Mama Antula's Moment? An 18th-Century Feminist May Be The Next Catholic Saint
The Vatican may soon canonize the Mama Antula, an Argentine woman who started a spiritual movement at a time when religious intellectualism was strictly the domain the men.
BUENOS AIRES — The Vatican is studying the canonization of Mama Antula, an 18th century woman from northern Argentina who broke the rules to practice Christian spirituality. At the time, this was understood to be a job for the clergy and for men.
Some see her as an early defender of women's rights — and of the poor — in the Americas. She is also being hailed as the first "feminist" who would become a Catholic saint.
On March 7, Pope Francis declared "the time is very close when she could be a saint." The Pope, himself another Argentine, is an admirer of Mama Antula. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he said "this woman is worth gold."
Women were largely silent and unseen in the religious life of the Viceroyalty of Peru where María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, later to be known as Mama Antula, was born in 1730. But she would ignore societal norms and defy the authority of the Church and the Spanish Crown, in her resolve to promote the contemplative practices of the Jesuit order.
These practices, called the Spiritual Exercises, were set out in the early 16th century by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, and intended as a meditative tool in the form of a monthly program. They fell into disuse when the Jesuits were banished from Spain's empire in 1767, for political reasons.
María Antonia was born to a family of notables in Santiago del Estero, and enjoyed the comforts of a prosperous home. She turned her back on all this aged 15, joining a community of Jesuit laywomen who lived as devout Christians without being nuns. She renounced her personal estate as part of a vow of poverty and devoted her life to worship and to helping the destitute. At this time, religious life for an unmarried woman meant strictly entering a convent.
She defied public incomprehension.
It certainly did not mean taking an interest in the intellectual life of the Jesuits, or their Spiritual Exercises (a compilation of prayers and meditations). After these Exercises were forbidden, Maman Antula took it upon herself to restore them, defying the public's incomprehension and official practices.
In spite of restrictions, she began to organize retreats for the Exercises, cheekily asking the authorities to permit what had just been banned. In time, she won the complicity of the bishop of Córdoba (Juan de Moscoso y Peralta), with authority over the provinces of what is today northern Argentina.
The retreats were organized with the help of other women keen to follow her example. In time, they came to be attended by hundreds if not thousands and from all social classes, with lords and ladies sharing food with the poor, and serving them meals. The mixing of classes was also unprecedented in these parts then.
The retreats spread to other districts including Córdoba, where Mama Antula stayed for two years. There she corresponded with exiled Jesuits, providing historians with the material needed to know her life.
Vatican approved the beatification of Mamá Antula from Santiago de Chile.
Path to canonization
In 1779, she walked 4,000 kilometers to Buenos Aires, where her disheveled figure and rag-tag female attire prompted hostility. Such public fervor evidently seemed provocative, if not indecent, in women.
Ruffians threw stones at the group, which took refuge in the Church of Piety near today's Congress (where she is buried). After some months, the bishop of Buenos Aires gave permission for her to hold retreats in the city. One of these, in 1788, attracted some 70,000 people.
Beatification is a prelude to canonization.
In 1795, she opened her permanent premises, the Holy House of Exercises, presently the city's oldest colonial building. The Vatican has a positio on her (a formal brief arguing for the canonization of a saint). These include accounts of the multiplication of food for attendants at several events, her simultaneous sighting in two places, visions of the future, and transformation of substances on several occasions.
Mama Antula was hailed as a saint even before her death in 1799. The movement to canonize her began in 1905. On Aug. 27, 2016, she was beatified, or declared venerable, with the recognition of a posthumous miracle attributed to her. This happened in 1904, when a follower in Buenos Aires was inexplicably cured of an acute and generalized infection (and clearly without antibiotics). The sick girl, María Rosa Vanina, recovered days after praying for Mama Antula's intercession.
Beatification is a prelude to canonization, for which a second miracle would have to be confirmed. If that were to happen, Mama Antula would become the first female saint of the Argentine Republic — and perhaps the first overtly feminist one.