ANALYSIS: New saint brings Argentine pope and president together

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (OSV News) -- María Antonia de San José de Paz Figueroa may be the world's newest saint, but she is already credited with a political "miracle" in her native Argentina.

Paz Figueroa, an 18th-century laywoman known throughout Argentina as Mama Antula, was canonized Feb. 11 at the Vatican. She kept alive the Jesuit teaching mission after the order was expelled from Argentina and established the House for Spiritual Exercises that still stands today. She is credited with two miracles, the first curing a nun, which was certified in 2016, and the second, curing a father of two after a stroke, was recognized last October, leading to her beatification.

She is the first female saint born in Argentina and one of only five saints with links to the country.

Bishop Santiago Olivera, who heads the country's military diocese and the commission for the causes of saints in the Argentine Conference of Bishops, said the canonization was important for the church and Argentina, because it spoke to the presence of God in the world.

"Mama Antula, our new saint, undertook the Jesuits' mission and she was a presence in their absence. She strived for spiritual exercises to restore life and do the work of God, not only healing people, but healing the environment. She had patience and, above all, the capacity to persevere because she believed in God," the bishop told OSV news.

The canonization, coinciding with the first appearance of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, brought together the best-known Argentines of the moment, Pope Francis, who was previously Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the capital, and President Javier Milei, who was inaugurated this past December.

Milei called the pope an "imbecile" and "representative of evil on earth" during the presidential campaign last year. The pope largely ignored those comments and brushed off the criticism as campaign hyperbole; and Milei changed his tone soon after being elected.

The two came together at Mama Antula's canonization and at a sit-down meeting Feb. 12 at the Vatican.

"The presence and embrace of the president and the pope speak to the issues of encounter, respect and reconciliation. It is the way that our God works and teaches us that we are all brothers and sisters regardless of our differences," said Bishop Olivera.

Mama Antula's canonization happened at an important juncture for both men as they offer a new, sometimes controversial, vision.

Pope Francis continues to face blowback for the mid-December publication of "Fiducia Supplicans" ("Supplicating Trust") on "the pastoral meaning of blessings," which allows for priests and other ministers to offer informal, non-liturgical blessings to gay couples and couples in "irregular" marriage situations as long as it is clear they are not blessing the couple's union. Dissension has come from the region, including in Argentina and neighboring Uruguay, which also venerates Mama Antula. Cardinal Daniel Sturla, the archbishop of Montevideo, has publicly questioned the "Fiducia Supplicans" declaration. The prelate was elevated to cardinal by Francis in 2015.

President Milei is battling furiously to get congress to go along with a sweeping omnibus bill he submitted in late December. It contains more than 600 articles that would change the country's economic and political structure. The legislation was moving through congress until Feb. 6, when lawmakers began voting on each individual article and started to reject them. The immediate goal of Milei's government is to curb inflation, which reached 211.4% last year and could hit 250% this year. The economy is expected to contract by 2.5% this year.

According to the Vatican, the president and the pope talked about "the new government's program to counter the economic crisis."

The meeting with Milei -- the two previously spoke on the phone in December -- could pave the way for Pope Francis to make a pilgrimage to Argentina. Unlike his predecessors, St. John Paul II from Poland and Pope Benedict XVI from Germany, Pope Francis has not visited his homeland since he became pope. He is considering a trip in late 2024, something Milei encourages and reiterated during his stop at the Vatican.

Father Jose María Di Paola, a diocesan priest known as "Padre Pepe," said Argentines have been waiting more than 10 years for the pope to come home. "Argentines would welcome the pope with open arms. He is one of us," Di Paola told OSV news.

The pope's visit could be timed for another canonization, this one for Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, who served as prefect of what is now the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Pope Francis declared him venerable in 2022 and he was beatified this past December. - - -Lucien Chauvin writes for OSV News from Montevideo, Uruguay.