Building a Christian Continent

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Between Dec. 9-12, 1531, scarcely a decade after the conquest of Mexico, the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian convert, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. Speaking in his native Náhuatl language, she asked Juan Diego to bear a request to the bishop: to build a church on Tepeyac hill, a place where all could lay their needs before her and she could present her son, Jesus Christ. After failing to convince the bishop, Juan Diego was given a sign by the Virgin: a marvelous bouquet from the wintery, notoriously barren hilltop. When he took the flowers in his tilma, or cloak, and let them fall before the bishop, a new miraculous sign was revealed: a splendid image of the Virgin herself. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image has since become the most recognized and beloved image of the Virgin Mary in the Americas.

This August, a new book will be published that discusses the Virgin’s message as it relates to the past, present and future. Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love (Doubleday) by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chávez Sánchez, the postulator for the cause for canonization of St. Juan Diego, explores how the apparition and image speak to our lives today, especially in light of the writings of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Proceeds from the book will be donated to Knights of Columbus Charities.

Columbia: You suggest that the canonization of St. Juan Diego on July 31, 2002, was one of the most significant events to occur in the Church during Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate. In what way is the canonization of a man who lived five centuries ago important for us today?

Father Chávez: Pope John Paul II saw the canonization of St. Juan Diego as an opportunity to confirm that God exists and looks after the needs of his people. Indeed, God intervenes through his own mother, Holy Mary of Guadalupe, who has chosen a humble layman to be her ambassador. The message that Juan Diego was charged to deliver pertains to the immense love of God for all human beings of all times and from all places. It is thus a message for the whole Church and the whole world.

Anderson: Mary’s “yes” to God at the Annunciation is echoed in Juan Diego’s “yes” at Tepeyac and provides an example for our own lives. John Paul II acknowledged that the hope and success of the new evangelization in the Americas depend, in a large part, upon the laity being leaven in society. In a special way, Juan Diego, as a layman, is an important reminder that regardless of circumstances, we can live out our call to holiness and evangelization in close union with the Church.

Sometimes, Catholics’ devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints is viewed suspiciously as something that obscures or even detracts from one’s relationship with Christ.

Father Chávez: Mary is Jesus Christ’s foremost disciple and missionary. The mission of the saints, and in particular of Mary, the Mother of God, is inseparable from the Gospel. The central point of the message and the image of Holy Mary of Guadalupe is Jesus Christ. He is the essence of the Guada-lupan event. From the hand of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we en-counter our Savior.

Anderson: Mary’s message is and always has been “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Those who see in Mary a distraction from Jesus Christ do not properly understand her role. She is the messenger, in fact the most perfect messenger, of her son. From the four-petal flower — the central design in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, representing God within her — to the fact that her image draws millions of people each year to the Basilica [of Our Lady of Guadalupe] to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, we face constant proof that Mary fulfills her promise to present us with her son.

When Our Lady of Guadalupe first appeared 10 years after the conquest of Mexico, life in the New World was turbulent with clashes of peoples, cultures and religions. How does Our Lady of Guadalupe speak to the challenges we face in today’s world?

Father Chávez: Injus-tices, crimes and cruelties unfortunately are not unique to the 16th century, but rather are experienced at each stage of human history. That is why the message of Holy Mary of Guadalupe is so relevant. She leads us to her son, Jesus Christ, who took on all of the world’s injustices and gave himself for love of us. Conversely, it is precisely at the foot of the cross that the Savior handed over his mother to the Apostle John and through him to each human being. In the present world we confront real challenges, which increasingly demand this testimony of love from each of us. We must follow Jesus Christ without limit. In doing so, we are not alone; Mary is at our side.

Anderson: Our Lady of Guadalupe was a major catalyst in the creation of our “Christian Hemisphere.” Appearing as a mestiza [or mixed-race] woman, her image spoke to the bridging of cultures through the sanctifying message of her son. That message, and the ability of the Catholic Church to unify the human family across cultures, is as relevant to the challenges we face today as in 1531. Our cultural misunderstandings and differences are often caused by overlooking the fact that there is much more that unites us than keeps us apart. The very fact that Our Lady of Guadalupe is revered from Chile to Canada shows that she is the spiritual mother of an entire hemisphere, and we are children of the same family.

