The Marian Heart of America: Our Lady of Guadalupe and our “Post-Christian” Society
Archbishop José H. Gomez July 31, 2017
(Archbishop Gomez delivered these remarks at the 7th Annual Napa Institute Summer Conference)
My dear friends,
I am just coming back from Mexico. I had the blessing a few weeks ago to lead our first pilgrimage from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
As some of you know, I have a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I learned it from my parents, beginning when I was a young boy growing up in Monterrey, Mexico.
Every summer my mom and dad would take my sisters and I on a 600-mile journey to visit our grandparents in Mexico City. And every time we went, our whole family would make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
My experience was not unique. This is what Catholic families do in Mexico — everyone tries to make a pilgrimage at least once a year to the Basilica.
I think most of us know the Guadalupe story. It takes us back to the “spiritual dawn” of the Church’s mission in the Americas.
It was December 1531 and the Blessed Virgin appeared to a poor Indian convert named Juan Diego on a hilltop outside Mexico City.
The Virgin entrusted Juan Diego with a mission — to go and ask the bishop to build a shrine in her name.
To convince the bishop, Our Lady gave him a sign. She made roses bloom even though it was the dead of winter. Then she used those roses to “imprint” her own image on the cloak — called a “tilma” — that Juan Diego was wearing.
And as we know, that tilma is still hanging today — almost 500 years later — in the Basilica, which is built not far from the site where she first appeared.
I am remembering that history today because I believe that Guadalupe holds the “key” for understanding the times we are living in.
So, that is what I want to talk with you about today. Also, it really makes sense because the Napa Institute, as we know, is entrusted to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
I want to offer my reflections today on the important conversation that has been going on in the Church this year — the question of how we are going to live our Catholic faith and carry out the Church’s mission in a “post-Christian” society. A society that every day is becoming more and more hostile to our values and our beliefs.
It is a crucial conversation. Archbishop Chaput, is right — we are fast becoming “strangers in a strange land.” His recent book is the most important book that has been written in the Church in some time. And I agree with him — it is not a matter of indifference whether we choose one path or another going forward.[i]
I am going to offer my reflections today in three parts.
First, I want to begin by looking at the cultural moment we find ourselves in. The signs of the times.
Second, I am going to suggest that we need to see our present situation in light of the “event” of Guadalupe, I believe that in this event, we can see God’s “vision” — his plans and purposes — for the Church in the Americas.
Third and finally, I want to offer some reflections on some “themes” that we discover in the story of Guadalupe. These themes provide us with a way forward — a way to think about our Christian lives and mission in the years ahead.
So with that introduction — let me begin.
I think all of us here today feel a sense of urgency about where our country is heading.
Back in the first centuries of the Church, St. Jerome was writing about the Arian heresy, which denied that Jesus Christ was truly God.
And Jerome had that famous line: “The whole world woke up and groaned, and was astonished to find that it was Arian.”[ii]
We could say something similar about our times. In the last decade, it is like we all woke up to discover that American society is being progressively “de-Christianized.”
Now, I should make something clear: I do not think America has ever been a fully committed “Christian nation.” No doubt that it was founded as a “Christian nation.”
But there are too many ways our nation has never lived up to Christian values. We could point to the “original sin” of slavery, the tragic mistreatment of native populations; ongoing injustices like racism, and the million or more abortions performed each year.
There is no question that our institutions and national self-identity were meant to be shaped by the vision and values of the Gospel. The promise of America — what still distinguishes this country from all the rest — is our commitment to promoting human dignity and freedom under the Creator. At the heart, this is a Christian commitment.
The point is — all that is changing right now. We face an aggressive, organized agenda by elite groups who want to eliminate the influence of Christianity from our society.
Our beliefs are now labeled as a kind of hatred or intolerance. Our Church institutions face lawsuits — for the “crime” of still believing what Jesus taught. The “crime” of not wanting to cooperate with practices we find immoral or dehumanizing.
My friends, we do not have the luxury to choose the times we live in. These are hard times. There is no denying it.
But the saints remind us that all times in the Church are dangerous times.
St. Augustine said: “Bad times! Troublesome times! This is what people are saying. Let our lives be good, and the times will be good. We make our times. Such as we are, such are the times.”[iii]
This is the challenge that Christians face in every time and every place. Are we going to shape our times? Or will we allow our times to shape us?
