Blessed ‘Conchita’ a model for wives, mothers and lovers of Christ

Can a married woman say that her soul belongs to Christ?

Can a mother find time to pray, receive daily communion and attend spiritual direction? Can a widow, after having nine children, found lay communities and religious congregations? Concepción Cabrera de Armida, better known as “Conchita,” responds affirmatively to all these questions. She was beatified in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City May 4.

To know more about the life of this holy woman, the Denver Catholic spoke to Sister Claudia Govea, member of the Sisters Missionaries of Charity and Mary Immaculate, a congregation belonging to the Family of the Cross, which lives out the spirituality of the Cross inspired by the revelations made to Conchita, and is present in Denver.

Wife and mother

When she was 13, Conchita met Francisco (Pancho) de Armida, who would become her boyfriend for nine years. “Courtship never disturbed me in the sense that it made me belong less to God,” she wrote. “It was easy for me to join both things.”

Sister Claudia, also originally from San Luis Potosi, Conchita’s home town Mex., says she “was very pretty and led a normal life… When she saw people criticizing others, she would interrupt them by telling a joke so that people would laugh and change topic.”

Before getting married, she asked her fiancée, Pancho, to let her receive Communion daily, and he accepted. They got married Nov. 8, 1884, when she was 22 years old.

“My husband had a very violent personality, he was like gunpowder, and when the fire had passed, he would calm back down embarrassed,” she confessed. “But after a few years, he changed so much that his mother and sisters were amazed. I think it was due to grace and the continuous filing the poor man had to endure with [me as] the sand paper and flint.”

Conchita and Pancho had nine children. Two of them became religious: Manuel, their third child, became a Jesuit priest; and Concepcion, the fourth, joined the order of the Religious Sisters of the Cross of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Conchita formed her children in the faith of Christ. Two of them embraced the religious life. (Photos courtesy of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit)

Four children got married: Francisco, Ignacio, Salvador and Guadalupe. The other three died at an early age: Carlos, 6; Pablo, 18; and Pedrito, the youngest, who drowned in a fountain near his house at the age of 3.

“He was by my side a few moments before that happened; when he went outside, other kids say he said he was getting water for the birds. There were three maids by the fountain and none of them saw him fall in,” Conchita wrote. “I went to the foot of the big crucifix and, pouring my tears on his feet, I offered him the sacrifice of my son, bowing and asking him to fulfill his divine will in me.”

Sister Claudia said that in the process of beatification, this event was researched extensively, and it was concluded that it was not due to neglect from Conchita, since “it can happen to any mother.”

The holy mother “built many relationships with bishops, was obedient to her spiritual directors,” Sister Claudia said. “And at the same time, she cooked and was able to read, pray, teach her kids to pray, talk to her spiritual director, visit the sick — she always looked for a way to help; as a wife, she never neglected Francisco, whom she truly loved.”

Conchita tried to give practical advice to her children, married or religious. “Never use harsh or offensive words against Elisa,” she wrote to her oldest son Francisco when he got married.  And she said to her religious daughter, “Such precious jewel was not meant for the world: The Lord chose it for himself.”

Her husband Francisco died when she was 39 years old. “I have felt the divine scalpel in my soul, cutting everything that kept me attached to earth,” she wrote in her diary. “I made sure he went to confession and received Viaticum in advance… I said many prayers for the dying for him.”

Mystical experiences

In 1894, Conchita started having the so-called “Apparitions of the Cross” while she was praying before the Blessed Sacrament. “First, the Holy Spirit appeared to her, whom she saw surrounded by a great light; and then she saw a cross after Communion,” Sister Claudia said.

On the cross, Conchita saw a heart. “It was a living heart, pulsating, human, but glorified; it was surrounded by fire… and above it, a different type of fire emerged from it, a fire of better quality,” she described. There was a small cross on the heart, which “represents the pain on the cross that the souls of those God most trusts cause him — at times consecrated ones,” Sister Claudia explained.

Thus, Conchita understood that her mission was to save souls, and one of the ways she could do so was by offering up her daily crosses and sufferings. After this experience, and with the spiritual direction of Father Félix de Jesús Rougier and Bishop Ramón Ibarra y González (the first bishop of Puebla), the Apostolate of the Cross was established.

This image is based on the vision that Conchita had of the Cross of the Apostolate.

In some of her revelations, Jesus showed his concern for priests: “[Tell them] not to fear… that if they have offended me, I am God’s forgiveness; that they have a brother, son, mother, father, God-man in me, who loves them… who extends his arms and wants to save them, embrace them against the heart that let itself be torn so that all priests could fit in it, to transform them in me, their Jesus, all mercy and goodness.”

Her revelations are in perfect congruence with the Magisterium of the Church and are found in 66 volumes of manuscripts. “Towards the end of her life, she was tempted to think that none of these occurrences were true,” Sister Claudia said. “Nonetheless, she had faith and died in the odor of sanctity.”

She died March 3, 1837. Sister Claudia said that, for the Family of the Cross, “her beatification is the sign that certifies that, if we are faithful to our spirituality, we will live according to the Gospel and God’s will.”

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”