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Our Lady of Guadalupe: Good news for the Americas
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Saturday morning in a Manteca gym, I heard an unexpected song.  Doing laps in a chilly pool, I warmed up to laughter as a lone man, standing under the open-air shower, began his solo in homage to the Mexican Madonna.  

I had to walk by him en route to the dressing room.  He was still serenading la Virgencita there, between the steam room and the entrance to the lady’s lockers.  Maybe he expected La Morenita to appear, just to hear him sing.

“Padre! Estoy cantando para la Virgen,” (“I’m singing for the Virgin”) he told me, eyes wide open and excited, dripping all the while.  I didn’t think he’d recognize me, frozen like a block of ice.  All I could reply was, “¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” “¡Si!” he cried.  “¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!”

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe rolls out across the Americas today and Sunday, as devotees mark 479 years since she first appeared to a humble Indian near the great Aztec capital of ancient Mexico. Most of you are already familiar with the story, which often begins with the landing of Hernán Cortez in 1519 and his subsequent conquest of Tenochtitlán.   You probably heard how the early Franciscan missionaries went right to work.

The story continues with the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego, a humble cultivator who had embraced the Spanish Franciscans’ teachings from the start.  Together with his wife, Juan Diego had been among the first native Americans baptized, and with the death of his beloved he’d become even more dedicated to his faith, making the long journey to the Cathedral by foot on a regular basis.  This was at a time when tensions between the Conquistadores and the native populations were rising.  The Indians may have appreciated being freed from Aztec domination, but they discovered all too soon that the Spaniards had come for less than noble motivations.

Our Lady’s apparitions, focusing as they did on faith in God the Creator and Redeemer, on her invitation to trust in his mercy and grace, and on the need to be reconciled with others in the common pursuit of a civilization of love and mutual respect, led to millions of conversions and a brighter future for the people of “New Spain” (later “Mexico”).  First the beautiful lady upon the hill called Tepeyak, she’d eventually be Queen of the Americas.

Last Sunday, over 10,000 devotees and spectators paraded in Stockton, then worshipped together at the sports arena.  With heavy rains falling since Thursday, and an initial prediction for rain through Sunday, we’d prayed for the best, but expected the worst.   By Saturday night it seemed impossible that the cold, drenching weather would ever give way to friendlier skies.

Last year, we’d endured freezing temperatures to rise early and work with aching hands in preparing the 30 flatbed trucks that become the procession floats.  Then, midmorning, chilling rains had fallen, and we braced for what had happened only very rarely during that December event: heaven raining on our parade.  Yet, just before noon, when the first marchers were set to step out from under the Crosstown Freeway, the clouds broke.  Dancing on still-soaking streets, the costumed participants had arrived at the Arena without a drop of rain.  In fact, as our flatbed emerged, so too had the sun.

This year, what happened seemed even more miraculous.  Three days of rain preceded the event, and three more days of rain would follow.  But on the morning of Sunday, December 5th - that is, last Sunday - dawn broke to clearing skies.  The sun’s first rays painted our early workers and their trucks with a mystical gold plating.   For the first time in weeks, cold had yielded to more moderate temperatures, and the streets flooded with joy.

Just to prove his point, the Good Lord allowed the rains to be held off long enough for nearly everyone to make their way home after the magnificent Mass celebrated by Stockton’s former bishop, Cardinal Roger Mahoney.  I know that protesters who were offended by the fact that he was invited to return for the 30th annual celebration of the parade he’d helped to initiate may have tried to call down fire from heaven.  With great respect for the cause of the innocent, I believe the God of all that exists did not want the sins of our past to destroy our ability to gather and celebrate in the present.

In fact, so much of what Our Lady came to establish in the Americas was in fact encouraged, labored and struggled for right here in the valley of San Joaquin, who according to Catholic tradition was the Virgin Mary’s father.

And so the heavy rains resumed at 5:00pm, when the event was fully over.

Which brings me back to the showers in Manteca.  As I washed off the salt and chlorine mixture from that frosty pool, I could still hear the refrains of that humble man’s homenaje (tribute) to the Queen of the Americas.  I had to laugh again: in his simple, almost embarrassing outpouring of affection, undaunted by the staring of people from the Jacuzzi, the sauna, the pool, and the steam room, this little man was telling the famous story once again.

Juan Diego had been just as simple, I suppose, and roughly the same age, when he began his seventeen years of speaking out in testimony to that wonderful story, in which a humble virgin, pregnant with the God of the Christians, appeared on a barren hill and changed the history of the world.  

Allow me, please, to echo some of Our Lady’s messages to Juan Diego:  

“Know and understand well, you the most humble of my sons, that I am the ever virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live, of the Creator of all things, Lord of heaven and the earth.  I wish that a temple be erected here quickly, so I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help, and protection, because I am your merciful mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love me, invoke and confide in me; I will listen there to their lamentations, and remedy all their miseries, afflictions and sorrows…”  It was with these words that Mary sent her messenger, Juan Diego, to Bishop Zumarraga.

Our Lady continues, in our day, calling us to greater faith, to perseverance in the struggle for justice, for dignity, and for a better world.  The Second Vatican Council put it this way: “…the Mother of Jesus in the glory which she possesses in body and soul in heaven is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come.  Likewise she shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10), a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God.”   (L.G. # 68)

I invite you to consider the real possibility that this woman, Mary, has a message of love and encouragement for you.  Without her, the Redeemer would never have taken on our flesh, and we’d have no hope for salvation.

You might even find yourself serenading, all by yourself, in the shower.

Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church.  Dec. 9, 2010.  Feast of Juan Diego.