(This essay is adapted and condensed from a talk he delivered at the 7th Annual Napa Institute Summer Conference).
Earlier this summer, I led the first pilgrimage from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Like many other immigrants to this country, I have a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I learned it from my parents when I was growing up in Monterrey, Mexico. Many summers, my mother and father would take my sisters and me on a 600-mile journey to visit our grandparents in Mexico City. And when we went, we would make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. My experience was not unique. In Mexico, many Catholic families try to make a pilgrimage to the Basilica at least once a year.
The story of Guadalupe is the story of America. The encounter of cultures, European and indigenous, began in December 1531, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to a poor Indian convert named Juan Diego on a hilltop outside Mexico City. She entrusted Juan Diego with a mission—to go and ask the bishop to build a shrine in her name. To convince the bishop, Our Lady gave Juan Diego a sign: She made roses bloom, even though it was the dead of winter. She used those roses to “imprint” her own image on the cloak—called a “tilma”—that Juan Diego was wearing. That tilma is still hanging, almost 500 years later, in the Basilica built not far from the site where she first appeared.
Alongside great founding figures and events in the history of the Americas, Guadalupe and Juan Diego hardly rate a footnote. But I believe that this event is in fact the crucial moment in the history of the United States, and of every country in the Americas. It is key to understanding the Church’s purpose and to reconciling our political and cultural divisions.
Writing in a time of chaos and conflict in the early Church, St. Jerome penned the famous line: “The whole world woke up and groaned, and was astonished to find that it was Arian.” We could say something similar about our times. It is as if we have woken up to discover that our society is no longer Christian. Of course, in many ways our nation has never lived up to Christian values. We could point to the original sin of slavery, to the tragic mistreatment of native populations, to ongoing injustices such as racism, and to the million or more abortions performed each year. Yet for all that, there is no denying that our institutions and self-identity were meant to be shaped by a vision of freedom and dignity rooted in the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to quote our Declaration of Independence. This is what is changing right now. We face an aggressive, organized agenda by elite groups who want to eliminate the influence of Christianity from our society.
As America faces spiritual crisis, some urge a return to the vision of the Founders. We would do better to turn Our Lady, America's true foundress. Our Lady did not appear only for the Mexican people. Her intentions were continental and universal. In the account that has been handed down to us—an account based on the testimony of Juan Diego—Our Lady told him: “I am truly your compassionate Mother; your Mother and the Mother to all who dwell in this land and to all other nations and peoples.” At Guadalupe, the Mother of God presented herself as the Mother of the Americas.
Guadalupe is the true “founding event” in American history. We are all children of Guadalupe and Guadalupe gives us the true history of America. In God’s plan, this hemisphere was chosen as the site for the building of a new civilization. A new world of faith.
Within a few years of this apparition, millions came to be baptized in Mexico and throughout the Americas. A great wave of holiness swept through the continents, raising up saints and heroes of the faith in every country. Mexico City became the spiritual headquarters, “mission control” for the evangelization of the Americas, Asia, and Oceania. When St. Junípero Serra came to the New World, he set sail aboard a ship called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. He arrived at Veracruz and he immediately started walking the 300 miles to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. When he got there he spent the night in prayer, and in the morning he offered the Eucharist, consecrating his American mission to the Virgin.
We need to follow this example. We need to consecrate our Christian lives and the Church’s mission to the Virgin. The way forward for our Church and our country is a return to Guadalupe. We need to follow the path that the Virgin sets before us—the path of building a new civilization of love and truth in the Americas.
Our Lady of Guadalupe entrusted St. Juan Diego with a task: to build a shrine in her name. She wanted this shrine “to show, praise, and testify to God.” She wanted this shrine to be a place where people would find God’s “love, compassion, help, comfort, and salvation.” This is a beautiful summary of the mission of the Church and the purpose of our Christian lives. God is calling us to “build a shrine” with our lives.
When he first meets the Mother of God, Juan Diego protests that he is not strong enough, not holy enough, to do what she asks. He urges her to find someone better: “I am only a man of the fields, a poor creature.” She replies: “Understand that I have many servants and messengers whom I could send to deliver my message and do my will. But it is absolutely necessary that you yourself go.” So it is with us. No one else can fulfill the mission set for each of us.
