To read the life of Sister Mary of Jesus of Ágreda (Ágreda, Soria 1602—1665) is to discover one of the most influential women in 17th-century Spain, as can be seen in her correspondence with Philip IV, which started in 1643 when she was 41 years old and had become the Abbess of the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Ágreda (then in Burgos, now in Soria) and only ended upon her death in 1665. They exchanged over 600 letters, which are full of requests for advice from the monarch and recommendations from the abbess. All this then leads up to one discovering that she was an intelligent, cultured, intellectually powerful woman who had reached her socially prestigious and prominent position thanks in good part to the veneration her religious activity had generated.
Many readers must now be wondering why we here at a blog dedicated to “Basque matters” are writing about a Baroque Conceptionist nun who had been born outside the Basque Country, and indeed even going so far as to share a publication about her.
Well, there’s a very good reason. It’s that of a story that unites Basques on two continents on the way to her as yet unfinished canonization. Along that journey, we can find the family of the nun itself, which came from Biscay; two Basque priests, one Franciscan and the other Passionist, and the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazy, founded ten years after Mary of Jesus of Ágreda was born.
Mary of Jesus of Ágreda
We start by remember that this woman, one of the greatest mystics in the history of the Catholic Church, is from a Bicayan family on her mother’s side. Her name before her ordination was María Coronel y Arana, and that “Arana” is Biscayan in origin, as certified by the Aranas’ nobility title from 1540 which is preserved at the Ágreda convent. If the descendant of a Basque person in the Americas can be considered Basque, why are we not going to give the same consideration to one born in what is today Soria? What’s more, that part of today’s Soria, called the Soria Highlands, at one time was under great Basque influence, as can be seen in genetic studies, or with the presence of funeral stelae with texts in proto-Basque from Roman times.
But just that would not have been quite enough for us to decide to include this article in the blog. We do not know if the woman, or the abbess, was interested in her rooots, or gave any value to her Basque origins on her mother’s side.
The reason why we’ve written this article is thanks to a series of events and people that join Lima to Aranzazu and Rome, and to those places full of Franciscans and Basque Passionsists that are determined to have the Catholic Church recognize that this “venerable” deserves the title of “saint”.
The Catholic Church is not exactly bursting at the seams with female saints who have achieved that recognition thanks to their intellectual or theological work. But despite that, the recognition of Sister Mary of Jesus of Ágreda as a member of that group of the most holy has still not yet come to pass, and there have been many roadblocks on that road since she passed away.
The debate about the “Immaculate Conception” of the Virgin Mary
Perhaps the “reason” for that is that this woman dared enter into a “men’s” debate about a matter of great importance for Catholicism: the Immaculate Conception, or not, of the Virgin Mary. Outside religious circles, this debate may seem rather unimportant, whether or not the Virgin had been conceived while free of sin, or whether her condition of “immaculateness” was a gift given to her just after she was conceived.
As we say, this debate that divided the Church into two bands has incredible theological importance. In a “masculine” religion, there was the debate about whether a “woman”, Mary, had been conceived free of all sin. That was a situation on the Son of God had enjoyed.
From the 13th century on, this debate had been led by the Franciscans, who defended the idea that Mary had been free of sin from the moment she was conceived, and by the Dominicans, who believed she had been freed of her sin right after her conception.
Four years before Mary of Ágreda passed away, in 1661, Pope Alexander VII reaffirmed the traditional devotion to the Immaculate Virgin and prohibited further debate on the matter. This “Franciscan” victory would become complete 193 years later, on December 8, 1864, when Pope Pius IX promulgated his bull Ineffabilis Deus, which determined that, for the Catholic Church, the Virgin Mary had been conceived free of sin.
The Mystical City of God
María Coronel y Arana, that is, Mary of Jesus of Ágreda, always had a close relationship with the Franciscans, much like her parents, who were very religious and would end up also taking the vows. That might go some way to explaining why her writings so fervently defended the doctrine that favored the Immaculate Conception. There is no doubt her greatest, most influential, and also most controversial work is The Mystical City of God (full title: “The Mystical City of God. Miracle of his omnipresence and depths of grace. Divine history and life of the Virgin Mother of God, Queen and Lady our Most Holy Mary. Restorer of Eve’s guilt, and Intermediary of Grace).
This lengthy and complex work is divided into three parts. The first covers the childhood of the Virgin; the second, the mystery of Incarnation and the whole life of Jesus Christ; and in the third, the remainder of the earthly existence of the Virgin and her Dormition, Assumption, and Coronation in Heaven. It was published posthumously by the Franciscan fathers, and the publication process shows just how complex Mother Ágreda’s work was.
After compiling the whole work and getting the necessary permits to publish a religious work of such characteristics, the Franciscans began publishing. While the different volumes were at the printer’s, José Ximeno de Zúñiga, chaplain at the San Bartolomé Hospital in Lima took some of the loose manuscripts to the Jesuit San Pablo College, where some of the Jesuits of Lima read them and denounce them to the Holy Office. That started an investigation that held back publication for years, and created some doubts about the author and her texts that, although unfounded, seem to have been key in holding up her canonization process.
