality, on which Mama Antula was nourished, always moved her in every one of her works.”

Pope Francis recalled that one of her main concerns when the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773 “was to impart the Spiritual Exercises herself, thus seeking to help everyone discover the beauty of following Christ.” But, he said, “this was not easy, since, due to the aversion that had been created against the Jesuits, she was prohibited from giving the exercises, so that she decided to impart them clandestinely. We must not forget this clandestine dimension: it is very important.”

In this regard, he said, Mama Antula’s “message for today’s world is not to give up in the face of adversity, not to desist from our good intentions of bringing the Gospel to everyone, despite the challenges this may represent.” He drew attention to Mama Antula’s devotion to St. Joseph and “her great fervor for the Eucharist,” which, he said, “must be at the center of all our Christian life, and from which the strength to realize our apostolate emanates.” Francis concluded his talk to the pilgrims by hailing Mama Antula as ”a gift for the Argentine people, but also for the entire church.”

The promoter of her cause, Bishop Ernesto Giobando, S.J., said in an interview that Mama Antula “was a woman with a profoundly Christian character, whose heart was formed in the school of the Spiritual Exercises.” She had “the heart of a mother and a courageous soul,” and cared especially “for the poor, especially women who had been abandoned, such as slaves, mulatas (those of mixed race), prostitutes, or in prison,” he said. “She was a woman believer in a male milieu, where the decisions of the church did not involve women,” and yet “she and the other consecrated lay women had the courage and the strength to carry forward an apostolic work that required great effort.”

Commenting on the fact that the first Jesuit pope would be the one to canonize Mama Antula, Bishop Giobando recalled that during her lifetime “she dreamed of the restoration of the Society of Jesus, something that happened 15 years after her death.” That it should be Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, to canonize Mama Antula, the apostle of the Spiritual Exercises, he said, “is no accident.”

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