The conversion of Mexico was the single most successful mission undertaken by the Catholic Church. Why did it succeed when others failed?
I have been to Guadalupe, in Mexico City, and I have seen the tilma, the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary imprinted on the cloak of the Aztec Juan Diego.
The word “icon” is rather overused today, but for me an icon is a picture that provides the viewer with not just a picture, but an opening to an entire world. And such is the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The story of Guadalupe is in itself extraordinary. The words of the Blessed Virgin addressed to the seer Juan Diego are simplicity itself and yet so profound:
“My dear son, whom I love tenderly, know that I am the Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God, Giver and Maintainer of life, Creator of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, Who is in all places. I wish a temple to be erected here where I can manifest the compassion I have for the natives and for all who solicit my help…… Do not let anything afflict you, and do not be afraid of any illness or accident or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Is there anything else that you need?”
The shrine was accordingly built, and within a few years eight million indigenous people had embraced the Catholic religion. This simple fact is the greatest marvel wrought by Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it marks out the mission in New Spain in the mid-sixteenth century as the single most successful mission ever undertaken by the Catholic Church.
Why was it such a success, when, for example, other missions, despite huge efforts (the one to Japan in the nineteenth century, for example) have yielded little fruit? The answer is to be found in the concept of inculturation. The icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe is utterly Catholic and at the same time firmly rooted in the indigenous traditions of the Aztec people. It is emblematic of the way that the people of New Spain recognised and embraced Catholicism as something native, not alien, to their tradition; something that they had in a sense always longed for and always known, had they but known it. Put more simply, the way Catholicism was preached to them resonated with their life experience, their culture, their view of the world; there was a natural fit between life and faith; they found, consequently, in Catholicism the completion of their culture they had always sought.
In other words, the icon of Guadalupe contains for us the essence of what evangelisation should be about. We need to learn from this icon; and we need to learn from the words addressed by the Virgin to Juan Diego. This is the language we want to hear, and the language we the Church need to speak.
Juan Diego’s feast is today, the anniversary of the first apparition in 1531. And the Virgin of Guadalupe is celebrated on Monday. In Mexico thousands of pilgrims will visit the shrine to gaze on the icon, and they will sing this hymn, the words of which, with literal English translation, can be found here. The key phrases of course are these:
Suplicante juntaba las manos
Era mexicana su porte y su faz.
The Virgin in the icon is a Mexican woman, in dress and features. God’s most holy Mother identifies herself completely with her people. And in return her people are truly her people:
Desde entonces para el mexicano
Ser Guadalupano es algo esencial.
For if she is with us, then we are with her. It is “something essential”, something that is at the foundation of our identity. But this is not just a Mexican thing, or an American thing, it is universal, truly Catholic. So, let the whole world celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monday.