Rafaela Maria Porras y Ayllón was born in Pedro Abad, a province of Córdoba (Spain), on the 1st March 1850. Her parents gave her a good Christian education, which was particularly effective because it was based on example. Saint Raphaela Mary was four years old when her father, the Mayor of Pedro Abad, who was personally and wholeheartedly committed to the service of the poor, contracted cholera during the epidemic and died.
The education she received from her mother, a mixture of caring tenderness and soft discipline helped to develop the best traits of her character.
From an early age she was always attentive to God’s voice and decided to give herself to Him completely. The proof of this firm decision is the vow of chastity she made when she was fifteen years old. Her mother’s death, when she was only nineteen, was another strong moment of her self-giving to God. From then on, she was entirely devoted to the underprivileged, and was always there to console those in need or in pain in her town.

Raphaela Mary lived through this with her older sister, Dolores (Mother Pilar), who was also one of the Foundresses of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Following unexpected ways, the two sisters started the first Community of Handmaids in Madrid on the 14th April 1877. In an atmosphere of profound friendship and solidarity, they lived in total dedication to the Eucharist and the christian education of girls, particularly the poorest.

The first Handmaids, witnesses of God in a world afflicted by the pains of several wars, strived, by all available means, to proclaim the love of Christ, love until the end, clearly symbolized in His open heart. Raphaela Mary and her sister Dolores made this the goal and mission of the Congregation. They developed this with their work and gave life to it with their spirit.
After having run the Congregation as Superior General for sixteen years, Raphaela Mary had to face very painful moments. Due to a series of misunderstandings, her closest Sisters started to mistrust her decisions, questioning her qualities and even the clarity of her mind. Following the advice of relevant people, she simply resigned her office as Superior General in favour of her sister, Mother Pilar. Without bitterness of heart, criticism or resentment, seeing the invisible hand of God who, with infinite love was molding her as clay, she accepted until the end of her life – she was then only forty-three years old – the martyrdom of “doing nothing”.
Devoted to prayer and to simple household chores, which she saw as her means to actualize her immense desire to help the Congregation and the Church, Saint Raphaela Mary saw the growth of the work born from her love and nurtured by her suffering. Always at peace, she believed against all hope in the faithful God, who, in His own way, would carry forward the work she and her sister had started.
On the 6th January 1925, she entered into the joy of her Lord quietly and peacefully. She was canonised by Pope Paul VI on the 23th January 1977.
The feast of Saint Raphaela Mary is celebrated on the 18th May, the date of her beatification.

A female religious saint is, basically, a woman fulfilled in Christ. A woman, whose feminine values in their specific way of being human, by imitating Christ and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has attained full maturity.

Having said this, we can now describe some distinctive aspects of this particular holy woman, Raphaela Mary, who reached the fullness of christian life as consecrated and a Foundress of a new Congregation in the Church.

A saint is an exceptional witness of God’s transcendence. The life of a religious, as Pope Paul VI says, should be for us “a privileged testimonial of the constant search of God, of a unique and undivided love of Christ, a complete dedication to the expansion of His Kingdom” (Evangelica Testificatio,3). As religious and saint, Rafaela Maria Porras y Ayllón gave us this testimonial. As Foundress, she received the grace to communicate to others the special way of living as a christian which God had inspired in her. The charism of her vocation was not hers alone. She received it for us, as well. Firstly, for the Handmaids, but also for those who feel somehow connected with them. We are all part of a great family around the charism and spirituality which Saint Raphaela received in order to give it to the world.

Her vocation to religious life and the foundation of the Congregation was a long search in faith. God’s plan was being revealed to her step by step; i.e. in human steps. She and her sister, who in Pedro Abad lived a life of prayer and charity, which we could call heroic, started walking in unknown paths. God, presented to us as the Lord, the owner of our destinies, is entitled to change the plans that we make for ourselves. In this path, which would eventually make her the Foundress of a Congregation, there was no other light for her besides the will of God, His word.

It should be noted that for Raphaela Mary the calling of God was never the echo of a mysterious, astounding voice. It is as if, from the beginning, by a deep understanding of the incarnation of the Word, she had understood that the voice of God had acquired the tone of human voices; that God speaks through events. However, this choir of voices on earth required an interpreter and Raphaela Mary, always humble, listened to the “official interpreter”, the authorized interpreter, the Church.

She became a Foundress in unexpected ways. She searched for God in purity, with that special style, so womanlike, which is to let herself be looked for, and found, by Him. Her whole life was listening and receiving the word of God in a spirit of unconditional surrender. And God looked for her. They met in a particular moment: she, the fundamental rock of the Institute and God, the wise builder. Being a Foundress did not appeal to her. She accepted it with simplicity, as she accepted everything in life. She lived it in its fullness and, when the time came, she handed it over in total peace. She is the personification of the Handmaid, who, as the psalm says: “the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master”. It is, without comparison and without metaphors, the Handmaid. She is the model for the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“Witness of a unique and undivided love for Christ”. Every saint looks for Christ with his/her whole being, but there is no saint who is able to embrace in their search for God, let alone in the encounter with Him, all the richness of Christ. God envelops us.

