Monday, June 26, 2017
Rogelio Zelada - Office of Lay Ministry
At the request of Charles III of Spain, Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes has just submitted a report to the Council of Castile where he accuses the Society of Jesus of stirring up serious riots against the State and the Crown. His old anti-Jesuit attitude has found the opportunity to indict all the sons of St. Ignatius, based only on suspicions and manipulated confidentialities; an indictment that the Count of Aranda has not only accepted but also used to propose to the monarch that the Society be expelled from all territories under Spanish rule.
On April 2, 1767 at dawn, soldiers of the kingdom surrounded the 146 houses of the Order. The Pragmatic Sanction of Charles III vaguely justified this outrage “for the tranquility and justice of my people” and other arbitrary reasons “that I reserve in my royal spirit.” The religious order most closely linked to the Pope was forced to abandon its properties, churches, buildings, houses of spiritual exercises, schools, and all the educational work they had so strongly developed in Spain and America. A total of 2,641 Jesuits were expelled from Spain and 2,630 from the American Indies.
In Santiago del Estero, Argentina, a consecrated laywoman who loved the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, experiences the earthquake in the Viceroyalty of the expulsion of the Society of Jesus. She feels “tormented and disconsolate, for the good lost by the People of God,” and “with confidence in Divine Providence” consecrates herself “to keep the holy spiritual exercises of the great St. Ignatius of Loyola, so that his work, so useful to souls and of so many glories for heaven, does not perish."
Maria Antonia de la Paz y Figueroa gets going with a small group of laywomen because she feels intensely called to “repair this loss.” Barefoot, dressed as a Jesuit, with the cross as staff, a donkey and a cart that she drags herself, she travels hundreds of kilometers in the Argentine geography to promote, organize and carry out sessions of spiritual exercises. As a pilgrim of God, she goes from town to town and through the fields, asking for alms, fruits of the earth, chickens, potatoes, vegetables, grains, which she collects in her small cart to feed the workers. She writes and posts announcements in bars, shops and any convenient place, inviting people to participate in the sessions.
These were 10 days of spiritual retreat, of silence, prayer, meditation and service to others. There could be 100 or 400 people at a time. Unlike the majority of the women of her time, she could read and write perfectly, since she received from her family a solid formation that her awakened intelligence knew how to use brilliantly. For many years, she would maintain correspondence with the fathers of the Society who, under the protection of Clement XIII, had received asylum in the Papal States.
Maria Antonia feels small compared to the task imposed, but she fully relies on Divine Providence, to which she has entrusted herself. She decides to “walk as long as God gives me life, walk the whole world, if possible,” afflicted by the “notable lack of spiritual pasture” of her brothers and sisters “that should make us all cry.” She leaves from Santiago del Estero and organizes spiritual exercises in Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca, Rioja and Tucumán, where they begin to call her “Mama Antula” (a popular contraction of Maria Antonia), convening up to 60 sessions. Always barefoot, she travels mountains, deserts, mighty rivers and unknown places, on dusty and impossible roads.
In just a few months, she organizes eight sessions of exercises with groups of 200 and 300 people in Cordoba, always paid for with the alms she received going door to door. In a city with approximately 11,000 people, more than 3,000 made the spiritual exercises. Not only did she manage to feed all who participated, but she had enough money left to help the poor and the prisoners on more than one occasion.
In 1780, she arrived in Buenos Aires, capital of the Viceroyalty, where she was not well received. She was called a mad woman, a fanatic and a witch, and the Franciscan bishop, Sebastian Malvar y Pinto, received her with indifference and distrust. The Viceroy, an old enemy of the Jesuits, did not allow her to organize spiritual exercises in the city. Mama Antula was not discouraged. She insisted repeatedly until she obtained the authorization of Bishop Malvar, who became her protector and her best ally at the end.
Endowed with a strong charismatic personality, she calls everyone to an inclusive spiritual renewal; in places where she offered the spiritual exercises, people from all social classes were welcome. During Ignatian retreats, humble neighbors participated along with important civil authorities: viceroys, bishops, priests, peasants, laborers, servants and slaves. In the words of Mama Antula: “I owe that to our Lord Jesus Christ, who did not exclude anyone.”
The fruits of the exercises that she organized were so remarkable that the bishop recommended them to all the parish priests of the diocese. More than 100,000 people participated during the 20 years or so that Mama Antula promoted the work of the exercises in Buenos Aires. In order to facilitate and improve conditions for silence and prayer, she borrowed houses and rented properties, until she could finally start building in 1795 the “Santa Casa de Ejercicios” (Holy House for Spiritual Exercises) that still serves as such, and which is today one of the oldest buildings in Buenos Aires and a national monument. She promoted the devotion to St. Cajetan, which is very strong in the Argentine Republic today.
Mama Antula, Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, was born in Villa Silípica, Santiago del Estero, Argentina, and died in the Lord on March 7, 1799. She was buried with alms and her remains lie in the Church of Our Lady of Mercy. On July 2, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared her Venerable. On August 27, 2016, by order of Pope Francis, Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, declared her Blessed in a solemn liturgy in her hometown of Santiago del Estero. The work of charity, service and love of this great woman continues in the mission of her sisters, the Daughters of the Divine Savior.