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Evangelizing America in the Footsteps of Our Lady


Andrew J. Matt

Participants pray the rosary in procession from atop Tepeyac Hill, site of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in 1531. (photo by Tom Serafin)

In a powerful witness of unity and faith, eight cardinals and more than 70 bishops from North, Central and South America — together with K of C leaders and some 250 invited guests from around the hemisphere — gathered in Mexico City Nov. 16-19, 2013, for a pilgrimage and meeting titled “Our Lady of Guadalupe: Star of the New Evangelization on the American Continent.” The event, which was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Knights of Columbus and the Institute for Guadalupan Studies, included daily Mass and Marian devotions, keynote addresses and work groups.

In a video address Nov. 16, Pope Francis greeted participants and urged them to make “missionary outreach the paradigm of all pastoral activity.”

The purpose of the four-day event was to forge deeper bonds of ecclesial friendship, dialogue and collaboration in the “continental mission” called for by Pope John Paul II in his 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America.


The pilgrimage and meeting began with the enthronement of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, accompanied by an image of St. Juan Diego, in the convention hall of the Marian Plaza. A procession of flags from throughout the world circled around the Virgin, symbolizing the universality of the Guadalupan message. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City, then welcomed the pilgrims to the “spiritual heart” of the American continent, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, delivered the opening address. “Our continental pilgrimage is first of all an encounter among disciples, a family reunion at the end of the Year of Faith,” said the former archbishop of Québec and primate of Canada.

The cardinal said that the 16th-century apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which inspired reconciliation between peoples and innumerable conversions, “constitute the foundational event of the New World — of North, Central and South America.”

He further emphasized that the pilgrimage was “also a profoundly missionary gesture: a response to [Our Lady’s] call to build a common home for all the Americas, a home where the poor and rich listen to the same Word and share the same Eucharist, a home where conflicts are resolved through dialogue, patience and reconciliation.”

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, in his address Nov. 17, highlighted the unique role that Our Lady of Guadalupe played in unifying America’s continental identity.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe is known from Alaska to Argentina because she has transcended borders, language and culture,” he said. “The mestiza [mixed race] Virgin appeared as ‘perfectly inculturated,’ in the words of Blessed John Paul II. She presented herself with cultural symbolism that brought about attraction, love and reconciliation, and ultimately conversion.”

Reflecting on the significance of the Guadalupan message today, the supreme knight asked, “Could it be that Our Lady of Guadalupe, as ‘Star of the New Evangelization,’ is the surest path for the more profound unity and cooperation among the churches of our continent?”

Other speakers affirmed Mary’s pivotal role as a source of unity among peoples.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe touches the hearts of all human beings, irrespective of cultures, languages and traditions,” said Cardinal Rivera in his homily Nov. 16. “She knows how to place Jesus Christ at the center of every heart, so that it may beat with the very life of God himself.”

Likewise, Msgr. Eduardo Chávez, director of the Institute of Guadalupan Studies, explained how Our Lady of Guadalupe, as a model of perfect inculturation, shows us that “we are all brothers and sisters, beyond languages, cultures and traditions; we are one family of God.”


A recurring theme of the pilgrimage and meeting was the mission of evangelization as a movement of communion — with God and our neighbor — involving charity and the gift of self.

As Pope Francis stated in his video message, “The intimacy between the Church and Jesus is an intimacy on the move. It requires going outside oneself.” He added, “We must dare to leave our own communities and go out to the existential peripheries where God’s presence needs to be felt.”

In this context, Cardinal Ouellet underscored that the verb “to go out” — “salir” in Spanish — “is the verb most frequently used by Pope Francis.” This dynamic word choice, he said, translates into hands-on charitable outreach: “It means going out to the existential peripheries where we find loneliness and abandonment; indifference about one’s life and destiny; triviality and distraction in the face of the essential questions about human life; severed connections from fundamental social relationships; dramatic conditions of poverty, exploitation and violence.” Ultimately, Cardinal Ouellet affirmed, it means “going out to encounter everyone, with a mercy which neither discriminates nor excludes, as bearers of the Gospel that transforms life and saves.”

Evangelizing America in the Footsteps of Our Lady

Mass is celebrated in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (photo by Tom Serafin)

Supreme Knight Anderson emphasized the similarities between the missions of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Pope Francis. “It should come as no surprise,” he said, “that we see in our Holy Father’s pastoral approach a reflection of Our Lady of Guadalupe … who calls us to be a Church of the Good Samaritan.”

Noting that the pope recently compared the Church to “a field hospital after battle,” the supreme knight concluded by pointing to the witness of Pope Francis: “Like our new pope, we too must build a Church that is a place of refuge, a place where wounds are healed, a battlefield hospital where the medicine is charity — an authentic Christian charity that evangelizes.”


The meeting further explored how the evangelizing mission of charity depends on the fruitful collaboration between clergy and laity, a theme that Pope Francis stressed in his video message.

“I believe it is important, indeed urgent,” the pope said, “to form ministers capable of closeness, of encounter, who know how to stir the hearts of the people, to walk with them, to enter into dialogue with their hopes and dreams.” He added that “bishops cannot delegate this work; they must take it on as something fundamental to the life of the Church.”

Many in attendance noted that this kind of honest examination of conscience needs to extend to the laity as well.

For example, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston observed, “What we are experiencing in the United States is a transition from cultural Catholicism to intentional Catholicism. Those who are staying in the pews today are those who actively decide to embrace the Church and her teachings.”

This assessment was echoed by Cardinal José Robles Ortega, archbishop of Guadalajara: “When Christianity is reduced to mere custom, moral values or social rituals, then sooner or later it loses its vitality and existential attraction for the men and women of our time.”

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, cited recent survey data about the Church in the United States: While more than three out of four American Catholics claim to be proud of their faith, less than 23 percent attend Mass on Sundays, and ex-Catholics now make up the second-largest religious group in the country.

Nonetheless, Archbishop Kurtz added, there are encouraging signs of hope amid the challenges facing the Church today. He noted that recent years have seen “an increase in vocations to the priesthood; a desire to deepen relationships even in the midst of the fall-off in sacramental marriages; and a curiosity and even enthusiasm of some young adults who are looking for more in life.”

Supreme Knight Anderson cited Blessed John Paul II’s observation that the renewal of the Church in America will not be possible without the laity (see Ecclesia in America, 44), adding, “For this renewal to become a reality throughout our hemisphere, a new partnership among laity, religious and clergy will be required.”


The final evening of the pilgrimage and meeting ended with a Marian Vigil in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. After leading a meditation, Cardinal Ouellet presented a “golden rose” to Cardinal Rivera of Mexico City, offered on behalf of Pope Francis to the Virgin of Tepeyac.

The international event concluded the next day with presentations by representatives of the bishops’ conferences of Canada, Latin America, the United States and Brazil on the key priorities of the ongoing continental mission. A closing Mass followed with Cardinal Ouellet as the main celebrant and homilist.

In his homily, the cardinal made reference to St. Juan Diego’s tilma, the cloak that was miraculously impressed with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, now preserved at the basilica.

“As grateful heirs of the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” the cardinal reminded all participants of the Church’s “responsibility to protect the ecclesial tilma that has been woven over the centuries by a countless multitude of saints, known and unknown, in this land of America.”

He concluded, “May all these saints, born of the motherhood of Mary, help us to weave deeper and stronger bonds between the more affluent and disadvantaged areas of our continent.”

ANDREW J. MATT is managing editor of Columbia.