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The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Catholic Discovery of America

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Talk 4

It must seem strange to associate the Blessed Virgin Mary and the discovery of America.

What makes the subject strange is that most people think of the discovery of the New World in geographic terms. In 1492, an Italian navigator by the name of Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain in search of the Indies and landed in what we now call Central America. his motives, we are told, were economic and psychological. He was looking for the riches of the Orient to extend the political power of the Spanish monarchy. And he sought the very human glory that he was sure to receive once he reached the Far East by going west across the Atlantic.

What most of the English-speaking world does not know is that the dominant motive of Columbus for sailing across the uncharted sea was deeply Catholic. Even more, it was apostolic. As all the primary sources on Columbus make clear, he believed that he was specially chosen by God to extend the Kingdom of Christ to pagan nations who had never had the Gospel preached to them.

If there was one thing that stood out in the Catholic Spain of Columbus' day, it was the people's great devotion to the Blessed Virgin. It was a devotion that took almost eight centuries to mature. How so? Under the heavy pressure of a militant Islam whose basic name in Christianity was idolatry. In the words of the Koran, "the followers of the Nazarene" claimed that His Mother Mary was the Mother of Allah because her Son was the living God who became man for the salvation of the world.

It was not until 1491 that Catholic Spain was liberated from Moslem tyranny. The liberation meant freedom once more to proclaim Mary's Divine Maternity without fear of Islamic opposition for professing idolatry.

Columbus himself was very devoted to Our Lady. His published writings reveal a childlike dependence on Mary. She was regularly invoked in his prayers. His flagship in crossing the sea was the Santa Maria. And one of the first islands he discovered, he named Concepcion, in honor of Mary's Immaculate Conception.

However, this is not the focus of our lecture on "The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Catholic discovery of America." Change one word in the title and we have our focus. I wish to speak to you about "The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Catholic Evangelization of America."

It was the apparitions of Our Lady to Juan Diego, the converted Aztec Indian, and her revelations of Guadalupe that opened the greatest missionary expansion of the Gospel since apostolic times.

We shall concentrate on Our Lady of Guadalupe and the conversion of Mexico. But Mexico soon became the inspiration of the rest of Latin America.

Before Guadalupe, 1492 to 1531

In order to appreciate the significance of Mary's role in the conversion of the New World, we must see something of the conditions in Mexico before the events of Guadalupe.

When Columbus crossed the Atlantic, he reached only the outskirts of the Western Hemisphere. He touched on one island after another in the Central American Continent. By the beginning of the 1500's, Mexico was discovered. Columbus had already passed to his eternal reward and was followed by one Spanish-appointed governor-general after another.

As we read the history of those early days, we are struck by the stark contrast between Church and State or, more accurately, between men of Christian faith and men of raw human greed and merciless cruelty.

Already among the crew that sailed with Columbus on his first voyage there were kindred spirits with their leader. Like him their dominant motive was to bring the Gospel to the native Indians. But there were also rapacious predators whose one ambition was to accumulate as much gold as possible and subjugate the Indians to virtual or actual slavery.

One name stands out in this period: Cortes was the Spanish general whose military exploits in Mexico rank him with Caesar and Napoleon in his physical conquest of Mexico.

As war-like as Cortes was, he was a believing Christian. In the tradition of his ancestors who conquered the Moors in Spain, he wanted Christianity to be established in the lands he conquered. He encouraged the Franciscan missionaries to preach the Gospel to the natives.

But Cortes also believed that the Indians should be conquered by force of arms. Thus he offered truce to the natives of what was then called the City of Mexico. But their emperor, Cuauhtemoc, was persuaded by his pagan priests not to give in to the Christians. In the siege that followed, we are told that 100,000 Indians and their close allies were killed by the sword or by drowning, and as many again who died of starvation, dysentery and other diseases.

Nor was that all. Cortes made some serious blunders as administrator of the Indies. He returned to Spain to defend his reputation, and this occasioned Charles V, the Spanish emperor, to send to America two men who were as unlike as day and night. On December 12, 1527, he appointed Franciscan Juan Zumarraga as Bishop protector of the Indians; and he made the soldier Nunode Guzman governor of Mexico. The next three years are among the saddest in the history of the New World.

