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The Associated PressFebruary 09, 2024
Pope Francis greets a group of Argentine pilgrims at the Vatican Feb. 9, 2024, ahead of the canonization of Argentina's first female saint, Blessed María Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known as "Mama Antula." (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis on Friday blasted the “radical individualism” that he said was infecting society today, as he greeted Argentine pilgrims who are in town for this weekend’s canonization of the first female saint from his home country.

Instead, Francis held up as a model the 18th century Argentine laywoman lovingly known as Mama Antula, who ministered to the poor and helped keep Jesuit spirituality alive in Argentina after the religious order, to which the pope belongs, was suppressed.

On Sunday Francis will canonize Mama Antula, whose real name was María Antonia di San Giuseppe de Paz y Figueroa, in a ceremony that will also mark his first meeting with Argentina’s new libertarian president, Javier Milei.

Milei, who has spoken in favor of loosening labor laws and suggested people should be allowed to sell their own vital organs, was due to arrive in Rome on Friday from Israel. After the canonization Mass on Sunday, he is to meet formally on Monday with Francis and later Italy’s right-wing leader, Premier Giorgia Meloni.

Speaking to pilgrims who travelled to Rome for the ceremony, Francis praised Mama Antula as an example of someone who was willing to risk it all for the sake of spreading the faith, especially to the poorest.

“Mama Antula’s charity, above all in the service to the neediest, is today very much in evidence in the midst of a society that runs the risk of forgetting that radical individualism is the most difficult virus to overcome,” he told them. “A virus that deceives. It makes us believe that it’s all about giving free rein to one’s ambitions.”

Mama Antula was born in 1730 to a wealthy family in Tucuman, Argentina but left her privilege behind at age 15 to join a group of Jesuit-inspired women. After the Company of Jesus was suppressed in 1767 and its priests expelled from Spain’s colonies, Mama Antula kept the Jesuits’ Ignatian spiritual exercises alive by teaching them across Argentina, even at the risk of being imprisoned.

“This dimension of clandestinity cannot be forgotten. It is very important,” Francis said. “Another message that she gives us in today’s world is not to give up in the face of adversity, not to give up in our good intentions to bring the Gospel to all, despite the challenges that this may represent.”

While history’s first Jesuit and first Argentine pope clearly has a particular affinity for a Jesuit-inspired Argentine like Mama Antula, it’s not the first time he has given his countrymen a saint so close to his heart.

In 2016, Francis canonized Argentina’s first saint: José Gabriel del Rosario Brochero, a poncho-wearing, mate-sipping “gaucho priest” who ministered in the Argentine peripheries, and was in many ways a 19th-century version of Francis himself.

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