Two Basque Religious
This was all happening during the canonization process, which was started soon after her death and is still open, full of roadblocks slowing the process down: hidden denouncements; attempts by the Inquisition to put the book, and the author, on the Index of Prohibited Books; other attempts to disparage her.
Then, in the 20th century, Franciscan Father Benito Mendía “landed” in the middle of this minefield as the Vice Postulator for the cause of her canonization.
Given all the above, it’s not hard to understand why the Franciscans, even three years after the death of Mary of Jesus of Ágreda, are still determined. Father Mendía was the leader of the Franciscan Province of Cantabria, which was the name of that province from its founding in 1551 until the year 2000, when it was renamed the Franciscan Province of Aranzazu. And here we finally come across something that has been referenced more than once on the blog: the Sanctuary of Arantzazu which was, and is, one of the main centers of this administrative entity.
Father Mendía was the leader when the Franciscans of this Province, wherein the Basques were the majority, participated in the remodeling of the Sanctuary (initiated by the previous provincial, Fr. Lete), with some artistic and architectural proposals that were revolutionary at the time, and which have made this Basque sanctuary stand out. Father Mendia was committee to the Basque language and culture, as was the Basque Franciscan community.
It was this Franciscan, this Basque Franciscan, who prepared the document analyzing the situation of the cause for canonization and gave a final ruling on the matter. This document, discreetly published in 1993, collects all the research work Father Mendia carried out in order to have her cause re-opened.
Twenty years later, Father Antonio María Artola, a Passionist, and also Basque, took over the investigation and completed it in order to turn it into a book to be presented on the occasion of the Marian-Agredan Congress being held in Rome in October of 2015.
We’ve also spoken of Father Artola on many occasions. The reason for this has been not only the fact that he is a member of the Order of the Passionists, who have maintained a strong presence in the Amazon jungle, during which Basques have played a key part, but also due to his relationship with the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu in Lima, which was the first Basque organization in the New World, created in 1612, right about the same time Mary of Jesus of Ágreda was born.
This combined work of both Basque religious has meant that a new Vice Postulator for the cause was named in 2016, after having been vacant for two years. That definitely jump-started the beatification process.
The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu in Lima
And what role did the Brotherhood of Aranzazu play in this story? As you recall, the denouncement of Mary of Jesus of Ágreda’s book came out of Lima, which meant that the cause for her canonization was stopped. Its reactivation also started in the Peruvian capital.
The Brotherhood was an important ally in getting that congress to be held, and in getting the Mendia-Artola book published. That way, they were seeking to close a circle that had been opened in that century over three centuries before. Moreover, in addition to taking charge of getting the book designed and printed, they also worked to spread the word of the book, its contents, and the thesis defended by its authors.
Thanks to the articles we’ve dedicated to them, our regular readers will know the story of this Brotherhood of the “members of the Basque nation in Lima,” as well as their close relationship with Aranzazu and also with the Passionist congregation in general and Father Artola in particular. They’ve supported him on many projects, including one which stands out about the apparitions at Ezkioga.
“The Blue Lady”
We couldn’t finish this text without citing the attribution of the “bilocation” abilities of this religious. In the popular culture of the original peoples of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, there is the story/legend of the Blue Lady who evangelized them before the first Franciscan missionaries arrived. It was Mary of Ágreda.
For non-believers, this might seem to be an unlikely or even absurd part of the story. But regardless of one’s beliefs, there is data that is irrefutable. We’re referring to the deeply-rooted references to the story of the Blue Lady in the popular culture of the people of what is today the American Southwest and her role in the creation of a collective identity. These are all aspects deserving of scientific reflections.
Find a .pdf of the work of Beatriz Ferrús about the influence of the Blue Lady in the history of New Mexico here.
The Persistence of the Basques
Finally, we cannot finish without going over another aspect that we cover rather often on this blog: the ability of the Basques to persist.
On this occasion, we find ourselves with the commitment of two religious from two different orders who are joined by their intense Basque essence, their thorough knowledge of theology, and their commitment to Mary, focused on Our Lady of Aranzazu. They found a “lost cause”, that of the canonization of María Coronel y Arana, and rather than accepting the inevitable, they took the project on, and thanks to their hard, accurate, and well-done work, the case has been re-activated.
But we also have here the history itself of the Brotherhood of Aranzazu, which has been able to weather out all the storms that have come its way in the past four centuries.
HISTORICAL-THEOLOGICAL RULING ON THE “MYSTICAL CITY OF GOD” REGARDING THE CAUSE OF THE CANONIZATION OF VENERABLE MARY OF JESUS OF ÁGREDA (OIC)
We’re sharing it with the author’s permission in order for it to reach the widest audience possible.EL PROCESO ECLESIÁSTICO DE LA «MÍSTICA CIUDAD DE DIOS» DE LA VEN. M. MARÍA DE JESÚS DE ÁGREDA