St. Rafaela Porras


Most of our canonized saints have been members of religious orders. While this discourages some lay people from becoming interested in them, it does help all of us by bringing into sharper focus their special virtues.

St. Rafaela Maria de Porras, a modern Spanish nun, is venerated by her sisters as the foundress of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart. The rest of us can look on her as a model of how a true Christian woman acts when those who should have honored her treat her shabbily.

By the time she was nineteen, Rafaela, born near Cordoba in Spain, was fatherless and motherless. She and her older sister, Dolores, were left in charge of their large family. But in 1873 both decided they were called to enter the religious life. They therefore became novices of the Society of Marie Reparatrice.

Before they could take their vows however the highhanded local bishop decided to change the whole rule.

The upshot of it was that, on the advice of their spiritual director, Rafaela and Dolores left Cordoba and went to Madrid. Here the bishop approved of Rafaela’s founding the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart. Their role was to be teaching and retreat work. When the order was officially approved by Pope Pius IX in 1877, Rafaela was elected mother general. Her “Handmaids” gradually spread into twelve countries.

Unhappily, there were strong differences of opinion on administration between Mother Rafaela and her “big sister” Dolores, called Mary del Pilar. In 1893, Rafaela resigned as superior, and Maria-del-Pilar was elected by her partisans to replace the foundress. For the next thirty-two years, Mother Rafaela was practically ignored by her whole religious community. Sent off to their house in Rome, she was assigned to housework. Housework for three decades and more!

Now, none of us likes to be pushed around or demoted, especially if there is no just reason for such treatment. If others depend on us, we are usually obliged to demand justice from those who have wronged us, or else we get another job in which we are given our due.

Mother Rafaela had no family depending on her. Naturally, she could not get “another job”, for she was to remain in the society she had established. So what course lay open to her? She could become militant and antagonistic within her community and towards her own sister; but that would have disrupted the order she loved so much. Or she could bear this cruel quarantine as her special cross.

Rafaela chose the latter course. It was this heroic “dry martyrdom” that made a saint of her. “I see clearly,” she said, “that God wants me to submit to all that happens to me as if I saw Him there commanding it.”

“Why me?” we ask our God when he lets hardships of one sort or another befall us. He replies, “Because unless a man takes up his cross and follows me, he is not worthy of me.” This is the opportunity He is giving us, on a silver platter: to unite our sufferings with His for the salvation of the world.

Pope Paul VI canonized Rafaela Maria Porras y Ayllon in 1977. In doing so, he gave to those of us who are victims of any sort of raw deal a very understanding patron saint.

--Father Robert F. McNamara