If gestures serve to convey closeness, the warm greeting that Pope Francis and President Javier Milei exchanged on Sunday, February 11, in St Peter's Basilica, marked a fundamental moment in the relationship between the two. Perhaps the start of a new stage, driven by dialogue, far removed from possible misunderstandings or disagreements.
It was 9.45am Italian time (four hours difference from Buenos Aires) that Argentina had its first female saint. St Peter's Basilica was the scene of a Eucharistic ceremony led by the Argentine pontiff and with the key presence of Milei, watching on. María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, more commonly known as ‘Mama Antula,’ was inscribed in the "Catalogue of Saints, establishing that she be devoutly honoured throughout the Church.”
The solemnity of the moment and the respectful silence that accompanied the canonisation process, despite the presence of some 5,000 people (including Argentine faithful and pilgrims, as well as the occasional tourist) characterised the ceremony, which took place in the midst of the imposing basilica. It nevertheless left room for a sense of intimacy and deep religious fervour.
The reading of the "formula of canonisation" was one of the key moments of the ceremony. Shortly beforehand, Pope Francis and President Milei had greeted each other briefly in a secluded space. This time, publicly, they exchanged a new greeting: a strong and swift embrace accompanied by smiles before the attentive gaze of those close by.
Following rigorous Vatican protocol, Milei and the Argentine delegation sat in the front row on one side of the altar of the majestic basilica. A white chair had been set up a few metres away; shortly before the ceremony began, a Holy See official brought in the Pope, sat in a wheelchair.
The head of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, Italian Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, was in charge of reading Mama Antula's biography. The ritual was presided over by Pope Francis.
During the homily, the Pope recalled the life of Mama Antula ("she travelled thousands of roads, crossing deserts and dangerous paths to proclaim God"). He gave the impression, as he read slowly and more haltingly, that he wanted to highlight certain paragraphs. He stressed, for example, that "fear, prejudice and false religiosity" are the "three causes of a great injustice," precisely, "three leprosies of the soul."
He also asked not to "distance ourselves from others," a claim that is a constant in his pontificate. "How many people suffering do we find on the pavements of our cities...even in our time?" he added. "There is so much marginalisation, barriers to be broken down, 'leprosy' to be healed."
At the end of the long service (lasting almost two hours) the basilica emptied. The participants began to stream into St. Peter's gigantic square outside. While waiting for the Pope's traditional Angelus address – despite the storm clouds and a relentless downpour – many did not move from the square.
Among them stood Marco Gallo, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) in Buenos Aires and a member of the Italian community of Sant'Egidio.
As the Pope says," Gallo told Perfil, "Mama Antula was a wayfarer of the spirit. She was a great preacher of the Gospel and a friend of the poor, a clear sign for the Church in these times and for Argentina: she is a woman who united everyone, she is a symbol of unity. I believe that today we must think of a united Argentina, far from sterile polarisations."
For Nunzia Locatelli, who with Cintia Suárez co-authored a biography of Mama Antula, "today's ceremony was a ceremony as only the Vatican knows how to do, which maintains a very ancient ritual, unique in the world.”
“Everything was very warm and there was a great participation of Argentine bishops and cardinals. It is important to investigate and spread the story of Mama Antula – if there is diffusion there is obviously devotion. And on the other hand, the embrace between the Pope and Milei was unforgettable,” added Locatelli.
"As a woman from Santiago del Estero," said Cintia Suárez, "the ceremony moved me."
"Together with Nunzia, our mission was to make Mama Antula known: I believe that seeing her here today, in the Vatican, is the highest recognition she deserves," she continued.
"We are also very happy with the words that the Pope said to us yesterday in a meeting, that is to say that this Sunday was going to be a day of many blessings. And so it was," said Suárez.
Bergoglio's former spokesman in Buenos Aires, Federico Wals, recalled to Perfil the image of Mama Antula, travelling along Argentina’s roads.
"She travelled 4,000 kilometres on foot evangelising and working for the most needy, a message that is still valid today so that the laity can get closer to those who have the least in the current situation, not only in Argentina but also in other Latin American countries too," said Wals.
by Martino Rigacci, from Rome