Guzman not only resented the bishop's role as protector of the Indians. He opposed him and did everything but have him killed. A reign of terror broke out that has no parallel in early American history.

In less than two years at least 10,000 Indians had been shipped to the West Indies to be sold as slaves with no chance of returning to their families. Whole towns were laid waste, priests were kidnapped, flogged and maimed.

These and similar atrocities were reported to Emperor Charles V. In August, 1530, he issued an edict which forbade the enslavement of the Indians. The edict read, "No person shall dare to make a single Indian a slave, whether in war or in peace ...whether by barter, by purchase, by trade, or any other pretext or cause whatever."

Our Lady Appears to Juan Diego

Thus the soil was prepared for sowing the seed of the Gospel and bearing such fruit as has no parallel in the annals of Christianity.

In one short generation, the whole Aztec Empire had undergone a volcanic change. The world in which they had lived for centuries was an evil world in which their gods demanded the killing of thousands of human beings in sacrifice. The Spanish conquistadors had delivered the Indians from pagan tyranny, but also left them dangling without any religious moorings.

If the Indians were to become Christians, they had to see Christianity as something belonging to them. It could not be the religion of foreigners whom they had too often seen as invaders and oppressors.

The man chosen by God to open the most dramatic conversion in Christian misology was himself a convert from paganism.

Born in 1474, he lost his parents in childhood and was brought up by his uncle. On marrying, he settled with his wife at Cuautitlan in a little one-room mud house thatched with corn stalks. In 1525, he was baptized Juan Diego, along with his wife Maria Lucia and his uncle Juan Bernardino. Juan Diego and his wife would frequently walk the fifteen miles to Tlaltelolco, to assist at Mass and receive Holy Communion.

Four years after Baptism, his wife died, leaving him childless. Juan Diego then moved to be closer to his aged uncle, whose house was only nine miles from the nearest Franciscan church.

Juan Diego rose early on the morning of December 9, 1531, which was then the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Franciscans were unique in promoting devotion to Mary's Immaculate Conception, centuries before the definition of the dogma in 1854.

On his way to Mass, Juan was suddenly stopped by the sound of music at the hill of Tepeyac, the site of the former pagan temple of Tonantzin. He thought it was his imagination, but then saw a glowing white cloud, hallowed by a rainbow formed by streams of lightning coming from the cloud. Then he heard a woman's gentle voice calling out to him in diminutive form, "Juanito...Juan Dieguito."

The Lady asked him where he was going. "I am on my way to the church in Tlaltelolcoto to hear Mass," he told her. The Lady smiled and said,

You must know and be very certain, my son, that I am truly the perpetual and perfect Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God, through whom everything lives, who is the Creator and Master of heaven and earth.
I ardently desire that a temple be built here in my name where I will show and give all my love, my help and my protection to the people.
I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all who love me, who cry out to me, and of those who have confidence in me.
Here I will hear their weeping and sorrows, and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, needs and misfortunes.
In order to realize my intentions, go to the house of the Bishop of Mexico City and tell him I sent you and that it is my desire to have a temple built here.

Juan Diego did as the Lady told him to. But Bishop Zumarraga was not impressed. He told the poor indian to come later at a more convenient time. So Juan returned to the Tepeyac hill the same evening where the Lady was waiting for him. He urged her to send someone else to the bishop. He himself was a nobody and "I do not want to fall into your displeasure."

But the Lady insisted it must be Juan and he should return to the bishop the next day.

So he came back to the bishop, who this time was more impressed, but also told Juan that the Lady must give some proof that she really is the Mother of God.

Again at sunset, on December 10, a Sunday, he went to Tepeyac, where the Lady appeared to him with the promise that she would provide the miraculous sign requested by the bishop.

At this point there are two versions of what happened. One version has it that when Juan returned home, he found his uncle deathly sick. Another and fully documented version is that his uncle was missing when the nephew returned from Tepeyac hill. He had been fatally shot by hostile Indians who resented his becoming a Christian and cooperating with the hated Spaniards.