What can we learn from her in sharing the Gospel of Life in today’s secular culture, which is often hostile or even indifferent to the most vulnerable?

Father Chávez: The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is that of a pregnant woman. She is the tabernacle where Jesus is present, or as Pope Benedict XVI has said, Mary is the “living Ark of the Covenant.” She comes with the Savior to remain with us, and thus requested the bishop build a temple on the plain of the Tepeyac, a rocky hill, where life still blossoms. So, too, in the present world in which so many are deceived by a culture of death, life can blossom. God comes through Mary to make his love take root, even in the hardened or indifferent heart.

Anderson: Our Lady of Guadalupe brought a culture of life and a civilization of love to a continent that knew little, if anything, of Christ. Many of those who should have had a belief in Christ instead scandalized potential converts with their abusive treatment. Our Lady’s original message of hope and unconditional love resonates with all, and can resound and inspire the lives of others through us.

The Knights of Columbus will hold the first International Marian Congress devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe from Aug. 6-8 in Phoenix. How do you see the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe guiding and shaping the future work and mission of the Knights of Columbus?

Father Chávez: For me, the Knights of Columbus are the modern “Juan Diegos” — humble laymen who bear the message of God’s love among their brothers. Knights aid the sick and the needy just as St. Juan Diego cared for his uncle, Juan Bernardino. They battle untiringly in favor of life in all its dimensions. There have indeed been Knights of Columbus who have sacrificed their lives in martyrdom for defending life and defending their faith. Knights must constantly bear witness through good deeds and support to those who need help and consolation.

Anderson: Like Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Knights of Columbus has played an important role throughout the American continent. With councils in North and Central America and in the Caribbean, we have been called to be heralds of the message of love that Our Lady of Guadalupe brought here nearly 500 years ago. Knights tangibly respond to this call through the great charitable initiatives of the Order and through concern for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. Because the message of Our Lady is so important for our future, the Order was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe when I was installed as supreme knight in 2000 at the basilica in Mexico City.

What do you consider unique about Our Lady of Guadalupe compared to other Marian apparitions?

Father Chávez: In Mexico, on Tepeyac, Mary uniquely appears as pregnant, emphasizing that it was a real encounter with God himself, whom she bears in her immaculate womb. In addition, this is the only apparition in which Mary has left her “portrait,” her blessed icon, which is imprinted on the humble tilma of St. Juan Diego and has been conserved for nearly 500 years.

Anderson: Our Lady always speaks in her apparitions in a manner appropriate to the place and time of her visit. In the 19th and 20th centuries, at Lourdes and Fatima, respectively, Our Lady’s message to a Christianized but increasingly secular people was one of loving admonishment — for example, in both there was a strong call to penance. At Guadalupe, on a continent that by and large did not know her son, her message focused on the embrace of the Catholic faith as the culmination and fulfillment of culture.

You emphasize that true conversion consists not merely in a new religious identification but in an ongoing conversion of heart. Why is this kind of conversion so central to Christianity and the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe?

Father Chávez: Holy Mary of Guadalupe asked for a holy place — a church — to offer all her love. For the indigenous people, building a temple or church did not merely mean a physical construction, but rather a new people, a new civilization of love. Yet, this can only be achieved if one opens his heart for a true conversion to the complete and singular love of God. Although conversion is a grace, it is also true that God will always respect our freedom, since this is a condition for the existence of true love. For that reason, we are simply invited to respond.

Anderson: Pope Benedict once said that the Church today does not need reformers but people radically in love with Jesus Christ, the type of people we call saints. It is not enough to profess a belief in Jesus Christ with words alone. The most profound statement of our belief is the manner in which we live our lives. Life is a journey punctuated by daily opportunities to profess one’s faith by saying “yes” to the will of God. This is something that none of us does perfectly; it is the reason that each of us is called to an ever-greater conversion.