St María Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known throughout Argentina simply as Mama Antula, devoted herself completely to helping others experience God’s closeness and compassion, Pope Francis said after he declared the 18th-century consecrated laywoman a saint.

By letting her heart and life be ‘touched’ and ‘healed’ by Christ, he said, ‘she proclaimed him tirelessly her whole life long, for she was convinced, as she loved to repeat: “Patience is good, but perseverance is better.”’

‘May her example and her intercession help us to grow according to the heart of God, in charity,’ the Pope said in his homily after proclaiming her a saint during a Mass on 11 February in St Peter’s Basilica.

St María Antonia de Paz Figueroa is the fifth saint associated with Argentina and the nation’s first female saint.

‘Mama Antula is considered the mother of the nation. She was a strong, brave woman who believed in Argentina. She was committed to the country and [believed] that knowing Christ would transform society,’ Bishop Santiago Olivera, who heads the commission for the cause of saints, told OSV News when the Vatican announced on 24 October 2023 that she would be elevated to sainthood.

Mama Antula’s path to sainthood began more than a century ago. In general, two miracles need to be accepted by the Church as having occurred through the intercession of the sainthood candidate, one for beatification and one for canonisation. The first miracle attributed to her came in 1904, more than a century after her death in 1799 and 112 years before her beatification by Pope Francis in 2016.

Mama Antula is considered the mother of the nation. She was a strong, brave woman who believed in Argentina.

Born in 1730 into a wealthy family, the future saint left home at 15 to avoid an arranged marriage. Her family expected her to enter a convent, but that was not her calling. Bishop Olivera said nuns in the 18th century were cloistered, and Mama Antula, after meeting Jesuit priests, decided to dedicate her life to working with them and spreading the Word.

This turned out to be providential: when the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its colonies in the Americas in 1767, Bishop Olivera said, Mama Antula kept the Jesuits’ work going.

After founding a community of consecrated laywomen, Mama Antula walked throughout northern Argentina for some 20 years teaching about the Church in Quechua, the language of her home province of Santiago de Estero in the north of the country, and in Spanish, and holding retreats to conduct the Ignatian spiritual exercises, sometimes in secret.

María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa
St María Antonia de Paz Figueroa (1730–1799) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

Mama Antula is believed to have walked more than 4000 kilometres throughout Argentina before ending up in Buenos Aires, the capital, where she founded a spiritual centre and charity programs for women and children.

Careful not to offend the Spanish viceroys, she nevertheless promoted the idea of an independent Argentina, something that would not happen until 1816, more than a decade after her death.

She continued to work with the Jesuits until the end of her life, with a stream of letters crossing the Atlantic between her in Argentina and the priests in Europe. The letters were eventually gathered into a book, reflecting Mama Antula’s importance in keeping the Jesuit tradition alive in Argentina.

‘It is impressive that after all these years she will be canonised and it will be a Jesuit who makes her a saint,’ said Bishop Olivera.

The spiritual centre founded by Mama Antula still stands in Buenos Aires, and her tomb in the Our Lady of Mercy Basilica has become an increasingly important pilgrimage site. Her resting spot was declared a National Historic Tomb in 2014 by then-president Cristina Fernández.

Current Argentine President Javier Miliei was present at the canonisation Mass on 11 February and was scheduled to have a private meeting with the Pope on 12 February.

Claudio Perusini, whose unexplained recovery from a severe stroke became the second miracle attributed to the new saint, also was present. He, his wife and two adult children brought the offertory gifts to the Pope during the Mass.

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Pope Francis accepts the offertory gifts from Claudio Perusini and his family during the Mass for the canonisation of Argentine St Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa. Perusini's inexplicable recovery from a stroke in 2017 was the miracle needed for the canonisation of the new saint. (Photo: CNS/Lola Gomez.)

Perusini has known the Pope since he was 17, having first met the then Jesuit provincial superior Jorge Bergoglio when he and five others were invited to then-Fr Bergoglio’s residence at the Catholic university for a meal after an ordination. The future pope ‘cooked us an enormous omelet with 30 eggs’, onions and potatoes, Perusini told the radio in late October. ‘He divided it into six, and since then I have been friends with him.’

In fact, this first meeting made such a deep impression on Perusini, he decided to join the Society of Jesus as a novice. When he started his university studies in the 1980s, the future pope became his confessor and spiritual director. The two would have heated arguments about Perusini’s vocation. Persini wanted to be a priest, but Fr Bergoglio explained that he wanted him to be happy, and he didn’t believe he would be happy in the priesthood, but he promised he would baptise his children.

After leaving the noviciate, Perusini remained close to the Jesuits, especially to his old school friend Ernesto Giobando, who became a Jesuit priest, then auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires and now apostolic administrator of Mar del Plata. When Perusini was struck by a severe stroke when visiting Santa Fe in 2017, it was Bishop Giobando who told the family to pray to Mama Antula for a miracle.

Perusini’s condition was dire. Doctors did not think he would survive, and if he did, he would remain in a vegetative state or live with irreparable brain injuries. During the ordeal, his mother, Marilú, received a phone call, which she did not want to answer, thinking it was bad news. It was not the hospital, though, but Pope Francis, and he spoke with her for half an hour, Argentine newspaper La Nación reported in October.

Bishop Giobando prayed at his friend’s bedside for hours and left an image of Mama Antula with the family. He eventually awoke from the coma and regained basic functions and abilities. His recovery, aided by physiotherapy and rehabilitation, was long but successful.

Jesus’ way is that of a love that draws near to those who suffer, enters into contact with them and touches their wounds.

Sickness and healing were the key themes in Pope Francis’ homily during the canonisation Mass on 11 February, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and the World Day of the Sick.

Reflecting on St Mark’s account of Jesus’ ‘cleansing of a leper’, the Pope spoke about other forms of ‘leprosy’ that lead some people, even Christians, to ostracise and scorn others.

Fear, prejudice and a false religiosity, the Pope said, are ‘three “leprosies of the soul” that cause the weak to suffer and then be discarded like refuse’.

The way to tear down those barriers and cure new forms of ‘leprosy’, he said, is to emulate Jesus, who drew near to those who are shunned, touching and healing them. ‘His way is that of a love that draws near to those who suffer, enters into contact with them and touches their wounds.’

The week before, speaking to a group of Argentine pilgrims during a meeting at the Vatican on 9 February, the Pope said that in Mama Antula, Christians can ‘find an example and inspiration that revives a preference for the least, for those who society discards and casts aside’.

The charity of Argentina’s first female saint ‘imposes itself with great force in the midst of a society that risks forgetting that radical individualism is the most difficult virus to overcome,’ he said.

Pope Francis told them that the path to holiness requires ‘trust and abandonment’, recalling how on her journey of evangelisation, Mama Antula arrived in Buenos Aires ‘with only a crucifix and barefoot, because she didn’t put her security in herself but in God; she trusted that her arduous ministry was his work.’

In Mama Antula, Christians can ‘find an example and inspiration that revives a preference for the least, for those who society discards and casts aside’.

He also praised the future saint’s persistence in sharing the spiritual exercises despite resistance from Argentina’s ruling class in Buenos Aires. Mama Antula’s life, he said, is a message for Christians ‘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.

Highlighting Mama Antula’s ‘great ardour for the Eucharist, which should be the centre of our life’, he invited the pilgrims to ‘participate seriously’ in the canonisation Mass and to be ‘witnesses of this gift for the Argentine people, but also for the whole Church.’

Banner image: Pope Francis prays during the Mass for the canonisation of St Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known as Mama Antula, in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 11 February. She is the first female saint from Argentina. (Photo: CNS /Vatican Media.)