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

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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: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.