Raphaela Mary, enveloped by God, conveys to all of us her personal experience of Christ. Christ is for her the God who wanted to be born for love, the God who loves with a personal, immediate and human love. It is so human that it had to become real in the heart of a man, Christ, so that we could feel, in a tangible way, some of His richness. In Saint Raphaela Mary’s writings there is a constant reminder of Jesus Christ, of His Heart, His love, His giving of His life. Sometimes, she speaks in an official, or let’s say, a liturgical way, when she tells us that “all good comes to us by the only begotten Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ; that by His merits all things should be asked and, that in imitation of Him lies our health and life.”; “I must work in Christ, through Christ and for Christ.” On other occasions, in a more familiar tone, she says that all the people in the world are “children of the Heart of our good Jesus, and they cost Him all his blood…” Again, in her notes from the Spiritual Exercises she writes enthusiastically: “I’m truly willing, encouraged and happy to be able to do something for my captain Jesus” (SE 1890). We wish that we could talk about Jesus Christ in such an expressive and spontaneous way.

All these expressions could be mere words, but they materialized in the giving of her life to Christ. From her Spiritual Exercises we learn that she offered to give “the greatest possible glory to the Heart of Jesus, although it would cost her both her reputation and her life” (SE 1890). When the moment arrived to give in her resignation, she kept her promise in a steadfast, peaceful and constant manner. In those days, in the middle of the darkness in her life, she writes about what she was truly living: “that He will love me even if I lose my skin, because so many saints, in this blessed and holy city, have lost theirs to be able to love Him”. (Letter to sister M. del Carmen Aranda, 1892)

Raphaela Mary’s life was a continuous act of trust and faithfulness. Her life teaches us that the first reaction that anyone can give to the love of Jesus is, precisely, to believe in Him. As Saint John wrote: “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us” (1 John.4, 16). She had a very profound experience of the Heart of Christ and was convinced that to give Him glory was mainly to lay down her life for the salvation of the world. It is from here that her extraordinary interest and passion for humanity comes. “Let us be deeply rooted in the spirit of the Institute, which is true love of Jesus in the Eucharist and the concern of his Heart for the salvation of the world.” (Letter to the Cardinal of Zaragoza, 1881). Her intimate, embedded experience of the Heart of Christ takes her to the Eucharist and, at the same time, she finds in the Eucharist the source of a greater knowledge, of a close experience of the Heart. She says that she wishes to shape her life on the life of Christ, and adds: “the life He has in the Holy Sacrament”. In the Eucharist, Christ constantly renews the laying down of His life for the salvation of all people. To shape one’s life to the life of Christ himself in the Eucharist is to place oneself in an attitude of continuous sacrifice and not “for some people, but for the whole world”. (Letter to the Cordoba Community, 1884). She stated: “to really foster the zeal for souls, to burn and ignite in prayer so that none will be lost” (SE 1896).

Pope Paul VI, speaking about religious life says it is a “testimonial of an absolute dedication to the extension of the Kingdom”. Raphaela Mary, both during the first part of her life, full of activity, as in the years of her great silence, teaches us how to live solely for the Kingdom. In some writings from the Spiritual Exercises of 1890, she expressed her strong desire that “in whatever way possible, and if there is no other way, with prayer, to do everything so that Christ shall be known and loved.” “When I see myself with no physical way to exercise my zeal, as I desire to do so intensely, I must be satisfied with praying and doing gently whatever is in my power to do, as my Lord teaches me”. She was referring to a possible situation. Eventually, this situation became reality. When, in 1892, she entered her hidden life, Raphaela Mary understood that the time had come to “pray and to do gently what she could” (EE 1890). And she did it to the full! Without resentment or criticism. To help everybody in everything was her way of working towards the extension of the Kingdom in the different ministries of the Institute. With great generosity of heart, she learned how to rejoice with developments in life, while she was treading a path of oblivion and obscurity. She held nothing back from either people or situations. She once said: “I still keep enthusiasm for things and I enjoy the enthusiasm of others”. (Letter to Sister M. del Carmen Aranda, 1895). On another occasion, she says that one characteristic of youth is to work strenuously for the greater glory of God; so to see a young religious without enthusiasm made her feel dismayed and sad. A few days before her death she spoke with tenderness of the new generations, those young women who would continue the ministries that she herself was forced to give up against her inclinations and wishes.

Raphaela Mary was canonised on the 23rd January 1977. When the Holy See approved the Congregation it was the same as saying to the Handmaids that this way of life could lead us to holiness. The canonisation of our Foundress is the obvious and existential statement that through this way one person, with our difficulties and weaknesses and made of the same flesh and blood as all of us, has already attained holiness.

The canonisation of Raphaela Mary is for us a calling to live our vocation more deeply and to pass on to others what we received through grace. It is to teach us to search for God, to be led by Him, knowing that He is faithful. It is to invite us to be open to a greater experience of the Heart of Christ. To a renewal of our faith in the love of God that is so human, that makes Him lay down his life until death and remain forever amongst us. Like Raphaela Mary, we are all called to look for this presence in the Eucharist, in men and women and in the events of daily life. And to receive, through the mystery of Christ that renews His Death and Resurrection, the love that unites our brothers and sisters and makes us work together for the coming of the Kingdom.

Imaculada Yañez, aci