Monday, December 12, 2022

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

Today's feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patronal feast of our American continent, recalls the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Juan Diego, an Aztec Catholic convert that occurred in Mexico on December 9, 10, and 12, 1531. To the amazed Juan Diego, Mary declared: "Know, my son, that I am the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God who is the Author of life, the Creator of all things, the Lord of heaven and earth, present everywhere. And it is my wish that here, there be raised to me a temple in which, as a loving mother I shall show my tender clemency and the compassion I feel for the natives and for those who love and seek me, for all who implore my protection, who call on me in their labors and afflictions: and in which I shall hear their weeping and their supplications that I may give them consolation and relief.”


The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe also celebrates the famous image, which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak (tilma) and has been venerated ever since in the magnificent shrine in Mexico City near the site of the event. In 1988, in the course of a summer spent studying Spanish in Guadalajara, I had the privilege of venerating in person the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica in Mexico City.  Fifteen years later, in 2003, I was present in New York's Cathedral of Saint Patrick as a small, half-inch square relic of St. Juan Diego’s tilma was exposed for veneration.  (The only known such relic in the United States, it was originally a gift from the Archbishop of Mexico to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1941, and in recent years has been displayed in various U.S. cities in commemoration of Juan Diego’s recent canonization.)

At Morning Prayer, the Church's Office of Lauds, on this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the reading from Zechariah 2:14-17 contains this verse: Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they shall be his people, and he shall dwell among you, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For Zechariah, one sign that the Lord is with us and that the Lord has sent his messenger to us  is the providential union of many nations into the People of God.


In 1531, Mary asked for a church to be built on a hill. 

That year was, of course, a mere 12 years after the conquista of Mexico by the Spaniards under Cortes - the destruction of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), then perhaps the largest city in the entire world and with it the destruction of the pagan religion that had animated Aztec culture. It was a depressed and depressing time - not just for the conquered and oppressed indigenous population but also for their Spanish conquerors who now ruled over a much larger and potentially rebellious population. It was also a discouraging time for the Catholic missionaries who accompanied the conquistadores and whose efforts to evangelize the indigenous population had met with only modest success. 

Into this appalling mess, God sent Mary as his messenger of compassion and hope, appearing to the socially insignificant Juan Diego and speaking his native language. In the image which miraculously appeared on Juan Diego's tilma, the Mother of God appeared as a pregnant indigenous woman, whose image spoke in the symbolic language of native culture, but in which the Spaniards could likewise recognize the Christian symbolic imagery of the Book of Revelation. Likewise, the title by which she identified herself in the native language (Who crushes the serpent) resembled the Spanish word Guadalupe, in which the Spaniards recognized a familiar Marian title of Spanish devotion. 

And so began the great union of the two nations and cultures into a new nation and a new culture. At a time when the Native American population in Mexico was defeated and dispirited, having lost their gods and temples and compelled to build churches for an apparently alien European God, when the good news of Christ came apparently camouflaged by the bad news of conquest and cultural destruction, Saint Juan Diego received the heavenly command to build a church, and in the process Christ's Church began to be built up on this continent, through the encounter of European and Native cultures so dramatically symbolized and symbolically united in the iconography of the image Our Lady imprinted on Juan Diego's tilma.

This 16th-century building up of the Church in America echoed the earlier experience of Saint Francis of Assisi, commanded to rebuild a ruined local church as the symbolic starter for reinforcing the tottering structure of late medieval Christendom. These stories celebrate the perennial power of the Gospel to be planted and built and rebuilt - evangelization and re-evangelization, rooted not in the tearing down but in the building up of institutions in which and through which God's great love, compassion, help, and protection may be continually revealed and experienced, as Our Lady promised to Saint Juan Diego.

Mary had asked that a church be built where she had appeared. As a consequence, a new Church uniting European and American peoples was built on this continent. Under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Catholic Church continues to be built on this continent - inspired by the example of Saint Juan Diego, whose life of faith-filled integrity in the specific circumstances of his society especially exemplifies the distinctive character of the lay vocation, which, as the Second Vatican Council has reminded us, is “to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.”

In his homily on the occasion of Juan Diego’s canonization in 2002, Pope Saint John Paul II said “Guadalupe and Juan Diego have a deep ecclesial and missionary meaning and are a model of perfectly inculturated evangelization. … In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God.”

Today's feast is an appropriate occasion to reflect upon the providential union of many nations and cultures which has been our American history and heritage. This  country continues today to be a nation of immigrants, on whom it depends for its future - including especially its spiritual and ecclesial future. Our dysfunctional political system's failure thus far to achieve a just and comprehensive restructuring of our immigration system remains an ongoing moral and social disgrace that cries out to be addressed responsibly and rapidly. Thus, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and its particular prominence in the liturgical calendar in the United States speaks directly to the demographic destiny of the Church in the United States and to the multiple pastoral challenges facing the future for the Church in this country. For these and for reasons even more fundamental, this patronal feast of the Church on this American continent is an occasion which must not pass unnoticed. Today, as Saint Juan Diego's spiritual heirs face frightening new threats and challenges, the Church in America continues to struggle to achieve that fullness of encounter that may bring the Church's building and rebuilding on this continent to its fulfillment.

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