Juan Diego was in a quandary. Should he go back to the bishop as the Lady had instructed him, or should he take care of his uncle. Juan chose to minister to his uncle's desperate needs all day, Monday, December 11.

Monday morning, December 12, Juan went to get the priest to take care of his dying uncle. In his simplicity, he made a bypass around Tepeyac instead of going to the top of the hill where he was afraid that Our Lady would be waiting for him. But he miscalculated. The Blessed Virgin came down the hill to intercept him. She asked him where he was going. He explained about his uncle. Then she told him,

Listen and be sure, my dear son, that I will protect you. Do not be afraid nor grieved. Let not your heart be dismayed, no matter how great the illness [of your uncle]of which you speak.
I am your mother and is not my help your refuge. Am I not of your kind? Do not be concerned about your uncle's illness. He is not going to die. Be assured he is already well.

Our Lady then told Juan to go to the top of the hill, where he would find some flowers, which he was to bring to her. The hill was a desert, where only cactus grew. But Juan did as he was told. When he reached the west of the hill, it was covered with beautiful Castilian roses in full bloom. As he later related, Mary took the roses from him as he gathered them and arranged them with her own hands in the cloak or tilma that Juan was wearing.

There was one final message from Mary. It is the capstone of Guadalupe and the key to understanding what we are saying when we speak of the Blessed Virgin and the discovery – or conversion – of America.

This is the sign you must take to the Lord Bishop. Tell him in my name that with this he will see and recognize my will. He must do what I ask. You are my ambassador and worthy of my confidence. I counsel you to take every care to speak only in the presence of the Bishop. Tell him what you are carrying and tell him how I asked you to climb the hill to gather the flowers. Also tell him everything you have seen so that you will persuade the Bishop to see that the church I have asked for, will be built.

When Juan reached the Bishop's residence, he was made to wait a long time and the attendants tried to take some of the roses that were in his cloak. But the flowers became like painted embroidery.

On being admitted to Bishop Zumarraga's presence, Diego opened his cloak. Immediately the roses fell in a flood of color to the floor. But that was not all. On the cloak was a portrait of the Mother of God. She was in Indian dress, her hands joined in prayer. Her features were Indian and of startling beauty.

Bishop Zumarraga fell to his knees in prayer. Juan Diego was allowed to retire to a hermitage. He died there in 1548, at the age of 74. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

By the end of 1531, the image of Our Lady was exposed in the Bishop's private chapel where it was venerated by thousands of Aztecs. Also before the end of the same year there was a triumphant procession of the sacred image from Mexico City to Tepeyac. On that occasion, a Mexican who had been accidentally killed by an arrow was restored to life.

Since 1531, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a major basilica. We might say that Mexico City is built around the shrine. But the center remains the image of Our Lady. Its miraculous character has been attested by ecclesiastical, even pontifical approval. It has also been scientifically examined and proved that the portrait could not have been produced naturally. No painter's brush was used; the tilma is fragile, decayable cactus fiber. Yet the image remains as clear and fresh as it was almost five centuries ago. Even a terrorist's bomb in 1921 did not scratch the portrait although it completely bent the metal crucifix next to the image of the Blessed Virgin.

The Miraculous Conversion of Millions

The principal wonder of Guadalupe, however, is not the unexplainable picture of Our Lady. It is not the constant stream of pilgrims to the shrine every year. The real wonder, and the main theme of this presentation, is the avalanche of conversions which the revelation of Juan Diego began in the Western world.

One historian after another is lost for words to do justice to the phenomenon. In sober fact, it is unprecedented in the twenty centuries of Catholic evangelization.

No sooner had Columbus landed in the West Indies than apostolic men from Spain began to proclaim the Gospel to the natives. Compared with militant conquerors like Cortes and Guzman, the missionaries were mild and gentle apostles of the word. They devoted themselves ardently to the conversion of the Indians. But these courageous priests and religious were few in number. The language barrier was practically insurmountable. The number of dialects was innumerable. The territories to be covered were unimaginable. The injustices perpetrated by some of the conquistadors could be indescribable.

