· Vatican City ·


Different ways of seeing

Conchita, the mother
of all priests

06 November 2021

The first blessed laywoman of Mexico, who had nine children

On 4 May 2019, Conception Cabrera de Armida was beatified by Pope Francis. Until a month ago I had no idea who she was, and now it seems to me that without her we understand little of the Church today. It seems to me that this most fruitful woman has traced out the guidelines to be able to face our time, and that now within the Church many other women, -and not only women-, are taking it upon themselves to follow her direction. When I mention her to my consecrated friends, their faces light up with enthusiasm; when I search the web, I discover that reflection and prayer groups of all sizes -especially in Mexico and the United States-, are flourishing around her. Conchita, as she is called by those who feel close to her, was born in Mexico in 1862. A frail girl, who rode horses to strengthen herself. The mother of nine children –though some of whom died at a young age-, and at the age of 38 she became a widow. During her marriage, she experienced a very profound spiritual dimension, which she expressed in her writing, consisting of more than sixty thousand hand-written pages. After her husband’s death, her spiritual dimension fully blossomed in the world. In the photos that can be found on the Internet, she is a girl with a romantic hairstyle and large, black, attentive eyes; in another, she is a middle-aged woman who delicately peers out; then, a sympathetic old lady who laughs. To say who Conchita was, one needs to make a list: she is a laywoman, a mystic, a writer, a founder of congregations and in many ways a mother. She founded five religious institutes, including the Sisters of the Cross of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary. At the heart of her vocation is the idea of preparing “hearts” for eternal life, and in particular of being close to priests in order to offer to God “holy priests”.

I feel a great fascination for saintly mothers, those women who were capable of holding together a daily care routine, of affection, the pleasure and the fatigue of dealing with childhood and asceticism,with impetus. Conchita went even further, by thematising motherhood, she reveals its spiritual necessity, and indicates the possibility that therein lies one of the answers to the questions of humanity’s present condition.

Conchita is the first blessed laywoman in Mexico. She was born at a time, which depending on one’s perspective, seems distant or very close. That late nineteenth century in which the seeds of the present have already taken root, the small leaves have already sprouted.

In those years the role of women was changing, girls were moving towards a new protagonism. In addition, many felt called upon to take on a public authority and often tried to do so from the position they were in by becoming mothers, educators, teachers, by using the agile tool of writing to talk to themselves, to their children, to the world. Something similar can be said of Conchita, even if her way of entering the world makes her something quite different from an actress who simply treads the stage. If anything, she arrived like a wind that comes from outside, and lifts the curtains to reveal how the scene of the world, whether exuberant or rough and desolate, cannot resolve itself. I still hear the accusation that religious thought and faith are easy comforts in the face of the radical questions of human life. It seems to me quite the opposite, it seems to me that religious thought, particularly mystical thought -and Conchita is also a mystic-, comes closer than any other to the dark places of the human condition, where it is besieged by solitude, desolation and fear. Conchita died in 1937, on the 3 March. Hers was a long life, straddling two centuries, which seems particularly long because of the quantity of experiences, of works she completed, all of which were confronted without ever moving from the condition in which she found herself.

At the heart of Conchita’s work is the intuition of spiritual motherhood, in relation to every woman and every man, but especially in relation to priests who, in their exposed position of extreme responsibility, risk feeling a sense of solitude too acutely.

The Congregation for the Clergy (2009-2010) diffused the initiative of the Eucharistic Adoration for the sanctification of priests and spiritual motherhood. Doing so it recognized that priests are exposed to inner dangers, loneliness, dismay, and needs without direction. In some cases, these result in the danger of abuse, as indicated by the enhancement of spiritual motherhood, which has always existed and has always enlivened the life of the Church, as a way, a key which is accessible to all women: “To be a spiritual mother for priests it is not necessary to be a natural mother (...) Regardless of age and condition all women, whether they are mothers of families, widows, nuns and consecrated and especially those who offer their sufferings can become spiritual mothers of priests”. In the document, next to that of St Monica, and St Therese of Lisieux, we find the example of Conchita: “Jesus once explained to Conchita: there are priestly souls who have a vocation without having the recognition and ordination to the priesthood. They move in union with me”. These are souls who engage in a silent, diffused priesthood. A priesthood that through figures like Conchita’s becomes visible.

