The Catholic Church is full of extraordinary people, many of whom you have never heard of. One such, of whom I had not heard, was Mother Antonia Brenner, whose obituary has just appeared at the Telegraph.
First of all, not to be superficial, but just look at that photograph on the Telegraph website. The traditional nun’s veil and habit; the radiant smile; the hand raised in cheery, confident and sincere greeting; the stunning lady-of-a-certain-age good looks: Mother Antonia comes over as a magnetic personality, the sort of person you meet once, and whom you never forget. She ticks the same boxes as the late Blessed John Paul II.
Then there is the life story. It was all very ordinary for much of her life. Growing up in the Great Depression, the good times that come from prosperity, the two marriages, the eight children, the mink coats, the ballgowns – pretty average for life in Beverley Hills, or so I imagine. And the Catholicism, and the charity work, and then the extraordinary decision at the age of fifty or so to go and devote herself entirely to the inmates of a Tijuana prison. But that is the wonderful thing about Catholicism: it enables the most ordinary people to do the most extraordinary things.
The Daily Telegraph describes the prison she worked in, with its customary understatement, as “a notorious hellhole”. In fact there are no words to describe the depravity of Mexico’s criminal class. Their evil behaviour is, even in this world of ours, jaw-dropping: I have just been reading the latest chronicle of Mexico’s drug wars, entitled Narcoland, by Anabel Hernandez. The criminals of Tijuana are beyond redemption. So, what did Mother Antonia do? Did she wring her hands and say how ghastly it all was? No, she did not.
Instead, the obituary tells us: “[She] transformed the atmosphere. Armed with a Bible, a Spanish dictionary and her own unassailable moral authority, she waded into riots and gun battles; shamed prison authorities into improving conditions and brought human rights violations to the attention of newspapers. She persuaded doctors and dentists to hold free clinics, got local bakers to donate bread to supplement the meagre prison rations, rescued lavatories from junk yards and insisted on their being installed, prayed with prisoners and guards and got to know their families. She taught offenders to acknowledge they had done wrong, and many would later testify that her example had persuaded them to mend their ways.”
Two things leap out of that account – her own unassailable moral authority, and the idea that there is a moral order: she taught offenders to acknowledge they had done wrong. A combination of the two made for success: an old recipe, please note, but one that makes complete sense even today.
Mother Antonia was clearly a leader, just like religious founders of old. The bishop who first encouraged her was Juan Jesus Posadas. He later became Cardinal Archbishop of Guadalajara. In 1993 he was murdered, cut down by a hail of bullets in the airport carpark. The responsibility for this lies with the drug cartels, or so the official version has it. Anabel Hernandez thinks otherwise.
Meanwhile, as I sit here writing this, all over the world, people are sitting around crticising the Catholic Church and blaming it for many of the world’s ills. To those people, my message is simple. Mother Antonia, from her place in heaven, is now praying for you. Watch out!