CATCHING A GLIMPSE OF ANTOÑITA IN HER LETTERS

Bl. Antonia Bandres     Since we are commemorating the 102nd year of Blessed Maria Antonia Bandres’ death anniversary on April 27, I read some of her letters again, to “hear” her thoughts and “feel” her presence[1]. The simple copy that I used showed that she wrote at least 87 letters from age 12 to 21. They reveal a young girl who felt very much loved by God and her parents and knew how to return that love.

I felt tempted to do an extensive study of her letters, but I limited myself to reading just a few. All I wanted was to catch a glimpse of Antoñita through them, asking myself, “What might an ordinary person see of Antoñita in her letters?”

In my brief exercise, I saw the following things:

  • how she experienced and knew love,
  • how she understood suffering,
  • how she looked at life on earth, death, and eternal life,
  • how joyful and playful her spirit was,
  • how happy she felt in being an Hija de Jesus (although she spent less than 4 years in it, and professed her perpetual vows just before she died).

I know there is much more to be seen. A theologian of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints once described Antoñita as an iceberg-saint of whom we know only a part.[2]But I hope this sharing will prod the reader to discover more for himself/herself.

ANTOÑITA’S EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE OF LOVE

Her Family

No one can dispute that the very first signs of love (or the lack thereof) that a child experiences normally come from his parents, who are the first to welcome him to this world. The second of 15 children, Antoñita, totally secure in her parents’ love for her, loved her parents very much and keenly appreciated the sacrifices they made for her and her siblings. There are several letters greeting her mother for her birthday, and they are very revealing. I can only cite a few here.

At age 12, her words show her acute awareness of her parents’ unselfish love, “I know well the sleeplessness and bad times that you have gone through for us, but I thank you for everything from the bottom of my poor heart and I am ready at this moment and always to shed every ounce of my blood.”[3] At age 15, she wrote, Receive, although poor, the greeting of this your daughter who, if she had something good and possessed something better, well you know, my mother, that she would give it without reservation.”[4] At age 17, she said, "... nothing we could ever do would be enough to correspond to your love and the sacrifices that you undertake for our sake.”[5]

Her greeting for her father’s birthday that same year reveals the same sense of unworthiness and inadequacy of response in the face of the love she and her brothers and sisters have received: “There are days in the year when one can not express what the heart feels and thus do I find myself today because I can not find words or phrases to show you my affection; but you well know that I can only say that your daughter loves you and that she does not fail to appreciate the many sleepless nights and fatigue that you suffer for your beloved little children, who, no matter what they do, will never be able to reciprocate as they should.”[6]

From this acute awareness and deep experience of her parents’ great love, impelling her to the desire to correspond, accompanied by a sense of inadequacy, Antonia would quickly grow to have a heart utterly desirous of taking every opportunity in life to make a loving response to God.

Moreover, this abundant love that Antoñita received and experienced would overflow and communicate itself to a much wider circle. Many of her letters show how she has space in her heart for all – she prays for her aunts and uncles, cousins, various relatives, friends, and neighbors, along with the servants, and the seamstresses and workers that she used to visit. It is remarkable how often she remembers and mentions them by name at the end of her letters and includes particular details about individuals.

ANTOÑITA’S UNDERSTANDING OF SUFFERING:

With all that has been said about Antoñita’s experience and knowledge of love, it is easy to understand how she would identify with what she heard a priest say in his homily, as she writes her parents, “Recently a holy priest told us this in a fervent talk, which is a great consolation and encouragement for me: Jesus loved me and gave himself to death for me. I love him and I give myself to sacrifice for him.”[7] Her acceptance and offering of suffering in her life from early childhood until death was clearly rooted in love – she knows that Jesus loved her and gave His life for her. In turn, she loves Him and gives herself to sacrifice for Him.

She understood suffering as nothing to be feared, being a gift from God who knows to whom He is giving it, accompanied by the fortitude needed. This is what she says at age 17, encouraging her mother in a birthday greeting, four months before entering the Congregation of the Hijas de Jesus, “Very often the Lord deigns to give you His cross, but with it He sends you the fortitude necessary to cope. He knows well to whom He gives it. What a beautiful heaven you are conquering for yourself and your family! Do not fear the storms of this life at all, it is Jesus who sends them. He will also be the one to appease them here below and reward you with the aura of glory and happiness there ..., above, where we will always be together.”[8]

Then again, a little more than a month after entering the Congregation, Antoñita encourages her mother to suffer with patience, love, and trust, after Christ’s example: Mum, cheer up a lot and try to suffer with patience, love and trust, following the example of Christ, huh?”[9] 

Antoñita’s understanding and acceptance of suffering, rooted in her experience and knowledge of love and the certainty of the enduring love of Christ for us, bring to my mind the example of the young St. Paul of whom an Italian author writes: “The way of holiness in Paul is basically the way of the love of Christ: ‘What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us (Rom. 8:35-37).”[10]

HER VIEW OF LIFE ON EARTH, DEATH, AND ETERNAL LIFE:

Related to Antoñita’s understanding of suffering are her views of life on earth, death, and eternal life. Unlike many who have a myopic view of life and assiduously pursue happiness on earth, Antoñita, an exceedingly wise girl for her age, knew well how fleeting and transitory our life on earth truly is, and how real happiness awaits us in heaven. As a postulant, Antoñita writes her parents and tries to console them, saying, “... the time of separation is very short since the days of life are already passing swiftly and eternity is approaching.”[11]

Reacting to the news about the death of beloved friends, she writes her family, “I can not tell you the great shock that the news of M. and S. has caused us. Every day the reasons for the disappointment that the Lord sends us are greater, but, nevertheless, how attached to life we are.... Let us always be ready, because, when we least expect it, that day will also come to us, in which we will receive the sentence that we have deserved for the present time. Let us suffer bravely because a few temporary years are nothing compared to eternity.”[12]

I cannot help but see the contrast between Ma. Antonia’s wisdom at her age and the senselessness of those of us who profess to be Christians and yet relentlessly pursue the “joys” in this life as if to defeat death itself in the race, in effect, not believing in “the afterlife”, racing stubbornly after titles, prestige, riches, success, as if life stopped short at death and God did not exist. As Antoñita observes astutely, “How attached to life we are.”

