Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Story

By Alli Bobzien

The Catholic Church has recently added María Antonia to its roster of powerhouse female saints, and her story and witness bring my heart such joy and hope. Known as “Mama Antula,” the first female saint of Argentina was not only a force for good and a pioneer of human rights, but also a woman and layperson.

María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, or María Antonia of St. Joseph, is known as the “mother” of Argentina. Born in 1730 to a prosperous family, she left home at the age of 15 and forged her own path by choosing not to marry or become a nun. In a time when anything beyond the options of wife or nun was unheard of, she become a consecrated laywoman. Dedicating her life to working alongside the Jesuits, she promoted the Spiritual Exercises and spread the Gospel among the poor.

In 1767 Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Argentina; María Antonia made it her mission to keep the flame of the Spiritual Exercises and the work of the Jesuits alive. She encouraged all to participate in spiritual retreats regardless of social class, gender or profession. In a style reminiscent of St. Teresa of Ávila, María Antonia walked from cities to towns organizing retreats and safeguarding Ignatian spirituality, despite the hostile political climate towards the Jesuits. She was known for being a woman on the move, a “holy and joyful laywoman,” filled with good humor, even amidst the trials of travel and the prohibitions against Ignatian spirituality in Argentina.

Eventually, she reached Buenos Aires where she established the House for Spiritual Exercises, despite imperial authorities having denied her permission to restore the Ignatian tradition. While its main purpose was to lead retreats on the Spiritual Exercises, María also incorporated education, aid for the poor and sick, and post-prison reintegration into the house’s mission. She was given the title “mother” of Argentina due to her “tireless proclamation of the Gospel that left its mark on the religious and cultural identity of the Argentinians.” The Indigenous community of Quechua affectionately referred to her as “Mama Antula,” which translated to “little mother Antonia” as a testament to her care and devotion to their people.

She invited all to participate in the Ignatian Exercises — slave, free, Indigenous, colonizer, laypeople and priests alike. The retreats held at the House for Spiritual Exercises grew in importance to the point where all candidates for the priesthood were required to attend a retreat before they could receive holy orders. Furthermore, the bishop would consult with María before a candidate’s ordination in order to receive her opinion on their readiness to serve. Ministering to all classes of the Argentinian people until her death in 1799, María Antonia became Argentina’s first female saint in February of 2024.

In today’s climate of polarizing feelings about the church, Mama Antula’s call for a welcoming church that incorporates and serves all people shines brightly as an example of God’s kingdom on earth. Many hail Mama Antula as the “first defender of human rights” in Argentina. Where others at the time saw slaves, natives and peasants as objects to be used and discarded, Mama Antula saw people capable of great spiritual connection and deserving of care.

What if our church was also known for defending the human rights of the needy? What if the marginalized in our society knew that first and foremost the church would serve both their spiritual and physical needs? It’s an ideal which we still struggle to accomplish today. Mama Antula offers an example of a woman and a layperson who proceeded with her call to serve regardless of the limitation of her gender and lack of holy orders. She understood that an active spiritual life, formed through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, was an accessible gateway to the church for all people.

Bishop Santiago Olivera, who leads Argentina’s military dioceses and the commission of the causes of saints in the Argentine Conference of Bishops, spoke to Mama Antula’s influence as “remind[ing] us of the important pastoral work of being an instrument, a bridge, so that people can meet Jesus through the Spiritual Exercises, which [was] her fundamental work.” These words are a beautiful reminder to us all of the invitation offered by Ignatian spirituality to connect not only with our Creator but also with one another. Mama Antula created a sacred space of equality in her House of Spiritual Exercises where a nobleman’s wife would serve a slave, and each would view the other as a child of God. Bishop Vicente Bokalic, a bishop of Argentina, stated at the time of Mama Antula’s canonization that her life serves as a testament to the fact that “a gift of God’s love [is] capable of transforming societies.” Mama Antula’s example calls us each to work towards recreating a church that goes out to encounter others, walks alongside and encourages one another in spirituality, and affirms that our church is a home for all people.

The church’s affirmation of the impact of Mama Antula through her canonization should inspire women, laypeople and clergy alike. Her life serves as a testament to the transformative power of faith on the church and society. Her bravery and dedication to the protection of Ignatian spirituality helped to break down barriers between classes and brought Argentina closer to God. The church needs each of our skill sets in ministry, as our gifts were crafted uniquely by God to fill the hearts of his people. When you feel uncertain of your place in the church, lean into the welcoming arms of Ignatian spiritual practices and remember the courageous trailblazers that forged the path like Mama Antula.

Intercession Prayer

Mama Antula,

Help us to see Christ in all people,

To care for each of our brothers and sisters as spiritual beings,

Capable and worthy of seeking God,

Deserving of our time, our efforts, our love.

 

Inspire us to acts of courage,

Not hiding behind our perceived limitations,

But acting boldly in answer to God’s call,

Journeying onwards despite all obstacles.

 

Walk with us towards those in need of Christ,

Seeing that need mirrored in our own hearts,

As we invite them into communion with him

Through his gift of the Spiritual Exercises.

 

Wayfarer of the Spirit,

Guide us as we embrace spirituality in our hearts,

Open our eyes to God’s goodness through contemplation,

Minister to us as we experience his presence.

 

Thank you for carving out a path and place

For those who feel lost,

For those who seem forgotten,

For me.

Alli Bobzien is a full-time mom, a nap-time writer, and graduate student of Theology at Fuller Seminary. When she isn’t playing outdoors with her two spunky daughters, she writes about spirituality, theology, family, and nature. You can find more of her work at allibobzien.com, through her monthly newsletter The Pondering Heart, or on Instagram @bobz.alli.