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Our Lady of Guadalupe is the essence of what evangelisation should be about

The conversion of Mexico was the single most successful mission undertaken by the Catholic Church. Why did it succeed when others failed?

By on Friday, 9 December 2011

Candles decorated with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Photo: CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register

Candles decorated with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe Photo: CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register

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
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
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.

  • Annie

    Amen to all of that!

  • Annie

    Oh, and if one movie illustrates this (for me), it’s Apocalypto.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QJKL72QRSDWKYKUJG62PC3COCI Agusti

    I a

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QJKL72QRSDWKYKUJG62PC3COCI Agusti

    I love mother of Guadalupe, however I invite you to read about the story of the Virgin of Lithuania Mother of Mercy of Aušros Vartai (the Gate of Dawn). It believe that it has been thanks to her that Lithuanians went back to Catholicism and resisted the Lutherans (remember than Latvia and Lethia were Lutherans, now they aree atheist or orthodox. 

  • Jeannine

    Before the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Franciscan missionaries in Mexico were converting the Indians at the same rate or less as compared to those nations in their initial conversion phase. They were doing all the right things, ie incorporating Catholicism in the culture. Yet, the Mexican society at that time was in a state of despair after the conquistador conquest. I don’t know of any defeated society that freely accepted the religion of the winning side. 

    What made the Guadalupe apparition unique up until that time was the use of many Aztec (local) symbols displayed on her clothing & her physical appearance. By doing this she was able to successfully communicate her message to the Indians. IMHO it was the direct intervention of our Lady not the Catholic Church itself who brought 8 million people in 10 yrs to her son. Mexico converted freely, w/out the threat of the sword.

    I believe this was also a teaching lesson for Europe at the time (1531). 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Kenny/500505255 Michael Kenny

    The ‘conversion’ of Mexico is nothing to be proud about … the missionaries came with the Empire … and was completely racist. The ‘vision’ of Our Lady was a direct challenge to that, which is also associated with an indigenous Goddess … without a sense of context this article makes little sense!
    Racism is still a really big issue in the Latin American Church, which is why the darker skinned people are leaving for the Pentecostal churches, especially the indigenous groups. The new evangelisation will be more like Pentecostalism than Marian … the future of the Catholic Church will probably not be Marian but more Spirit-centred … ? It will also be ‘browner’ and have local religious leaders who are the same class as their congregation rather than white educated Europeans who look down on their congregants … which drives people away. Just a few thoughts. If the Catholic Church doesn’t introduce married priests it will quickly become the minority religion in Latin America. Shrines will not keep people within the Catholic Church but more priests would. There is 1 Pentecostal pastor for every 1,000 Brazilians for example, but 1 Catholic priest for approximately ever 50,000 Brazilians … it’s sort of obvious that this is a significant issue for the future of the Church… ?

  • Jeannine

    You can not make such blanket assertions about the Spanish missionaries. Yes there were some racists as defined by today’s standards. But the overwhelming majority gladly accepted the missionary task because they sincerely & rightly thought they were doing God’s will by proclaiming the Good News to groups of people who never heard of Jesus. They did this charitably & kindly. Some missionaries traveled back to Spain & reported on the Spanish colonists’ abuses directed at the locals, to their civil & religious superiors. It was the Spanish Church that argued for the rights & dignity of these people.

    Racism of today is a problem all over this world not just on the South American continent & it occurs mostly in non-Catholic institutions such as governments.

    One can not predict on what the future of the Catholic Church will look like. There are some people claiming after examining demographic data that the entire world, except for 1 or 2 small pockets, is experiencing a rapid birth rate decrease.

    The Catholic Church was, is, & will be always in need of good priests. Married priests in the Roman Rite will not solve this dilemma.

  • Hughes196

    It was the Spanish missionaries who were largely responsible for the preservation of the indigenous cultures of Mexico and other Latin American countries with large native populations. Fray Bartolome de las Casas and Fray Bernardino de Sahagun among others collected writings, oral traditions and native artistic forms and campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the native peoples.  You seem to have no knowledge and much less understanding of the Spanish American cultures and minds. As for your ridiculous claim of racism, how do you explain the fact that the average Mexican, Peruvian or Chilean has Amerindian features and is decidedly  of mixed race. Do you know the meaning of the word acculturation? That is in fact what happened over there.

  • theroadmaster

    The iconic image of Our Lady on the  tilma or cloak of Blessed Juan Diego is the supreme Marian representation of the Mexican nation and indeed the whole South American continent.  Pictorial copies of Our Lady of Guadalupe are present wherever Mexican citizens reside, whether that be at home or abroad.   It is a concrete sign of the unity that evangelization  through the universal auspices of the Catholic Church brings and which in turn defies the obsessive and distorting effects of inter-ethnic rivalries.

  • theroadmaster

    The striking successes of the various missionary orders regarding the establishment of the Catholic Faith in New Spain, in the wake of the Spanish and Portuguese Colonial expeditionary forces, is a story worth telling.  It has it’s dark episodes regarding the military suppression and brutalization of the native populations but this was often opposed and condemned outright by advocates for the victims from the religious ranks by such as Bartolomé de las Casas, the  renowned, 16th-Century Spanish Dominican Friar.  
    There is no doubt that that pentecostalist movements and sects are making major inroads into the populations of the once overwhelmingly Catholic nations of Central and South America.  They seem to appeal to a spontaneous outpouring of the spirit and stress a  biblically-centred approach to living.  But there is contemporary evidence that the theologically weak nature and shallow approach of many of the competing pentacostalist sects cause many of their more recent adherents to either revert to their original Catholic Faith or lapse totally within the space of a generation or two.  The dubious motives of some of the founders of these “churches” as well as the false promises inherent in the “prosperity gospel” approach they promote, are primary reasons for this.  The Marian conversion experience that you disparage which has been such an integral part of Latin American Catholicism, is such an enduring factor, that it is not going to be eclipsed any time soon by the somewhat frenetic and emotional pentacostalist worship-style.

  • http://coracaoconfiante.blogspot.com/ Araujo Ferreira

    I am sorry, but the rate of inhabitants per priests currently in Brazil is 8.000 (not 50.000!) and is consistently diminishing, take a look at: http://www.ceris.org.br/pdfs/analise_censo_igreja_2011.pdf
    The movements that are rapidly growing in Brazil like “New Comunities from Carismatic Renewal or Heralds of the Gospel, among many, are deeply Marian. And the last census pointed to an increase in the number of Evangelicals without a denominations (15% among them!) mostly because of the lost of credit by many congregations and I hope for an increase in the importance of christian unity in the next years.