The Message of Guadalupe: Mercy
Special Post for the Feast Of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Monday December 12, 2022)
by Fr. David M. Knight
What is most significant about the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe is that Mary appears as an Aztec, an indigena or “Indian” woman. This is what makes Our Lady of Guadalupe the symbol and call to “mercy” in our times.
Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant, in 1531, just twelve years after Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico for the King of Spain. She left her picture imprinted on his tilma -- the cloak worn by the native people. In the picture Mary appears as an Aztec, an indigena or “Indian” woman. The word spread quickly, and Indians came by the thousands, from hundreds of miles away, to see the image of the Mother of God who showed herself as one of their own people, and who had spoken in their native language. Within seven years eight million Aztecs were converted to Christianity!
To receive the message of Guadalupe, we have to remember the context in which Mary appeared. The ruling class in Mexico did not consider themselves as forming one society or nation with the indigenous people. The “Indios” were looked upon as an inferior culture to be used for the purposes of those who governed them. The government encouraged exploitation and enslavement, and used torture and massacres to keep the native people under control. It was in this context that Mary, the Mother of God, appeared with the face of a native woman, dressed like a native woman, and spoke to an indigenous peasant, not only in his native language, but through signs and symbols of his native culture which identified her as one of his own people.
The message was clear: the God of the Christians was not the God of the Spaniards or of the ruling classes, but the God of all. Mary, the Mother of God, identified herself with the native people, the poor, the oppressed -- with precisely those people with whom the rich and ruling class refused to identify themselves. It did not even enter the minds of those who held political and economic power to govern the country for the good of all. They looked upon the land and its people as resources to be exploited for their own material benefit. They were not and did not want to be one people, one society, with the native population. In contrast to this Mary proclaimed herself one of the people. She, the Mother of God, was their mother. They were her children. The indigenous population was her family.
This is the message Our Lady of Guadalupe gave then and still gives to our world today. We all live in countries characterized by division: racial, ethnic, political and social. How true is it still that whites do not look upon themselves as forming one society, one community, with blacks, and vice-versa? That Northamericans look upon Hispanic (and other) immigrants as foreigners who do not belong here? That the rich do not have the same goals in business or politics as the poor? That those in power do not govern in the interests of all, but for the benefit of their own class, party or peers?
Our Lady of Guadalupe calls us to form one community, one family with the whole human race. This is why she is Our Lady of Mercy.
To “have mercy” means “to come to the aid of another out of a sense of relationship.” The word “mercy” (as in Kyrie eleison) comes from the semitic word for “womb,” and it refers to the bonding of mother and child, or the “gut bond” of relationship in a family. The Spanish form of “Lord have mercy” is “Señor, ten piedad” -- which brings out the meaning very well because the Roman virtue of pietas (Latin students remember “pius Aeneas”) was the virtue of family bonding: loyalty to family, country, and one’s household, national gods. But now Jesus has called us all to be members of one family, children of God, brothers and sisters of one another. This extends pietas to embrace the whole human race. And “mercy” is the expression of this new relationship of grace.
This is why it is not enough to help the poor; we have to identify with the poor. Those most guilty of oppressing the poor have always “helped” them with alms and charity. In “Catholic” countries the rich have always been willing to help the Church assist the poor, so long as it was clear that the Church belonged to the rich, identified with the rich, educated the children of the rich, and gave her seal of approval to the status quo. But this is not what it means to “have mercy.” For that one must recognize the poor as identified with one’s self, and the needs and concerns of the poor as one’s own concern -- the concern, in fact, of the whole country. Unless one accepts to see oneself and the poor -- and the immigrant, the emotionally disturbed, the disadvantaged of every sort -- as equal members of one society which aims at the good of all, what Christians mean by “mercy” is not possible. The mercy we ask God for at Mass and which God commands us to show to others is an aid based on a recognition of relationship. This is piedad.
Mary dramatized God’s acceptance of relationship with the human race -- an identification made real by the Incarnation -- when at Tepeyac, in Mexico, she chose to present herself bearing the face of an Indian woman. This same apparition was repeated in our time when in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, not Mary, but the Church chose to present herself wearing the face of the poor. In an extraordinary meeting of the Latin American bishops, inaugurated by Pope Paul VI himself (the first Pope in history to visit Latin America), the bishops deliberately made a “preferential option for the poor.” According to Penny Leroux, prize-winning journalist and author of Cry of the Poor (rated by the New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable nonfiction books of 1980), the bishops’ decision at Medellín to “shatter the centuries-old alliance of Church, military, and the rich elites” was the “Magna Carta of today’s persecuted, socially committed Church.” (Note: Accelerating from that moment, persecution of the Church just between 1964 and Leroux’s count in 1979 accounts for 485 priests and 35 bishops in Latin America arrested, 41 priests and 2 bishops killed, and 253 priests and 3 bishops expelled from their countries. This list -- which does not include Archbishop Romero, shot down at the altar in El Salvador -- has been rendered fractional since).
To truly accept the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we have to deliberately choose to be and to form one society, one community, one family with the whole human race -- beginning with those in our own country, city, parish and workplace. As long as we look upon any group of people as “others” with whom we have no relationship or identification, we cannot show “mercy” to them and we are deceiving ourselves if we even claim to accept, much less have devotion to, the “patroness of all the Americas”: Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry