by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
What makes the subject strange is that most people think of the discovery of the New World in geographic terms. In 1492, an Italian navigator by the name of Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain in search of the Indies and landed in what we now call Central America. his motives, we are told, were economic and psychological. He was looking for the riches of the Orient to extend the political power of the Spanish monarchy. And he sought the very human glory that he was sure to receive once he reached the Far East by going west across the Atlantic.
What most of the English-speaking world does not know is that the dominant motive of Columbus for sailing across the uncharted sea was deeply Catholic. Even more, it was apostolic. As all the primary sources on Columbus make clear, he believed that he was specially chosen by God to extend the Kingdom of Christ to pagan nations who had never had the Gospel preached to them.
If there was one thing that stood out in the Catholic Spain of Columbus’ day, it was the people’s great devotion to the Blessed Virgin. It was a devotion that took almost eight centuries to mature. How so? Under the heavy pressure of a militant Islam whose basic name in Christianity was idolatry. In the words of the Koran, “the followers of the Nazarene” claimed that His Mother Mary was the Mother of Allah because her Son was the living God who became man for the salvation of the world.
It was not until 1491 that Catholic Spain was liberated from Moslem tyranny. The liberation meant freedom once more to proclaim Mary’s Divine Maternity without fear of Islamic opposition for professing idolatry.
Columbus himself was very devoted to Our Lady. His published writings reveal a childlike dependence on Mary. She was regularly invoked in his prayers. His flagship in crossing the sea was the Santa Maria. And one of the first islands he discovered, he named Concepcion, in honor of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
However, this is not the focus of our lecture on “The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Catholic discovery of America.” Change one word in the title and we have our focus. I wish to speak to you about “The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Catholic Evangelization of America.”
It was the apparitions of Our Lady to Juan Diego, the converted Aztec Indian, and her revelations of Guadalupe that opened the greatest missionary expansion of the Gospel since apostolic times.
We shall concentrate on Our Lady of Guadalupe and the conversion of Mexico. But Mexico soon became the inspiration of the rest of Latin America.
Before Guadalupe, 1492 to 1531
In order to appreciate the significance of Mary’s role in the conversion of the New World, we must see something of the conditions in Mexico before the events of Guadalupe.
When Columbus crossed the Atlantic, he reached only the outskirts of the Western Hemisphere. He touched on one island after another in the Central American Continent. By the beginning of the 1500’s, Mexico was discovered. Columbus had already passed to his eternal reward and was followed by one Spanish-appointed governor-general after another.
As we read the history of those early days, we are struck by the stark contrast between Church and State or, more accurately, between men of Christian faith and men of raw human greed and merciless cruelty.
Already among the crew that sailed with Columbus on his first voyage there were kindred spirits with their leader. Like him their dominant motive was to bring the Gospel to the native Indians. But there were also rapacious predators whose one ambition was to accumulate as much gold as possible and subjugate the Indians to virtual or actual slavery.
One name stands out in this period: Cortes was the Spanish general whose military exploits in Mexico rank him with Caesar and Napoleon in his physical conquest of Mexico.
As war-like as Cortes was, he was a believing Christian. In the tradition of his ancestors who conquered the Moors in Spain, he wanted Christianity to be established in the lands he conquered. He encouraged the Franciscan missionaries to preach the Gospel to the natives.
But Cortes also believed that the Indians should be conquered by force of arms. Thus he offered truce to the natives of what was then called the City of Mexico. But their emperor, Cuauhtemoc, was persuaded by his pagan priests not to give in to the Christians. In the siege that followed, we are told that 100,000 Indians and their close allies were killed by the sword or by drowning, and as many again who died of starvation, dysentery and other diseases.
Nor was that all. Cortes made some serious blunders as administrator of the Indies. He returned to Spain to defend his reputation, and this occasioned Charles V, the Spanish emperor, to send to America two men who were as unlike as day and night. On December 12, 1527, he appointed Franciscan Juan Zumarraga as Bishop protector of the Indians; and he made the soldier Nunode Guzman governor of Mexico. The next three years are among the saddest in the history of the New World.
Guzman not only resented the bishop’s role as protector of the Indians. He opposed him and did everything but have him killed. A reign of terror broke out that has no parallel in early American history.