If we are to fulfill this mission, we must deepen our knowledge and love of Christ. Juan Diego was on his way to church when he met Our Lady. It was his custom, every Saturday and Sunday, to get up before dawn and walk nine miles from his home to Mass and then attend classes to deepen his knowledge of the Catholic faith.
In the presence of the Virgin, Juan Diego wondered whether he was in paradise, whether heaven had come to earth. With her coming, the mountains were filled with songs like wonderful birds. Flowers bloomed in the winter season in soil where there were only stones and cactus and thorns. This is the beauty that we can see with the eyes of faith, and evangelization in this culture that denies transcendence means spreading this “sacramental” way of seeing the world around us.
Holy Maria of Guadalupe appeared as an icon of new life, as a woman expecting a child. She presented herself to Juan Diego: “I am the ever-Virgin, holy Mary, Mother of the true God—the life-giving Creator of all peoples.” Guadalupe is a vision of the world as God wants it to be. The “shrine” that Our Lady wants us to build in the Americas is a civilization that celebrates and welcomes every life, no matter how weak or burdensome.
The Christian faith in this new world confronted the brutality of the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice. From the beginning, the missionaries of the Americas proclaimed that every life is precious and an image of the living God. As Christianity is pushed away and God is denied, today we again face a culture where life is cheap and the innocent and weak are easily discarded or destroyed. We see this not just in abortion, but in the crisis of homelessness, in the lives wasted by addiction.
We see it, too, in the push to spread euthanasia. And here Guadalupe also speaks to us. As you recall from the story, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, is in the final days of a terminal illness. As as he is trying to serve the Virgin, Juan is also caring for his uncle and looking for a priest who can come and anoint him. And we see Our Lady’s tender desire to heal the suffering and console Juan Diego in his stress and grief.
When we look at the self-image that Our Lady left imprinted on the tilma—we notice that she is a brown-skinned young woman: a mestizo, whose family background includes a mix of descendants from Europe and indigenous peoples. She came dressed in the garments of the indigenous peoples and she spoke to Juan Diego in his own indigenous language. In all this, Our Blessed Mother reveals herself in a powerful way to be an icon of the Church. Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds us that the Church was established to be the vanguard of a new humanity and a new civilization, one family of God drawn from every race and every nation and every language.
This should be a powerful message for us in these days after the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, when again we are challenged to address the persistence of racial prejudice and nativism, even in the Church. Guadalupe shows us that holiness knows no color. Beyond the color of our skin or the countries we come from, we are all brothers and sisters, children of one Father. And the Mother of God is our mother.
The vision of Guadalupe also encourages us to strengthen marriage and the family as the foundations of a truly human civilization. Juan Diego was baptized with his wife, María Lucia, in 1524. They were among the first converts in the New World and were one of the first Catholic married couples in the Americas. Our Lady of Guadalupe came among us as the Mother of the family of God in the Americas, and this witness should give us strength to stand up to the broad cultural crisis of the family today.
Pope John Paul II called the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe “the Marian heart of America.” Guadalupe was the first place John Paul visited outside of Italy after becoming pope. He understood that God was doing something special in Guadalupe, that the mission and meaning of America is continental, universal. He canonized Juan Diego, making him the Americas’ first indigenous saint and a sign of God’s intentions for all the children of the Americas. The nations of the Americas all trace their faith to the coming of the Virgin at Guadalupe. We share a common story of origins. And we are joined in a common destiny. Each of us is a part of that story, a part of the great mission to America that began with the visitation of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Church in this country, and every one of us, has the responsibility to continue the task that the Virgin gave to St. Juan Diego: to “build a shrine” with our lives. To build a society that glorifies God and is worthy of the dignity of the human person. What Our Lady said to St. Juan Diego, she now says to us: “You are my ambassador, most worthy of my trust.”
It is deeply moving for me to celebrate the Holy Mass at the main altar in the Basilica. The altar sits directly underneath the miraculous image of the Virgin. And when you are there, you can feel her tender eyes gazing down upon you. It is a feeling hard to describe, a powerful awareness that you are child loved by the Mother of God. You can almost hear her speaking the same tender words she spoke to St. Juan Diego: “Do not let your heart be disturbed. Do not fear.... Am I, your Mother, not here? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Are you not in the folds of my arms? What more do you need?” Our Lady speaks these words to the Church today. She speaks them to each one of us.