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 in the (UK) Telegraph, writes Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith.
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.'