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Reaction to Benedict XVI in Brazil: Our Lady of Guadalupe Bridges the Gap

Pope Benedict XVI was criticized when he said at the V General Conference of CELAM in Aparecida, Brazil, that the evangelization of Latin America did not impose a foreign culture, but brought to fullness and purified the indigenous religions, where God had already been present. While there has been in recent years an emphasis on respect for all religions, including indigenous religions, one can hardly deny the need for purification of old religions in terms of some practices, e.g., human sacrifice.

Benedict was not speaking in a positive way of the cruel practices of the conquistadores, just as the defenders of indigenous religions would not defend the enslavement of some tribal peoples by other indigenous groups. Rather, he expressed in theological terms the relationship between faith and culture: Christ, being in truth the incarnate Logos, “love to the end”, is not alien to any culture, nor to any person; on the contrary, the response that he seeks in the heart of cultures is what gives them their ultimate identity, uniting humanity and at the same time respecting the wealth of diversity, opening people everywhere to growth in genuine humanity, in authentic progress. The Word of God, in becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, also became history and culture.”

It is easier for us to understand the Holy Father’s remarks when we reflect on the key to the evangelization of Latin America, Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared in “New Spain” in 1531 and transformed the whole religious and cultural landscape. The bishops and priests had been trying to bring Christianity to the people, in this case notably the Franciscans in the area of what is now Mexico City, but the efforts of these good men were hampered by the cruel practices of the conquistadores. They failed miserably. There were very few converts. History is a witness of the allergy to conversion of the people in the early years of the conquest.

The evangelization was perpetrated by God through Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is the one who brought the faith to millions—and without military might. Where Spaniards had failed in attempting to convert Mexicans, the Blessed Mother who appeared to Juan Diego succeeded. If there was any force, it was on her part—the force of love for the poorest, for those who suffer.

If anyone forced evangeli-zation, it was Our Lady of Guadalupe who impacted the Mexican people so strongly that they could not escape her mantle. The force of conversion was provided through God’s love when the force of conquistadores failed who tried baptism by blood.

At the time of the conquest, when Juan Diego lived, many of the invaders thought the indigenous people did not even have souls and that therefore did not have the right to own anything and should be subject. They were treated badly and enslaved. They were forbidden to speak their own language. With the conquistadores, however, came missionaries who wanted to share their faith with them. It was hard going, of course, because of the terrible treatment they were receiving. Only a very few natives had become Christian.

One of those who had become Catholic was Juan Diego, who had been baptized and frequently received the sacraments. Devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, was very much a part of the evangelization in Christ which Juan Diego had received.

The missionaries defended the natives, especially Franciscan Bishop Zumárraga of Mexico City (The book by Eduardo Chavez Sanchez, Juan Diego, Una Vida de Santidad que Marcó la Historia; Mexico City, Editorial Porrúa, 2002 recounts in detail this history). Eduardo Chavez Sanchez was the postulator for Juan Diego’s cause, and he presented research from original sources from the time of Juan Diego.

According to Chavez, Hernán Cortés and the other conquistadores attended Mass where Bishop Zumárraga celebrated. When he began to denounce the cruel behavior of the conquistadores week after week, Cortés and the others simply stopped going to Mass. Because of his strong critique of injustices on the part of those in charge of the government, the Bishop was threatened and lies were made up about him to discredit him and to try to have him replaced.

Franciscan Missionaries Prayed for a Miracle to Counterract Cruelty of Conquistadores

Chavez recounts that in 1529, one year and four months before the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, Bishop Zumárraga wrote to the king in Spain to tell him that the situation was so bad that only a miracle of God could save the situation and the earth. The missionaries prayed for a miracle.

Shortly after the Franciscans, wrote and prayed their desperate prayer seeking a miracle, God did provide the remedy to what might have been the total destruction of a civilization and culture.

The miracle occurred through Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, sent to Juan Diego to bring God’s message to the Bishop to construct a church in her honor on the hill of Tepeyac. The confirmation of the message was sent in the form of roses, and through Juan Diego, to all of the continents of America, leaving her own image, pregnant with the child Jesus, on histilma as a sign of new life. That image, brought to Bishop Zumárraga, still exists in its original colors in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. She appeared as La Morenita, the brown Lady, speaking Nahuatl, the language of the people, forbidden by the conquistadores. This is the perfect example of inculturation and the faith, provided by God himself.

