At the beginning of the final year of the second millennium of Christianity, Pope John Paul II came to the most sacred space of the Western Hemisphere to proclaim his vision and plan for the third millennium. On January 2, 1999, surrounded by the People of God—cardinals to street people—from throughout the hemisphere, the pope sat directly under the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in her shrine at Tepeyac and delivered his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America.
In this marvelous letter, he carefully linked the Jubilee of the 2,000th anniversary of the Incarnation of the Son of God with the recently commemorated 500th anniversary of the coming of the gospel to America and with “the birth of the Church in history…” through Mary invoked as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The pope’s message to America, the Incarnation and the gospel in America, and the birth of the Church in history are intimately interconnected, not just for America, but also for world Christianity. Why do I dare to make such a bold statement? Bear with me a bit because I am convinced this is one of the most fascinating insights the Holy Father has given us for a deeper and more human appreciation of just what we are celebrating in the Great Jubilee.
As we prepare to celebrate the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation we cannot think of beginning without reference to the one through whom the Incarnation was made possible: Mary of Nazareth, who gave flesh and blood to the divine Word. She gave birth to the Eternal Son of God in time and space, in history and in geography. This was the beginning of a new divine-human endeavor for the sake of the salvation of humanity from its self-destructing values and conduct.
Through sin, persons had become mortal enemies of each other and were tearing each other apart. God took on our flesh and blood so as to create a new way through which humanity could once again be one united family, and he chose to do it with the cooperation of a woman.
The Unifying Role of Mary
Nothing unites a family more than the presence of a loving and caring mother. God certainly knew this when he chose Mary, from the unknown town of Nazareth in Galilee, to be the mother of his son made flesh. She would be the first teacher of love and compassion of the God-made-man for us.
Jesus was certainly very aware of the unifying power of a mother when, as the final act of his earthly life, he gave her to us to be our mother: “And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:27). At the center of the home of every disciple—whether a domestic church or the universal Church—stands the unifying presence of our mother.
The earliest followers of Jesus certainly experienced this unifying power when after the Ascension they were gathered in prayer around Mary, the mother of Jesus, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it is amazing how in moments of great historical crisis, Mary has appeared once again to usher in the healing, liberating, unifying and saving presence of her Son.
We enter into the celebrations of the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation with a deep feeling of love, compassion and gratitude to the simple woman from the small town of Nazareth who agreed to be his mother. She agreed even though she feared greatly and did not know how it would come about or, even worse, the possible consequences: Who would believe that her pregnancy was not of man? Would she experience disgrace or even stoning? Who would believe that this apparently insignificant event, totally unnoticed by the historians of that period, would begin a new human history?
Furthermore, it was she who first announced the characteristics of the new creation which her son would initiate: “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
What was formed in the womb of Mary would be the very beginning of the new creation of love and justice, of honesty and sincerity, of mercy and forgiveness. It would be the beginning of the new family, wherein all would recognize the fundamental dignity and value of each other as creatures of the one Creator, children of the one God.
This was the beginning, but in time many of the followers of the Son allowed his brightness to be eclipsed by the light of the powers, wealth and honors of this world. In his very name, they conquered others, exploited them and subjugated them to slavery and perpetual servitude, and even killed them. But once the energy of the new creation was released into the world, it could not be stopped. As always, God would use unsuspected means to continue his work of redemption, for the grace and creativity of God are far greater than the evil and stubbornness of human beings.
The Incarnation and the New World
In Christianity we have no doubt that the greatest event of human history since creation itself is the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Son of God. In reflecting upon the uniqueness of the meeting of the two hemispheres of the planet for the first time in human history, on the fact that for the first time the various peoples of the globe could truly become one people, the great 16th-century historian Francisco López de Gómora declared: “The greatest thing after the creation of the world, except for the Incarnation and death of the one who created it, is the discovery of the Indies, the so-called New World.”
For Pope Alexander VI, the discovery of America in the western half of the planet was the beginning of the final days of humanity, the beginning of the ultimate humanity. Unfortunately, explorers started in the conquest, rape, robbery, subjugation and exploitation of the native peoples of the land. In spite of the grave sinfulness of the beginnings, there were incredible graces. The greatest and most unique—unique in the historical development of Christianity—was the visitation of Mary at the very beginning of America in 1531.
As Eve had been the mother of the first humanity, Mary of Nazareth had been the mother of the new humanity which started with the Incarnation of the Son in her womb. Now Mary of Tepeyac would be the mother of the ultimate humanity which started not with the conquest but with the Incarnation of Christ in America.
John Paul II furthers the insights of Gómora, Alexander VI and others as to the providential uniqueness of the new beginning for humanity in his vision for the Synod for America—not the Americas as many wanted to call it. The pope insisted: “The decision to speak of ‘America’ in the singular was an attempt not only to express the unity which in some way already exists, but also to point to that closer bond which the peoples of the continent seek and which the Church wishes to foster as part of her own mission, as she works to promote the communion of all in the Lord” (Ecclesia in America).
If we are truly to become a New World, the Church must not allow political, cultural or linguistic borders to separate us not only as Christians but also as a human family. The uniqueness of America is that it has brought and/or welcomed peoples from every race, nation and ethnicity into its midst. It is the new Noah’s ark bringing in from every human species on earth to create a new people, truly a new creation, especially given the horrible and bloody religious, ethnic and racial divisions our present day is experiencing.