What we decide will make all the difference. Not only for ourselves and our families. But also for our times — for our society and culture.
And that brings me back to Guadalupe.
For me, the question is not really — how are we going to shape our times?
The better question is: how does God want us to shape our times? What is the path that Jesus Christ would have us follow in this moment in our nation’s history?
I want to suggest that the path already exists. It began in Guadalupe in 1531.
The apparition at Guadalupe was not a random occurrence. There are no coincidences in the Providence of God.
Our Lady did not appear only for the Mexican people. Her intentions were continental and universal.
In the account that has been handed down to us — an account based on the testimony of St. Juan Diego — Our Lady told him: “I am truly your compassionate Mother; your Mother and the Mother to all who dwell in this land and to all other nations and peoples.”[iv]
At Guadalupe, the Mother of God came to be the Mother of the Americas.
Guadalupe is the true “founding event” in American history. And that means it is the true founding event in the history of our country — and in the history of all the other countries in North and South America. We are all children of Guadalupe.
Guadalupe gives us the “alt-history” of America. In God’s plan, this is one continent. It is meant to begin new civilization. A new world of faith.
This is what Guadalupe is all about.
Within a few years after this apparition, millions came to be baptized in Mexico and throughout the Americas. A great wave of holiness swept through the continents — raising up saints and heroes of the faith in every country.
Mexico City became the spiritual headquarters — “mission control” for the evangelization of the Americas, Asia and Oceania.
When St. Junípero Serra came to the New World, he set sail aboard a ship called, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. He arrived at Veracruz and he immediately started walking — 300 miles to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
When he got there, he spent the night in prayer and in the morning, he offered the Eucharist, consecrating his American mission to the Virgin.[v]
Friends, we need to follow this example. We need to consecrate our Christian lives and the Church’s mission to the Virgin.
I think this is the answer to the challenges we face right now in our culture. The way forward for our Church — right now, in this moment — is to “return” to Guadalupe.
We need to follow the path that the Virgin sets before us — the path of building a new civilization of love and truth in the Americas.
So in the remainder of our time together, I want to offer a brief reflection, a kind of spiritual interpretation of the Guadalupe story — in light of our moment here in our country.
As I see it, this story points to five themes — vocation, education, life, culture, and family.
These themes suggest certain priorities and directions for the Church.
If we look at them together, they give us a kind of “strategy” for Christian living and for carrying out the Church’s mission in this “post-Christian” moment in our society.
I am just coming back from Mexico. I had the blessing a few weeks ago to lead our first pilgrimage from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The first theme is vocation. At the heart of the Guadalupe event is a story about personal vocation and mission.
Our Lady of Guadalupe entrusted St. Juan Diego with a task — to build a shrine in her name. She wanted this shrine “to show, praise, and testify to God.” She wanted this shrine to be a place where people would find God’s “love, compassion, help, comfort and salvation.”
This is a beautiful summary of the mission of the Church and the purpose of our Christian lives.
God is calling us to “build a shrine” with our lives. Through our work and the way we live. God is calling us to bear witness to his salvation, to the difference that Jesus Christ makes in our lives. He is calling us to show his love and compassion to our brothers and sisters.
When he first met the Mother of God, St. Juan Diego protested. He said he was not strong enough, not holy enough to do what she wanted. At one point he urges her to find someone better. He says: “I am only a man of the fields, a poor creature.”
I think we all feel that way sometimes. That we are not worthy of what God is asking us to do. I know I can feel that way. But vocation is not about perfection. God calls every one of us and God gives each of us a mission. Your particular vocation — what God is calling you to do for him — there is no one else who can do it.
That is what Our Lady told St. Juan Diego. These are her words: “Understand that I have many servants and messengers who I could send to deliver my message and do my will. But it is absolutely necessary that you yourself go.”
Friends, God is speaking those words to you and to me in this time. God has a message that he wants you to deliver with your lives.
We need to rediscover — the beautiful truth that every one of us has a vocation — to be holy, to be saints. To build a shrine with our lives.
Holiness does not mean separation from the world. Holiness means transforming the world — living totally for the love of God, and sanctifying the world by our love and service.
This is the first lesson of Guadalupe.
The second lesson of Guadalupe: We need to teach the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.
St. Juan Diego was on his way to church when he met Our Lady. It was his custom, every Saturday and Sunday, to get up before dawn and to walk nine miles from his home to go to Mass and then go to classes to keep deepening his knowledge of the Catholic faith.