No one questions the heroism of these pioneers of Christianity in North and South America. In spite of their gigantic zeal the results were sparse and the number of converts very few.

Here let me quote from one of the leading historiographers of Latin America.

Scarcely had the most holy Virgin of Guadalupe appeared and taken possession of this her inheritance, when the Catholic faith spread with the rapidity of light from the rising sun through the wide extent and beyond the bounds of the ancient empire of Mexico.
Countless multitudes from every tribe, every district, every race ...who were grossly superstitious, who were ruled by the instincts of cruelty, oppressed by every form of violence and utterly degraded, were radically changed once they learned about the marvelous apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
They came to recognize their natural dignity, forgot their misfortunes and put off their impulsive ferocity.

These pagans, we are told, could not resist the loving invitation of the Mother of God they flocked, in droves, to the waters of Baptism, on a scale and with a speed that has no equal in recorded Catholic history.

The missionaries were understandably overwhelmed by the endless crowds who clamored for instruction and Baptism. We have evidence of a single priest administering the Sacrament of Baptism to six-thousand people in a single day.

Wherever the missionaries traveled, entire families would come running out of their poor villages, begging with signs to have the waters of Baptism poured over them.

Along with Baptism the natives were instructed in the basics of Christianity. Nor was that all. Soon churches, monasteries, convents, hospitals, schools and workshops were built to provide for the development and practice of the Catholic faith.

What were the results? Astounding! By 1540, over eight million Aztec Indians had embraced Catholic Christianity.

But that was not all. It would be a mistake to suppose that those were only superficial conversations. In 1552, the University of Mexico was founded on an equal academic footing as the University of Solomonca in Spain.

Before long, Catholic Mexico was sending native born missionaries to distant lands.

The evangelization of the rest of Latin America is a story of God's grace all by itself. The roots of this evangelization can be mysteriously but legitimately traced to the three memorable days at Guadalupe in 1521.

So true is this that in 1910, Pope Pius X proclaimed Our Lady of Guadalupe the Patroness of all Latin America. All papal documents since then reconfirm this Marian patronage.

The present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1979. He composed a prayer on that occasion which it is worth quoting in full. In effect, He was asking Our Lady, Mother of the Americas, to intercede with her Divine Son for the people of the Western World. It was through her that the true faith was miraculously planted in this then New World. It will also be through her that, 500 years later, there will be, where needed, a reconversion of this people of North and South America.

“O Immaculate Virgin Mother of the true God and Mother of the Church! You, who from this place reveal your clemency and your pity to all those who ask for your protection; hear the prayer that we address to you with filial trust, and present it to your Son Jesus, our sole Redeemer. Mother of mercy, Teacher of hidden and silent sacrifice, to you, who come to meet us sinners, we dedicate on this day all our being and all our love. We also dedicate to you our life, our work, our joys, our infirmities and our sorrows. Grant peace, justice and prosperity to our peoples, for we entrust to your care, Our Lady and our Mother, all that we have and all that we are. We wish to be entirely yours and to walk with you along the way of complete faithfulness to Jesus Christ in His Church: hold us always with your loving hand.
"Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, we pray to you for all the Bishops, that they may lead the faithful along the paths of intense Christian life, of love and humble service of God and souls. Contemplate this immense harvest, and intercede with the Lord that He may instill a hunger for holiness in the whole People of God, and grant abundant vocations of priests and religious, strong in the faith, and zealous dispensers of God's mysteries. Grant to our homes, the grace of loving and respecting life in its beginnings, with the same love with which you conceived in your womb the life of the Son of God.
"Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Fair Love, protect our families so that they may always be united, and bless the upbringing of our children. Our hope, look upon us with compassion, teach us to go continually to Jesus and, if we fall, help us to rise again, to return to Him, by means of the confession of our faults and sins in the Sacrament of Penance, which gives peace to the soul. We beg you to grant us a great love for all the holy Sacraments, which are, as it were, the signs that your Son left on earth. Thus, Most Holy Mother, with the peace of God in our conscience, with our hearts free from evil and hatred, we will be able to bring to all true joy and true peace, which come to us from your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen."

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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