Mother Antonia Brenner: A Story of Redemptive Love

In the next few days, I will be posting a review of a remarkable documentary entitled “La Mama” by Jody Hammond on the life of Mother Antonia.  Mother Antonia Brenner is the founder of “Servants of the Eleventh Hour,” an order for mature women (most ages 45-65) who serve the impoverished and imprisoned in Tijuana, Mexico and parts of the U.S.

One aspect that I did not address — and felt I should do so — is the fact that Mother Antonia was twice divorced prior to taking the habit. I have not yet read the biography of her life, and don’t know whether one or both of her marriages were annulled prior to taking the habit. Since her order was formally received by the bishops of Tijuana and San Diego, I would hope so.

However, I recently ran across this explanation from a Deacon John Cameron on the Catholic Answers website that offered a helpful perspective, which I thought I would share here:

While there are general requirements for novitiate and profession in institutes of conscrated life and societies of apostolic life, there are additional requirements that are imposed by the proper law of each. Should your mother pursue this, the director of novices or admissions would be in the best position to discuss the prospects of assuming vows following divorce and what would take place.

Rather than speculating about possible grounds of nullity or the prospects of a decree of nullity, these are things that would be directed to the tribunal via the parish priest if the marriage does in fact end in permanent separation. The determining error of canon 1099 about the sacramental dignity of marriage (or even as the closely related intention contra bonum sacramentalitas of canon 1101, § 2), mentioned above as a possibility, is difficult to establish, and the jurisprudence is complex. We do best to let tribunals investigate and assess the legal impact of the facts in marriage cases.

For purposes of general information though, Rome has permitted couples to remain married, dispensed them from the obligations of marriage without dissolving it, and then to enter religious life or ordained priesthood. Decrees of nullity were not involved.

One of the aspects of Mother Antonia’s story that I loved was how God has used even the painful aspects of her life — the failures and sufferings — to minister to those she met with true humility and compassion.  This is the mark of a true penitent, one who acknowledges one’s own failures without excusing them on one hand, or dodging the consequences on the other.  In a very real sense, the work Mother has done for the past thirty years are an expression of penance, of restitution — and of gratitude to God for his great mercy.

In Titus 3 we read . . .

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

You have only to look at the face of Mother Antonia — and at the faces of her “sons” to see this mercy at work in a powerful way.  Watch the movie, and you’ll see.  This is not the story of a woman who is “trying to make it up to God.” It is the story of a weary soul who has drunk deep from the well of mercy, and is intent on showering that water of life on other parched souls as well. Not the empty gestures of “works righteousness,” but the fruitful labors of one whose life has been transformed by love.

Not all of us are called to “make amends” by spending decades inside a Mexican prison.  But each of us are given opportunities every day to model mercy to those who need it.  Are you ready?

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