In less than two years at least 10,000 Indians had been shipped to the West Indies to be sold as slaves with no chance of returning to their families. Whole towns were laid waste, priests were kidnapped, flogged and maimed.
These and similar atrocities were reported to Emperor Charles V. In August, 1530, he issued an edict which forbade the enslavement of the Indians. The edict read, “No person shall dare to make a single Indian a slave, whether in war or in peace …whether by barter, by purchase, by trade, or any other pretext or cause whatever.”
Our Lady Appears to Juan Diego
Thus the soil was prepared for sowing the seed of the Gospel and bearing such fruit as has no parallel in the annals of Christianity.
In one short generation, the whole Aztec Empire had undergone a volcanic change. The world in which they had lived for centuries was an evil world in which their gods demanded the killing of thousands of human beings in sacrifice. The Spanish conquistadors had delivered the Indians from pagan tyranny, but also left them dangling without any religious moorings.
If the Indians were to become Christians, they had to see Christianity as something belonging to them. It could not be the religion of foreigners whom they had too often seen as invaders and oppressors.
The man chosen by God to open the most dramatic conversion in Christian misology was himself a convert from paganism.
Born in 1474, he lost his parents in childhood and was brought up by his uncle. On marrying, he settled with his wife at Cuautitlan in a little one-room mud house thatched with corn stalks. In 1525, he was baptized Juan Diego, along with his wife Maria Lucia and his uncle Juan Bernardino. Juan Diego and his wife would frequently walk the fifteen miles to Tlaltelolco, to assist at Mass and receive Holy Communion.
Four years after Baptism, his wife died, leaving him childless. Juan Diego then moved to be closer to his aged uncle, whose house was only nine miles from the nearest Franciscan church.
Juan Diego rose early on the morning of December 9, 1531, which was then the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Franciscans were unique in promoting devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Conception, centuries before the definition of the dogma in 1854.
On his way to Mass, Juan was suddenly stopped by the sound of music at the hill of Tepeyac, the site of the former pagan temple of Tonantzin. He thought it was his imagination, but then saw a glowing white cloud, hallowed by a rainbow formed by streams of lightning coming from the cloud. Then he heard a woman’s gentle voice calling out to him in diminutive form, “Juanito…Juan Dieguito.”
The Lady asked him where he was going. “I am on my way to the church in Tlaltelolcoto to hear Mass,” he told her. The Lady smiled and said,
Juan Diego did as the Lady told him to. But Bishop Zumarraga was not impressed. He told the poor indian to come later at a more convenient time. So Juan returned to the Tepeyac hill the same evening where the Lady was waiting for him. He urged her to send someone else to the bishop. He himself was a nobody and “I do not want to fall into your displeasure.”
But the Lady insisted it must be Juan and he should return to the bishop the next day.
So he came back to the bishop, who this time was more impressed, but also told Juan that the Lady must give some proof that she really is the Mother of God.
Again at sunset, on December 10, a Sunday, he went to Tepeyac, where the Lady appeared to him with the promise that she would provide the miraculous sign requested by the bishop.
At this point there are two versions of what happened. One version has it that when Juan returned home, he found his uncle deathly sick. Another and fully documented version is that his uncle was missing when the nephew returned from Tepeyac hill. He had been fatally shot by hostile Indians who resented his becoming a Christian and cooperating with the hated Spaniards.
Juan Diego was in a quandary. Should he go back to the bishop as the Lady had instructed him, or should he take care of his uncle. Juan chose to minister to his uncle’s desperate needs all day, Monday, December 11.
Monday morning, December 12, Juan went to get the priest to take care of his dying uncle. In his simplicity, he made a bypass around Tepeyac instead of going to the top of the hill where he was afraid that Our Lady would be waiting for him. But he miscalculated. The Blessed Virgin came down the hill to intercept him. She asked him where he was going. He explained about his uncle. Then she told him,
Our Lady then told Juan to go to the top of the hill, where he would find some flowers, which he was to bring to her. The hill was a desert, where only cactus grew. But Juan did as he was told. When he reached the west of the hill, it was covered with beautiful Castilian roses in full bloom. As he later related, Mary took the roses from him as he gathered them and arranged them with her own hands in the cloak or tilma that Juan was wearing.
There was one final message from Mary. It is the capstone of Guadalupe and the key to understanding what we are saying when we speak of the Blessed Virgin and the discovery – or conversion – of America.