There is no doubt there have been many injustices in the process, especially in relation to the original inhabitants of this land and the Africans who were forced from their homelands and brought into slavery in the New World. These and all other injustices must be addressed vigorously. This does not, however, distract from the real potential for something truly new in the history of humanity—a human family composed of all the peoples of the land.
As we in America celebrate the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation, we cannot help but reflect with gratitude and awe on how the Word became flesh here in America, in the “so-called New World,” in the place where the new humanity was born. In the midst of our chaos, darkness and suffering, the Word became our flesh and dwelt among us through the unsuspected entry into history of the Mestiza Virgen of Guadalupe.
In and through her, the various peoples of this land would become a new people as reflected in her mestiza face. In her face they would recognize elements of their own skin and ethnicity. She was the beginning of what we can truly call the New World, not the “so-called New World” which simply opened new territories where people could be segregated, dominated and enslaved, but the real New World where men and women of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds could live and work in peace, mutual respect and harmony.
It is the New World announced in the Magnificat and initiated by her Son now coming historically into existence in America. The real newness of America is that it is a melting pot of all the peoples of the world forming a new people. Who but a loving and compassionate mother can unite such a diverse mob?
Guadalupe and the New Evangelization
John Paul II was way ahead of all of us when in 1979, upon his first papal trip, he visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the very geographical and cultural center of America. He called it “The Cenacle” where the apostles together with Mary awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit. As he knelt at the feet of the miraculous and beloved image, he begged that she would teach us the true path of evangelization.
From then on, in preparation for the Great Jubilee, the pope started to proclaim his message of the new evangelization for the entire Church. As he often stated, this is to be not a re-evangelization but truly a new one: new in ardor, new in methods and new in expression.
But this new evangelization did not start just a few years ago; it was simply rediscovered. It actually started with the way of Jesus through Galilee and was recreated in 1531 with the very mechanics and style of the conversations between Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego at Tepeyac. In her style and approach the Holy Father, together with the bishops of the hemisphere, sees her as “the Star of the first and new evangelization.”
In order to emphasize and celebrate the unique role of Mary under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe as the historical beginning of the new humanity, the pope went on to declare: “In view of this, I welcome with joy the proposal of the Synod Fathers that the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother and Evangelizer of America, be celebrated throughout the continent on December 12.”
Some have been quick to ask why a very Mexican feast would be declared a feast for the entire Western Hemisphere. Why La Morenita del Tepeyac and not just Mary, the mother of Jesus? Our Lady of Guadalupe is God’s very special gift to America at the very beginning of the New World. It was a very special way through which Divine Providence started the incarnation of the gospel in the New World. God would not allow the gospel to become an instrument of colonization and through Guadalupe would assure that the gospel would continue to heal, liberate and unite all peoples of this hemisphere. This new unity of peoples will be America’s true gift toward the formation of a real world community.
Guadalupe and the New Creation
The very intimate and life-giving encounter between Our Lady and the native Juan Diego took place at the darkest and most painful moment of hemispheric history. It was a moment of death. Millions of indigenous people were dying of plagues, diseases and harsh work.
Yet at the same time, something new was beginning. A new people was being born as the Europeans mixed with the natives to produce new babies, the beginning of what we might well call “the American race.” Very soon, Africans would be brought into the mix. This mestizaje is great biologically and culturally, but most difficult and painful socially and psychologically.
It is amazing that Guadalupe appeared when the culture and the people were being annihilated and, like the Incarnation, offers hope in the midst of one of the darkest moments in history. In the midst of this confusion and death, Our Lady with a mestiza face encounters the native Juan Diego in 1531 at Tepeyac, the sacred site of the ancient mother goddess Tonanzin. The Lady requests a home for all the inhabitants of this land. She introduces herself as the mother of the Christian God and linked to the native deities—totally unthinkable to any of the religious thinkers of that period and even of today!
What the missionaries were trying to destroy, she affirms. What the natives could not comprehend, she explains. What neither could grasp, she reveals. She purifies the native religions of the need for human sacrifice, but equally calls the Church itself to conversion by offering love and compassion instead of cruel punishment and eternal damnation—which was the common Christian preaching of that time. She invited both the native people and the Church to a profound conversion to something new, and as such gave birth to both the new Church and the new humanity of the continent.
The greatest ongoing force of Guadalupe is not her apparition on the tilma of Juan Diego, or even the healing of the dying uncle Juan Bernardino and the many subsequent healing miracles down to our own days. It is rather how she “lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52) as Juan Diego and millions after him are transformed from crushed, self-defacing and silenced persons into confident, self-assured and joyful messengers and artisans of God’s plan for America.
Out of the Guadalupe-Juan Diego-Bishop Zumárraga encounter, the new Church is born—not a mere continuation of the old Church of Europe or merely a Christian veneer over old native religious practices, but a new Church born of the biological, cultural, linguistic, religious and spiritual encounter of the so-called Old World and New World. Through her, opposing differences are reconciled, integrated and synthesized into a new and fascinating unity. Furthermore, she transforms the attitudes of contempt and scorn different peoples tend to have for each other into new ones of respect and admiration.
Her mestiza face, body and dress mirror the new face and body of America while her message proclaims the very soul of this new creation. Truly she is the mother of the new creation in the making which we call America!
Father Virgilio P. Elizondo is the director of programming for Catholic Television in San Antonio, and a professor at the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC). He has written a number of articles and books, including Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation (Orbis Books, 1997), La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas (MACC, 1980, now in its sixth edition and published also in Spanish) and Mestizaje: The Dialectic of Birth and the Gospel (MACC, 1978), his doctoral thesis. This article appeared in the December 1999 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.