“Juan Diego: Servant of the New Evangelization,” a painting by Italian artist Antonella Cappuccio, was commissioned by the Knights of Columbus in 2009.
It was a sweltering August day in Phoenix in 2009 when thousands of people thronged the Jobing.com Arena to gather for a historic event: the Guadalupe Festival, co-sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. Despite the heat outside and the near-capacity crowd within, the multitude was undeterred from raising their voices in joyful song and prayer.
During the event, which featured speakers, singers, traditional dancers and even a multinational rosary prayed in 26 languages, a tiny piece of St. Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak, was carried in solemn procession to take center stage at the arena. This relic symbolized the Christian faith and heritage shared by people of diverse cultures under the mantle of Our Lady.
The festival, like the International Marian Congress that preceded it, was certainly not the first time that the Order has celebrated Our Lady of Guadalupe. Indeed, Knights have shared a special bond with Our Lady for more than a century. And this bond has only grown stronger as Knights have worked to ensure that the significance of her message of charity and unity becomes better known.
Especially in recent years, following Pope John Paul II’s 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America and the canonization of St. Juan Diego in 2002, the Guadalupan message has increasingly permeated Catholic life on the American continent and beyond, resonating as clearly today as it did five centuries ago.
A TRADITION OF DEVOTION
The Virgin Mary’s apparitions on Tepeyac hill in Mexico as a pregnant mestiza, a woman of mixed race, took place during a time of violent cultural conflict between the Spanish and the Native Americans. Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, Europeans flooded into the New World with a diversity of motives: some to seek fortune and fame, some to settle or explore, some to evangelize.
Yet as a result of Mary’s encounters with the humble lay convert Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in December 1531 and the miraculous image imprinted on his tilma, an unprecedented cultural transformation took place. Our Lady’s image bore symbols that the native peoples immediately understood, and the Gospel spread at an astounding rate. By 1539, nearly 9 million Native Americans, along with many Spaniards, had been converted to Christ through Our Lady’s message of mercy and Juan Diego’s witness of faith.
In their book, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love (2009), Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chávez, postulator of St. Juan Diego’s cause for canonization, wrote: “In the 16th century, Our Lady of Guadalupe became an expression of hope and unity for millions throughout the Americas. We are convinced that Our Lady of Guadalupe’s message is today capable of being not only an expression but a true catalyst of hope and unity for millions more throughout North America and the world.”
Likewise, Juan Diego a layman and the first indigenous saint of the Americas provides a model for Christians today.
“We must be witnesses with our lives, so that our example will be like a living tilma, and will provide a map to all we encounter of a civilization where love triumphs and motivates all action,” wrote Anderson and Chávez.
In St. Juan Diego’s footsteps, the Knights have consistently spread devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, so that she might gather people of different cultures together in Christian unity. As early as 1905, Supreme Knight Edward L. Hearn visited Mexico City to install the officers of Guadalupe Council 1050, the first council in Mexico. Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart returned five decades later to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Order’s presence in that country.
Devotion to Our Lady developed among Knights of all ages. The Columbian Squires, the official youth organization of the Order, began the “Running of the Silver Rose” program in 1960. To this day, silver roses travel different North American routes from Canada, through the United States, and into Mexico. The routes culminate Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The roses have also come to represent the culture of life, inspired by key components of the Guadalupan image: The ribbon above the Virgin’s waist indicates that she is pregnant, and the four-petal flower over her womb signifies her child’s divinity.
MARY IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
Our Lady of Guadalupe was chosen as the centerpiece of the Order’s first two-year Marian Prayer Program, launched in 1979, as well as similar programs in 1995-96, 2000-01 and 2011-13. Through these events, hundreds of images of Our Lady of Guadalupe have circulated among the Order’s jurisdictions, visiting churches, schools and other locations for special prayer services (see article on page 14).
The third Marian Prayer Program dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe featured a mosaic that was commissioned by the Knights of Columbus from the Vatican’s Mosaic Studios and blessed by Pope John Paul II in October 1998. Three months later, the pope referred to Our Lady of Guadalupe as “Patroness of all America and Star of the first and new evangelization” (Ecclesia in America, 11).