When Juan reached the Bishop’s residence, he was made to wait a long time and the attendants tried to take some of the roses that were in his cloak. But the flowers became like painted embroidery.
On being admitted to Bishop Zumarraga’s presence, Diego opened his cloak. Immediately the roses fell in a flood of color to the floor. But that was not all. On the cloak was a portrait of the Mother of God. She was in Indian dress, her hands joined in prayer. Her features were Indian and of startling beauty.
Bishop Zumarraga fell to his knees in prayer. Juan Diego was allowed to retire to a hermitage. He died there in 1548, at the age of 74. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe
By the end of 1531, the image of Our Lady was exposed in the Bishop’s private chapel where it was venerated by thousands of Aztecs. Also before the end of the same year there was a triumphant procession of the sacred image from Mexico City to Tepeyac. On that occasion, a Mexican who had been accidentally killed by an arrow was restored to life.
Since 1531, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a major basilica. We might say that Mexico City is built around the shrine. But the center remains the image of Our Lady. Its miraculous character has been attested by ecclesiastical, even pontifical approval. It has also been scientifically examined and proved that the portrait could not have been produced naturally. No painter’s brush was used; the tilma is fragile, decayable cactus fiber. Yet the image remains as clear and fresh as it was almost five centuries ago. Even a terrorist’s bomb in 1921 did not scratch the portrait although it completely bent the metal crucifix next to the image of the Blessed Virgin.
The Miraculous Conversion of Millions
The principal wonder of Guadalupe, however, is not the unexplainable picture of Our Lady. It is not the constant stream of pilgrims to the shrine every year. The real wonder, and the main theme of this presentation, is the avalanche of conversions which the revelation of Juan Diego began in the Western world.
One historian after another is lost for words to do justice to the phenomenon. In sober fact, it is unprecedented in the twenty centuries of Catholic evangelization.
No sooner had Columbus landed in the West Indies than apostolic men from Spain began to proclaim the Gospel to the natives. Compared with militant conquerors like Cortes and Guzman, the missionaries were mild and gentle apostles of the word. They devoted themselves ardently to the conversion of the Indians. But these courageous priests and religious were few in number. The language barrier was practically insurmountable. The number of dialects was innumerable. The territories to be covered were unimaginable. The injustices perpetrated by some of the conquistadors could be indescribable.
No one questions the heroism of these pioneers of Christianity in North and South America. In spite of their gigantic zeal the results were sparse and the number of converts very few.
Here let me quote from one of the leading historiographers of Latin America.
These pagans, we are told, could not resist the loving invitation of the Mother of God they flocked, in droves, to the waters of Baptism, on a scale and with a speed that has no equal in recorded Catholic history.
The missionaries were understandably overwhelmed by the endless crowds who clamored for instruction and Baptism. We have evidence of a single priest administering the Sacrament of Baptism to six-thousand people in a single day.
Wherever the missionaries traveled, entire families would come running out of their poor villages, begging with signs to have the waters of Baptism poured over them.
Along with Baptism the natives were instructed in the basics of Christianity. Nor was that all. Soon churches, monasteries, convents, hospitals, schools and workshops were built to provide for the development and practice of the Catholic faith.
What were the results? Astounding! By 1540, over eight million Aztec Indians had embraced Catholic Christianity.
But that was not all. It would be a mistake to suppose that those were only superficial conversations. In 1552, the University of Mexico was founded on an equal academic footing as the University of Solomonca in Spain.
Before long, Catholic Mexico was sending native born missionaries to distant lands.
The evangelization of the rest of Latin America is a story of God’s grace all by itself. The roots of this evangelization can be mysteriously but legitimately traced to the three memorable days at Guadalupe in 1521.
So true is this that in 1910, Pope Pius X proclaimed Our Lady of Guadalupe the Patroness of all Latin America. All papal documents since then reconfirm this Marian patronage.
The present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1979. He composed a prayer on that occasion which it is worth quoting in full. In effect, He was asking Our Lady, Mother of the Americas, to intercede with her Divine Son for the people of the Western World. It was through her that the true faith was miraculously planted in this then New World. It will also be through her that, 500 years later, there will be, where needed, a reconversion of this people of North and South America.
Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica