“Argentina is living in a situation of eternal crisis, but Mama Antula invites us to put a note of holiness in today’s world,” explained Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva, during an exchange with journalists at the Vatican on February 8, 2024.
Maria Antonio de Paz y Figueroa (1730-1799), known as “Mama Antula,” will be canonized this Sunday, February 11. This consecrated laywoman helped spread the Spiritual Exercises in Argentina in the last decades of the 18th century. Pope Francis will preside over the mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, in the presence of Argentina’s new head of state, Javier Milei.
Spreading Ignatian spirituality
Mama Antula is a popular figure in South America, where she helped keep the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola alive despite the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 by the King of Spain, whose country then exercised colonial guardianship over these vast territories. In the context of the second half of the 18th century, Mama Antula roamed the deserts of the Tucumán region, dressed in a black habit, like the Jesuits.
She sometimes faced hostility from the local population, who at times accused her of being a madwoman and a witch. But she persevered, organizing spiritual retreats inspired by the Exercises of St. Ignatius.
She began at first in small villages. Then, starting in 1779, she went to Buenos Aires. The bishop of the city at the time eventually made her retreats compulsory for all aspirants to holy orders.
Mother of the Homeland
The house of spiritual exercises she founded in Buenos Aires was visited by over 70,000 people during the last twenty years of her life. Among them were important political figures. Some would later play a key role in Argentina’s independence, proclaimed in 1810, 11 years after her death. This indirect role makes her a “Mother of the Homeland,” according to the postulator of her cause for canonization, Silvia Correale.
She was not directly involved in politics, but she did provide “spiritual guidance to the elite, in a climate of change that would lead to separation from the Kingdom of Spain and independence a few years after her death,” Alberto Germán Bochatey, Auxiliary Bishop of La Plata and General Secretary of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, tells I.MEDIA.
The Argentine bishop emphasizes that Mama Antula “helped to open minds, particularly for the emancipation of slaves,” ensuring that freed slaves did not end up on the streets. “Faced with the difficulties of her time, she knew how to take the path of a Church on the move, as Pope Francis often says, setting out on the roads to proclaim the Gospel,” he points out.
Social work based on spiritual life
For Bishop Bochatey, Mama Antula “is an example of what can be done, even with few structures, but with the conviction of faith.” He hopes that her canonization will raise the profile of this relatively old but highly modern figure for her time, who was able to assert herself as a woman in the face of civil and ecclesiastical authorities by proposing a bold model of social mixing.
“She wanted to accomplish a form of social work based on spiritual life, not political ideologies, and this is what makes her work so relevant and rich,” explains Bishop Bochatey. He emphasizes that Mama Antula shows that “social justice is based on love of neighbor, because Jesus gave his life ‘for all, for all, for all,’ as Pope Francis likes to remind us.”
Bringing the Gospel to all social classes
“She offered the Spiritual Exercises to the viceroy’s family and the aristocracy at the same time as to slaves,” notes the archbishop of Buenos Aires. “More than 500 people could live together in the same house during a month of Spiritual Exercises, mixing all social categories. That in itself is an interesting message,” insists Archbishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva.
Alluding to the current situation in Argentina, where more than 50% of the population is now living below the poverty line, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires stresses that “the poor are not numbers, but concrete faces of suffering brothers and sisters. Mama Antula therefore offers us a message for today” by having concretely lived “fraternity,” notes the archbishop of the Argentine capital.
He notes that “this canonization is also part of the synodal process, from the perspective of promoting lay women. Mama Antula was not a nun, even if her dress and the images we have of her can mislead us,” he adds.
The culmination of almost 120 years of proceedings
The cause for the beatification of Mama Antula was opened in 1905, at the request of the Argentine bishops of the time. After more than a century of proceedings, a miracle attributed to her intercession — the healing of a nun in the early 20th century — was formally recognized by Pope Francis in March 2016. She was beatified on August 27, 2016, at a mass celebrated in Santiago del Estero, northern Argentina, by Cardinal Angelo Amato, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
For her canonization, the case of a man affected by a serious stroke was selected as a valid miracle. The Argentinean, born in 1959, was hospitalized in Santa Fe, where he was able to return to normal life after suffering irreparable brain damage. A prayer chain was formed to pray for his recovery, involving not only his family and friends, but also people who didn’t know him, who asked for Mama Antula’s intercession on his behalf.