Earlier this year, the American Secretary of State visited Latin America. At the basilica in Mexico City she was shown the image of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted on the tilma (cloak) of a Chichimeca tribesman in 1531. Hillary Rodham Clinton was wearing a red pantsuit, hardly the proper vestment for the season (she should have been in violet), and, as she admired this most important of all Catholic symbols in the Americas, she asked the priest who accompanied her:
“Who painted it?”
Had she been in Turin and seen the Shroud, she might have asked who faxed it. It was a moment similar to the one a few weeks earlier when Mrs. Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a mock nuclear button on which was supposed to be written in Cyrillic letters the word “reset,” but which was actually the Russian word meaning “overcharged.” Somewhere in a cubicle at the State Department there’s a translator now nicknamed Reset, and standing there in Mexico City Mrs. Clinton must have been wondering if there’s maybe one protocol officer – just one! – somewhere at Foggy Bottum who might actually explain to her what she should say to people in strange places who speak strange languages, because, you know, cultural sensitivity is part of the Secretary of State’s job description.
But . . . she probably still wonders who painted it, because she’s not the sort of person who would believe the traditional explanation, discussed in detail in the indispensable new book, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, by Carl Anderson and Fr. Eduardo Chavez, which is that Mary appeared to a convert, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (canonized in 2002), filled his tilma with flowers, and the pigments of those blossoms miraculously left her image impressed on the cloth. Although the authors make no mention of Mrs. Clinton, it’s clear their intention is to present the story of Our Lady in such a way that skeptics might be awed that such wonders really occur on this earth.
The usual, secular treatment of the Patroness of the Americas is to suggest that she is of significance mostly to Mexican Catholics. Anderson and Chavez will have none of that. True enough that the manifestation of the Virgin to the future saint led to the conversion of the Aztecs and millions of other indigenous peoples throughout Mexico, but there is something in the Guadalupe image that points to the future of all the Americas: Central, South, and North. Her face – and this was all but unthinkable because of social prejudices at the time – is mestiza. You have to recall that Europeans had come to Mexico little more than a decade before Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, and the only mixed-race people (mestizos) weren’t even teenagers yet. But in the emerging social hierarchy they were the lowest of the low. In the sixteenth century, Mary sent her meek Aztec to one of the grand Spanish priests (Juan de Zumárraga) with a message of love. Today, renewed interest in her message is on the rise – just as demographers predict we’ll all be mestizos soon.
As the authors insist, Mary the evangelist transforms a culture from the bottom up. Most nations became Christian (whether Catholic or later Protestant), because their kings converted, but in the Americas it has been the people, citizens poor and rich, who come to Christ, one by one. Catholicism isn’t a political movement, even if politicians and activists of one or another stripe have tried to cover themselves with the mantle of Jesus or Mary. I love it that Mr. Anderson and Fr. Chavez include a quip by Diego Rivera, a communist and artist, but a Mexican: “I don’t believe in God. . . . But I do believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
It’s remarkable – and it’s why Our Lady of Gudalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love (to be published on August 4) is so important and needed – that more recent appearances of Mary at Lourdes, Fatima, and even the disputed visitations at Medjugorje are so much more well-known to Americans than her visit to our own continent. Is it simply that she came so long ago to a hill in a place called Tepeyac rather than to an Iowa cornfield? Certainly it cannot be because the Aztecs needed her, but we in El Norte do not.
In any case, her call to conversion is not so much to nations as to individuals. Our Lady doesn’t call America to her Son, she calls you and me. Saint Juan Diego saw Mary and spoke to her and overcame his fear to proclaim her message. It was a miracle, but it’s a miracle that began before the meeting on Tepeyac and, like the seemingly incorruptible tilma still on display at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it remains with us today. The authors write:
From Canada to Argentina, all of us who live in the Americas are called, like Juan Diego, to bridge the divides of cultures, religion, and factions of any kind, by presenting to all the message of Our Lady . . . the message of the mother of the civilization of love.
We should proclaim in unity: “Viva Cristo Rey, viva la Virgen de Guadalupe.”