When Supreme Knight Anderson was elected in 2000, he traveled to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City for his installation Feb. 3, 2001. There, he received a cross-shaped silver reliquary containing the relics of six Knights of Columbus priest-martyrs who had been canonized one year earlier. He also solemnly dedicated the Order and his administration to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Just two years later, millions of people from around the world visited that same basilica in Mexico City to celebrate the canonization of Juan Diego. During his homily on July 31, 2002, Pope John Paul II underscored the fundamental unity that binds mankind together under God, “who makes no distinctions of race or culture.”
He said, “In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God.”
The pope had previously emphasized this message of unity in Ecclesia in America: “America, which historically has been, and still is, a melting-pot of peoples, has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac, ‘in Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization’” (11).
Inspired by this insight, the Order has redoubled its efforts in recent years to promote the universal message of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In 2003, the Knights co-sponsored a national tour of the tilma relic that was donated to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by the Archdiocese of Mexico City in 1941. A symbol of the bonds between people of diverse cultures and across borders, this unique relic is now enshrined in a chapel of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, was completed in 2012 with a grant from the Order.
Other enduring examples of the Knights’ devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe exist as well. In keeping with its tradition of fostering vocations, the Order voted at the 1983 Supreme Convention to set up the Our Lady of Guadalupe Fund to benefit the Mexican Pontifical College in Rome. In 2005, the Knights opened Villa Maria Guadalupe, an international pro-life retreat center in Stamford, Conn. Operated by the Sisters of Life, the center’s mission is to serve as place of healing, hope and renewal.
MOTHER OF THE AMERICAS
Whereas the 2009 Guadalupe Festival in Phoenix drew thousands, the Guadalupe Celebration, co-sponsored by the Knights and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in August 2012, attracted tens of thousands to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The largest Catholic event at the open-air stadium since Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there in 1987, the celebration featured speakers, prayer, performances and a visit from the U.S.-based tilma relic.
In his keynote address, Archbishop José H. Gómez of Los Angeles stressed that the message Our Lady of Guadalupe transcends ethnic and geographical boundaries. “Our Lady of Guadalupe is not only the mother of the people of Mexico,” he said. “She is the mother of all the peoples of the Americas.”
Archbishop Gómez added that Our Lady’s mission at Tepeyac continues today. “Jesus Christ wants to make use of us, just as he made use of St. Juan Diego,” he said. “He wants us to be apostles and missionaries.”
A few months later, the Knights co-sponsored an international congress on Ecclesia in America in Rome from Dec. 10-12, 2012. Celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops for America, scores of clergy and laity from North, Central and South America were joined by Vatican representatives to discuss Our Lady of Guadalupe’s indispensable role in facing the challenges of the new evangelization.
On the eve of the congress, the feast of St. Juan Diego, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the participants with ardent words of encouragement: “Dear friends, the love of Christ impels us … to proclaim his name throughout America.” The pope then invoked Our Lady of Guadalupe “as a model of openness to God’s grace and of perfect concern for others,” and he commended the congress to “her maternal and loving protection.”
A year later, hundreds of clergy and lay leaders from across the Americas gathered in Mexico City Nov. 16-19, 2013, for a similar pilgrimage and meeting titled “Our Lady of Guadalupe: Star of the New Evangelization on the American Continent.” Also co-sponsored by the Knights, the four-day event built on the work of the Roman congress and forged strong bonds in the “continental mission” called for in Ecclesia in America.
Pope Francis greeted the participants in a video message Nov. 16, urging them to make “missionary outreach the paradigm of all pastoral activity.”
In a reference to the miraculous roses that filled Juan Diego’s tilma, he added, “If you do this, do not be surprised if roses bloom in the middle of winter. Because, you know, both Jesus and we have the same mother!”
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and former primate of Canada, later presented a “golden rose” to Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City. The rose, Cardinal Ouellet said, was offered on behalf of Pope Francis to the Virgin of Tepeyac.
It was a simple gesture that, like the communal prayer and conversations made possible through such initiatives, bore witness to the communion it symbolized. In this way, it highlighted why the Order is committed to Our Lady of Guadalupe: Knights strive to be faithful missionaries, fostering ever-stronger bonds of charity and unity.
LIZETTE M. LANTIGUA writes from South Florida.