In an effort to understand the impact and significance of her inspiration, Kristina Piñero, a consecrated member of Regnum Christi, told me about Conchita. Kristina lives in San Antonio, Texas, and works at Holy Trinity Parish as the director of formation. She wrote a thesis entitled La dimensión mariana de la gracia de la encarnatión mística en Concepción Cabrera de Armida [The Marian Dimension of the Grace of the Mystical Incarnation in Concepción Cabrera de Armida] for the Faculty of Oblate, School of Theology. I managed to speak to her via an intercontinental phone call. I did not see her face, but I heard her voice, crackling and fluty. “Since childhood”, Kristina told me, “Conchita had been distinguished by her love for Jesus, then she fell in love and married Francisco de Armida after nine years of engagement. She was widowed at 38 with eight children (one had died very early). Marriage and motherhood for her was a way of discovering her spiritual motherhood. She wrote at night, or when her husband was at work. She helped the poor, the sick, those who asked her for spiritual advice, if there was an undernourished baby she would nurse it”. .

In Kristina’s voice there is an excitement, a sense of celebration, “Conchita identified with Mary, her example helped her to exercise her own motherhood. Between concrete and spiritual motherhood there is harmony”. Harmony is a word Kristina cares about. “Maternal capacity is the ability to create hearts that love the Lord”. Kristina searches for the word, “Conchita enjoyed motherhood. Then after the death of her husband she received a special grace: the grace of mystical incarnation, a nuance of maternal love, which led her to experience maternal affection for Jesus. From this moment on, her life was an unfolding mystical incarnation. Conchita understands that she can offer herself with Jesus for the salvation of all, beginning with her husband and her children”.

In her Eucharistic Meditations collected in Italy in the volume Davanti all’Altare [In front of the Altar] (Ancilla 2010), Conchita, addressing Jesus, wrote: “I ask for consolation to console you, relief to lift you up, love, an intense love of sacrifice to love you! (...) Love and consolation!... This, my good Jesus, is what you found in the Heart of Mary: I beg you, grant us the grace that in each of our hearts that beat in unison with yours in the House of the Cross, you may find love and consolation again. - So be it”.

Consoling Jesus, seems like a dizzying possibility. I ask Kristina how to encapsulate Conchita’s message in a few words. Her voice from Texas makes domestic what never ceases to be abysmal: “Conchita points us to service, tenderness, acceptance, dedication, gentleness, firmness, giving, spiritual fruitfulness. In her lay condition, Conchita is an apostle, calling lay people to holiness in the ordinary reality of life. She shows us the spiritual richness that exists in marriage, in the family”. Finally, Conchita, as mystics do, contemplates pain, fills it with meaning and thus without denying it turns it upside down. “One thing I find important”, Kristina tells me, “Conchita was full of life and experienced suffering, which helped her develop compassion. She considered suffering an opportunity for knowledge, a place of encounter. In suffering she found light in Mary, Mary after the death of Jesus, grieved by the earthly absence of her son. In Mary’s Solitude, pain becomes pure pain. Conchita contemplates Mary and learns from her. The Eucharist gives meaning to suffering. Through the contemplation of the time of Mary’s solitude, a solitude that for Conchita resonates in her own pain at the separation from her children, Conchita comes to terms with the absence of God, with the mystery of suffering. And through Mary, suffering is filled with Hope”. 

It seems to me a great shift in perspective that Conchita indicates in Kristina’s words. Beyond the prayer of the children to Mary the comforter, the identification in her, in her subjectivity, in her attention, in her suffering, in her capacity to care for her Son, for the world and those who inhabit it: a path that calls humanity to a new maturity.

by Carola Susani

The author

Carola Susani writes for adults and children. She is the editor of the magazine Nuovi Argomenti, leads reading and writing workshops and is a member of the Piccoli Maestri Association.

Her first novel, Il libro di Teresa [The Book of Teresa] (Giunti), was published in 1995. Her other books include Il licantropo [The werewolf] (Feltrinelli 2002), Eravamo bambini abbastanza [We Were Children Enough] (Minimum Fax 2012), and Terrapiena (Minimum Fax 2020).

She is on the steering committee of Women Church World