HER JOYFUL AND PLAYFUL SPIRIT

As one reads Antoñita’s letters, one is struck by the way she can shift so easily from the earnest tone of exhorting her family and expressing her concern for them, to the playful, affectionate tone of addressing particular persons and situations, especially her younger brothers and sisters. She had a joyful and playful spirit, as someone who knew her said, "Having a character that was always happy and playful, she could be seen cheering up all her companions. If she observed that someone was sad, then Antoñita would come to cheer her up and would not stop until she achieved her purpose.”[13]

Just a little more than a month before her death, already suffering terrible pain, she writes her parents, assuring them that she is very well cared for, and says, “If you were to receive a hug from me, you would see that I still have strength.”[14]

And nine days before her death, at the end of the letter that her sister Natalia (also an Hija de Jesus) writes for both of them to their parents, we find Antoñita’s already wavering handwriting in Basque, “Uaindia zerbai balyoded.”[15] That is, “I’m still good for something.”

HER HAPPINESS IN BEING AN F.I.  

Antoñita was in the Congregation for just a little more than 3 years. She entered as a postulant on December 8, 1915, at the age of 17, and requested for and made her perpetual profession before her death on April 27, 1919. From the very beginning of her life in the Congregation till the end, Antoñita professed her happiness and contentment as an Hija de Jesus.

Eleven days after her entrance, she explains to her family how she cannot write everyone but says she is fine and happy in Jesus. “I am very well and happy in Jesus and I wish the same for you.”[16] Ordinarily a very frail girl, Antoñita assures her parents that she is incredibly better in the convent: “Thank God, I have not yet missed a communitarian act nor do they need to give me any extraordinary [food]. I tell you this so that it may give you more tranquility. Without seeing [it], you would not believe what I eat; they tell me I'm getting fat, and Pilar Olarreaga, whom I last saw on Three Kings Day, told me that I've grown and gotten fat.”[17]

Almost 4 months old as a novice, she writes to her father, “As I know that the greatest consolation for your father's heart is knowing that your daughters are happy, I begin by giving you once again a billion thanks for the happiness you gave me by giving me your consent ...”[18]

And less than 5 months before her death, in a letter to her family, addressing one of her younger sisters, she says, “I really want to tell you something of what I am happily experiencing of religious life, but I do not know when I can.”[19]

CONCLUSION

Undoubtedly there is much more that we can learn from the biographies that have been written and the testimonies given, but this has been an attempt to hear from Antoñita herself. Ma. Antonia Bandrés is living proof of Pope Francis’ assertion in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Christus vivit” addressed to young people and to the entire People of God: “... if you are willing to encounter the Lord, if you are willing to let him love you and save you if you can make friends with him and start to talk to him, the living Christ, about the realities of your life, then you will have a profound experience capable of sustaining your entire Christian life. ... For ‘being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. (no. 129)

Blessed Ma. Antonia Bandrés y Elósegui belongs to a long list of young Saints and Blesseds (age 30 and younger) representing all continents and languages of the world, young people of whom Angelo Cardinal Amato, SDB (former Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints), said, “... these young people are not vacuous people, without prospects and without ideals. Rather, they are complete persons, full of divine grace and overflowing human exemplarity.”[20]

 



[1]Sr. Pilar Martinez, FI, as Superior General, sent a simple copy of Antoñita’s biography (“Biografía” escrita por M. Petra Calzada, FI) and letters (“Cartas” Agosto 1910 – Abril 1919) to all communities on January 1, 1997.

[2] On p. 1 of Antoñita’s Positio super virtutibus.

[3] Cartas, p. 3 (no. 1).

[4] Cartas, p. 7 (no. 5).

[5] Cartas, p. 9 (no. 8).

[6] Cartas, p. 7 (no. 6).

[7] Cartas, p. 48 (no. 34).

[8] Cartas, p. 9 (no. 8).

[9] Cartas, p. 15 (no. 13).

[10]“Santi e Beati Giovani” (“Young Saints and Blesseds”)by Maurizio Tagliaferri and Judith Borer, pp. 8-9 – translated from the Italian – “La via della santità in Paolo è in fondo la via dell’amore di Cristo: <<Chi ci separerà dall’amore di Cristo? Forse la tribolazione, l’angoscia, la persecuzione, la fame, la nudità, il pericolo, la spada? Ma in tutte queste cose noi siamo più che vincitori grazie a colui che ci ha amati>> (Rm 8, 35-37).”]

[11] Cartas, p. 43 (no. 30).

[12] Cartas, p. 22 (no. 17).

[13] Biografía, pp. 15-16.

[14] Cartas, p. 119 (no. 84).

[15] Cartas, p. 119 (no. 85).

[16] Cartas, p. 12 (no. 11).

[17] Cartas, p. 13 (no. 12).

[18] Cartas, p. 40 (n. 29).

[19] Cartas, p. 109 (no. 76).

[20]“Santi e Beati Giovani”p. 4. [“... questi giovaninon sono uomini vuoti, senza prospettive e senza ideali. Sono invece persone piene, colme di grazia divina e di straripante esemplarità humana.” – Introduction by Angelo Card. Amato, SDB, Prefect]