Virgil Elizondo tells us that “The subjugated Mexican people came to life again because of Guadalupe. The response of the Indians was a spontaneous explosion of pilgrimages, festivals. and conversions to the religion of the Virgin. Out of the meaningless and chaotic existence of the postconquest years, a new meaning had erupted. . .

“In the person of Juan Diego was represented the Indian nations defeated and slaughtered, but now brought to life. They who had been robbed of their lands and of their way of life and even of their gods were now coming to life. They who had been silenced were now speaking again through the voice of the Lady. They who only wanted to die now wanted to live. . .

“The power of hope offered by the drama of Guadalupe came from the fact that the unexpected good news of God’s presence was offered to all by someone from whom nothing special was expected: the conquered Indian, the lowest of the low. . . ”

The Native Americans quickly arrived by the thousands asking to be baptized. In fact, in a little time the numbers seeking baptism were so great that the missionaries stopped the baptisms for a time to write to Rome to ask how to proceed in such an unprecedented situation. The challenge was how to catechize and give a good foundation in the faith when there were so many asking for baptism and later confession.

In a few years eight million were baptized.

“Without a doubt, this massive conversion of the indigenous people was a surprise for the missionaries … and was their seeking of not just the sacrament of Baptism, but also Confession: It occurred that–said Mendieta ( Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta, Historia Eclesiastica Indiana )–by the roads, mountains and deserted spots a thousand or two thousand Indians followed the religious, just to go to confession, leaving behind their homes and properties; and many of them pregnant women, and so many that some had their babies on the way, and almost all carrying their children on their backs. Other elderly people who could hardly stand even with a supporting stick, and blind people, walked 15 or twenty leagues to search for a confessor. The healthy came thirty leagues, and others went from monastery to monastery, more than eighty leagues. Because on every side there was so much to do, they found no entry. Many of them brought their women and children and their little food, as if they were moving to another area. And they sometimes waited one or two months . . .”

Elizondo wrote, “The cultural clash of sixteenth-century Spain and Mexico was resolved and reconciled by the brown Lady of Guadalupe. . . Guadalupe is the key to understanding the Christianity of the New World, the self-image of Mexicans, of Mexican-Americans, and of all Latin Americans.”

If that was a forced conversion, it was an offer that could not be refused.

Dorothy Day (quoting then Archbishop Miranda during her pilgrimage to the Basilica), pointed out that devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe led to the formation of a new people: “‘We have the answer to the problem of color which confronts the East and the West,’ Archbishop Miranda, primate of Mexico said to us in an interview on the last day. Our Lady answered it then. There is no problem in Mexico. Where there was the Indian, there is now the Mexican. There is a new people, a new race. There was intermarriage from the first.'”

Ironically, we hear much about the terrible cruelty of the Spaniards with the conquest, but we hear very little about the cruelty of the English-speaking in the United States who decimated the Native American population. The Puritans would not have been open to an appearance from the blessed Mother to save the people. The Native Americans fared no better, and actually much worse, as the policy of “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was imple-mented in the U. S.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is for all people; she is the mother of Jesus. However, she is especially for all of the Americas. The Blessed Mother has appeared under many titles in Latin America, not just Our Lady of Guadalupe. Very often when people have failed in their evangelizing, the mother of Jesus, sent by God, has been able to bring the evangelization to fruition.

In his book Chavez sings of the meaning of her appearances and what San Juan Diego means today: “Juan Diego continues spreading to the entire world the great Guadalupan Happening, a great message of peace, of unity and love that continues to be transmitted through each one of us, converting our poor human history, full of tragedies, betrayals, divisions, hatred, wars, in a marvelous History of Salvation, because in the center of the sacred image, in the center of the heart of the Most Holy Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is found Jesus Christ Our Savior. It is precisely she, the Mother of God, our Mother, who presents her son Jesus Christ, brings him to us among flowers and songs, robed in the sun, dressed in stars, standing on the moon, among the clouds like a great treasure who comes from the invisible and which in her is made visible. It is she who, choosing a humble native Indian, Juan Diego, who had had little time to embrace the faith, invites us to embrace our God and Lord.

“Juan Diego completes fully his work as intercessor and model of holiness, because each one who contemplates the image and message of Our Lady of Guadalupe brings us the love of God, through which we prepare ourselves as other ‘Juan Diegos’ who treat the Mother of God as our Mother, our Niña del Cielo” (182-183) .”

The report on the CELAM V Conference has just been approved by the Vatican and published in Spanish at http://www.celam.info.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, July-August 2007.