For Juan Diego, Jesus Christ came into his life — and there is nothing more beautiful than to know Jesus!
This is a message for the Church in our times.
We are here to share this beautiful treasure of our relationship with the living God — who became a man for us, who gave his life to save us and to make us into a new humanity. Who is living with us now and walking with us as our Friend.
When we teach, we are calling people to conversion — which means a new way of thinking and looking at the world.
Our faith is not a collection of rules and obligations. The Catholic faith is a way of living, a way of seeing the world with “new eyes.” With the eyes of Jesus.
We need to renew in our times the Catholic imagination and our “sacramental” vision.
We need to push back against the scientific and materialist vision of our age. We are living in a culture that tells us there is no reality that “transcends” what we can see and hear and taste and touch.
This is a world without God — without the possibility of God.
But we know that the incarnation of Jesus changes everything! The things of nature and “ordinary” life are transfigured. The visible world is now a “sacrament” of invisible realities and beauty. Everything in this world can now be a sign and a pathway that brings us into the presence of God.
All of this is anticipated in the incarnational and sacramental vision of Guadalupe.
In the presence of the Virgin, Juan Diego wondered whether he was in paradise, whether heaven had come to earth. With her coming, the mountains were filled with songs like wonderful birds. Flowers bloomed in the winter season in soil where there were only stones and cactus and thorns.
This is the beauty that we can see with the eyes of faith. So in our teaching, we need to help people to see that our lives are connected, part of the beautiful mystery of God’s plan of creation. A great adventure that is unfolding under the eyes of our loving Father.
Holy Maria of Guadalupe appeared as an icon of new life, as a woman carrying a child.
She presented herself to Juan Diego as the Mother of all the living. She told him: “I am the ever-Virgin, holy Mary, Mother of the true God — the life-giving Creator of all peoples.”
Guadalupe is a vision of the world as God wants it to be. The “shrine” that Our Lady wants us to build in the Americas is a new civilization — a culture that celebrates life and welcomes life.
The Christian faith in this new world confronted the brutality of the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice. From the beginning, the saints and missionaries of the Americas proclaimed that every life is precious and an image of the living God.
And we need to continue this mission.
As we see every day in our society, life has become “cheap” and easily discarded. We see it in the crisis of homelessness, in the lives wasted by addiction. We see it in the push to spread euthanasia, in the continuing tragedy of abortion.
This is a task for us, my brothers and sisters.
The saints of the Americas teach us to go to the “peripheries” and margins of our society — to care for those who have no one to care to them. They teach us to meet “others” — as brothers and as sisters — and to serve them. From the heart, at a personal sacrifice. They teach us to defend the weak and vulnerable.
In my reflections at Guadalupe, it struck me that there is a touching family drama in the middle of the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin.
As you recall from the story, Juan Diego’s uncle — Juan Bernardino — is in the final days of an illness that is terminal. And as he is trying to serve the Virgin, Juan is also caring for his uncle — trying to find a priest who can come and anoint him. Also in the story, we see Our Lady’s tender care to heal the sick and to console Juan Diego in his stress and grief.
It is a touching story — that many of us can understand from our own families. Many of us know what it means to be taking care of a loved one who is dying.
And I think that speaks in a special way to our moment right now in our culture — with all the pressures to permit assisted suicide, with a population that is getting older and needing more medical care and attention.
This is an area where the Church can truly make a difference, in the spirit of Guadalupe. Perhaps part of the future of Catholic health care is to find ways to teach and train people in the ways of showing God’s tender mercy to those who are dying and to those who cannot be cured.
We have beautiful examples in the lives of our American saints.
We need to study the witness of people like Venerable Mother Angeline Teresa McCory, the Irish immigrant to New York who was a pioneer in caring for the aged and infirm. As she did, we need to help people today to see the face of Christ in those who are sick and suffering.
When we look at the self-image that Our Lady left imprinted on the tilma — we notice that she is a brown-skinned young woman — a mestizo. A person whose family background includes a mix of descendants from Europe and indigenous peoples.
She came dressed in the garments of the indigenous peoples and she spoke to Juan Diego in his own indigenous language.
And in all this, Our Blessed Mother reveals herself in a powerful way to be an icon of the Church.
Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds us that the Church was established to be the vanguard of a new humanity and a new civilization — one family of God drawn from every race and every nation and every language.
Right now in our country, and even in the Church, we see signs that we still have problems with nativism and racial prejudice. So we need to pray and we need to work harder to overcome our divisions.
The saints of the Americas show us that holiness knows no color. Beyond the color of our skin or the countries where we come from — we are all brothers and sisters. All children of one Father. And the Mother of God is our mother.
This is the message of Guadalupe.
Finally, my friends: the vision of Guadalupe encourages us to strengthen marriage and the family as the foundations of a truly human civilization.
Juan Diego was baptized, together with his wife, María Lucia, in 1524. They were among the first converts in the New World and were one of the first Catholic married couples in the Americas. Sadly she died five years later, two years before his encounter with Our Lady.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, came among us as the Mother of the family of God in the Americas.
Some of the earliest martyrs in this country — were missionaries who were killed for their witness to God’s truth about the meaning of marriage and the family. These include the Hispanic Franciscans martyred in Georgia in 1597 and some of the martyrs of Florida.
We need to ask these martyrs to give us the strength we need to confront the broad cultural crisis of the family today.
We do this first — by living the beauty and fullness of the Church’s teaching ourselves. In our own marriages and families.
We need to be models for a culture that is confused. We need to proclaim — by our example more than our words — the beautiful truth about the human person and God’s loving plan for creation and the family.
Let us hold up the great married saints from the Americas — like the Servants of God Eugenio Balmori Martínez and Marina Francisca Cinta Sarrelangue. They were from Veracruz and the story of their courtship is very moving. They wrote each other beautiful poems and love letters.
And they gave us a beautiful vision of the family. Marina wrote: “Our home will be a chapel of love, where no other ideal will reign other than to thank God and to love each other very much.”[vi]
There is beauty like this to be found everywhere in our families, in our parishes, in the joy of our children. We need to proclaim this to our culture.
Let me try to draw some conclusions.
The great Saint Pope John Paul II called the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe — “the Marian heart of America.”[vii]
We forget this — but Guadalupe was the first place John Paul visited outside of Italy after he became Pope.
St. John Paul understood that the mission and meaning of America is continental, universal.
The nations of the Americas all trace their faith to the coming of the Virgin at Guadalupe. We share a common story of origins. And we are joined in a common destiny.
My simple point today is that each one of us is a part of that story — part of the great mission to America that began with the visitation of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Church in this country — and every one of us — has the responsibility to continue the task that the Virgin gave to St. Juan Diego. To “build a shrine” with our lives. To build a society that glorifies God and is worthy of the dignity of the human person.
What Our Lady said to St. Juan Diego, she now says to us: “You are my ambassador, most worthy of my trust.”
Let me conclude by sharing an experience I had on my recent pilgrimage.
After all those years of visiting as a child, it is deeply moving for me to now be a priest and to be able to celebrate the Holy Mass at the main altar in the Basilica.
The altar sits directly underneath the miraculous image of the Virgin.
And when you are there, you can feel the warmth of her tender eyes gazing down upon you. It is a powerful feeling, hard to describe. There is a beautiful sense of feeling protected. Of feeling like a child who is loved by the Mother of God.
And when you are in her presence, you can almost hear her speaking. The same tender words she spoke to St. Juan Diego:
“Do not let your heart be disturbed. Do not fear. ... Am I, your Mother, not here. Are you not under my shadow and protection? Are you not in the folds of my arms? What more do you need?”
Friends, Our Mother is speaking these words to the Church today. And to each one of us.
We need to lay our fears and hopes at the feet of the Virgin. We need to contemplate these times we are living in under the gaze of her loving eyes.
We need to go always forward with confidence. Because we go with God and with his Mother.
[i] Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (Henry Holt, 2017). [ii] Dialogue Against the Luciferians, 19. [iii] Sermon 30:8. [iv] Quotations from The Nican Mopohua are drawn from Paul Badde, María of Guadalupe: Shaper of History, Shaper of Hearts (Ignatius, 2009), 26–38. [v] Francisco Palou, Life and Apostolic Labors of the Venerable Junípero Serra (George Wharton James, 1913 ), 19. [vi] Vincent O’Malley, Saints of North America (Our Sunday Visitor, 2004), 203–206, 360–362. [vii] Homily, Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, (Mexico City, January 23, 1999).