Pope Francis canonizes Argentina’s first female saint (with photos!)

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Pope Francis prays during the Mass for the canonization of St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known as Mama Antula, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 11, 2024. She is the first female saint from Argentina. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — St. María Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known 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.'”

Pope Francis gives his homily during the Mass for the canonization of Argentine St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa, known as Mama Antula. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“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 Feb. 11 in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Argentina’s first female saint

St. María Antonia de Paz Figueroa is Argentina’s first female saint. She was closely tied to the Jesuits and continued to lead Ignatian spiritual exercises in Argentina after the expulsion of the order.

Pope Francis and Argentine President Javier Milei share a laugh after the Mass for the canonization St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Argentine President Javier Miliei was present at the Mass and was to have a private meeting with the pope Feb. 12. At the end of the Mass, the two shook hands, spoke briefly, smiled and laughed. The president, who has made disparaging remarks about the pope in the past, leaned down and gave a big hug to the pope, who was seated in his wheelchair.

Claudio Perusini, whose unexplained recovery from a severe stroke became the second miracle attributed to the new saint, also was present. He has known the pope since he was 17 and he, his wife and two adult children brought the offertory gifts to the pope during the Mass.

World Day of the Sick

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

Reflecting on the day’s readings, which included 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 ostracize and scorn others.

Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, addresses Pope Francis during the Mass for the canonization of St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Those who were afflicted with Hansen’s disease during Jesus’ time were further wounded by ostracism and rejection because of fear, prejudice and a false religiosity, the pope said.

People were afraid of contracting the disease and they were prejudiced by believing those who were ill were being punished by God for some sin they had committed and, therefore, deserving of their fate, the pope said.

Also, the belief that even slight contact with someone with leprosy made one “impure” is an example of false or “distorted religiosity,” which “erects barriers and buries pity,” he said.

Lerposy of the soul

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

Many people suffering today also are scorned and discarded because of so many “fears, prejudices and inconsistencies even among those who are believers and call themselves Christians,” he said.

Pope Francis accepts the offertory gifts from Claudio Perusini and his family during the Mass for the canonization. Perusini’s inexplicable recovery from a stroke in 2017 was the miracle needed for the canonization of the new saint. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The way to tear down those barriers and cure new forms of “leprosy,” he said, is with the same style as Jesus, which is to draw near to those who are shunned to touch and heal them.

Jesus responds to the leper’s cry for help “knowing full well that in doing so he will in turn become a ‘pariah,'” the pope said.

“Oddly enough, the roles are now reversed: once healed, the sick person will be able to go to the priests and be readmitted to the community; Jesus, on the other hand, will no longer be able to enter any town,” he said.

Jesus could have avoided touching the man and instead perform “a distance healing,” he said. “Yet that is not the way of Christ. His way is that of a love that draws near to those who suffer, enters into contact with them and touches their wounds.”

Responding like saints

Christians must reflect whether they, like Jesus, are able to draw near and be a gift to others, the pope said. The faithful should ask if they “withdraw from others and think only of ourselves” or believe “the problem is always and only other people.”

This “leprosy of the soul,” he said, is “a sickness that blinds us to love and compassion, one that destroys us by the ‘cankers’ of selfishness, prejudice, indifference and intolerance.”

Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, incenses the reliquary containing the relics of St. Maria Antonia de Paz Figueroa. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“Once we let ourselves be touched by Jesus, we start to heal within, in our hearts. If we let ourselves be touched by him in prayer and adoration, if we permit him to act in us through his word and his sacraments, that contact truly changes us,” he said.

“Thanks to the love of Christ, we rediscover the joy of giving ourselves to others, without fears and prejudices, leaving behind a dull and disembodied religiosity and experiencing a renewed ability to love others in a generous and disinterested way,” he said.

Prayers for peace

Later, after reciting the Angelus prayer with visitors in St. Peter’s Square, the pope recalled the day’s celebration of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick.

Pope Francis greets visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square in the rain before the recitation of the Angelus at the Vatican Feb. 11. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“The first thing we need when we are sick is the closeness of loved ones, health care workers and, in our hearts, the closeness of God,” he said. “We are all called to be close to those who suffer, to visit the sick” the same way Jesus did with “closeness, compassion and tenderness.”

“We cannot be silent about the fact that there are so many people today who are denied the right to care, and, therefore, the right to life!” he said.

In those places where people live in extreme poverty or war zones, he said, “fundamental human rights are violated there every day! It is intolerable. Let us pray for the tormented Ukraine, for Palestine and Israel, let us pray for Myanmar and for all war-torn peoples.”

Carol Glatz

Carol Glatz writes for Catholic News Service.