CATHEDRAL OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, Xalapa, Veracruz: SAN RAFAEL GUIZAR VALENCIA
The remains of San Rafael Guizar Valencia (1877-1937) lie in state in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in Xalapa, Veracruz, the capital of the state. During his life he had been imprisoned, hunted down, and driven into exile. He was shot at five times. You might wonder with such a past:
Was he once a gangster? A ne-er do well? A criminal of the worst kind? Who perhaps experienced a dramatic conversion in his life?
He was none of these things. He was—of all things—a bishop! And not just any bishop. He was the first bishop to be canonized a saint who was born on American soil.
He lived during the brutal years of the anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico during the 1920’s. A time described by British author Graham Greene as “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.” Thousands of Mexican Catholics died defending their faith during this era. Pope Pius X declared that this period “exceeded the most bloody persecutions of the Roman emperors.” The US ambassador, James Sheffield, spoke about Plutarco Calles, who was president of Mexico during the worst days of the persecution. “He is so violent on the religion question that he has lost dominion of himself—his face burns and he hits the table to express his deep hatred of religion.”
“His apostolate was carried out among constant danger and persecution” said Pope John Paul II during the homily for Bishop Valencia’s beatification in 1995. Bishop Valencia, disguised as a junk-dealer (priests could be arrested or killed on the spot) risked his life numerous times to administer the Sacraments to dying soldiers on the battlefield “as the bullets whistled by.” His courage was legendary. “I want to give my life for the salvation of souls,” he said repeatedly.
He was born into a wealthy ranching family in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, the fourth of eleven children. He lost his mother when he was nine years old. Her death left a huge vacuum in the young boy’s life. After her funeral he knelt before a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and declared, “Now you will be my mother and companion on earth” much as did St. Therese of Lisieux, under the same circumstances, several years before. This devotion to the Blessed Mother, as well as to the Eucharist, stayed with him for the remainder of his life. He composed several Marian hymns which are still sung today throughout the state of Veracruz.
Two years after his ordination in 1901, he founded a congregation of missionaries named in honour of Our Lady of Esperanza (“Hope”) much venerated in that part of Mexico. This image has the distinction of being the first image of Mary to be crowned in the Americas. A photo of this image of Our Lady is found on this website page. For an article on OUR LADY OF ESPERANZA please see the website page for May 2020.
He had a “holy obsession” with giving missions. In the city of Zamora (population: 12,000) 7,000 people attended “The Great Mission of Zamora” in 1904. The whole city was touched by his preaching and he became known as the “mover of hearts.” And, for each mission, his accordion accompanied him: “music and evangelization are inseparable” he always said.
During his years of exile in Cuba, Guatemala and Texas, he preached countless missions. In Guatemala, “greatly indifferent to religion” it was reported that “the people converted in an explosion!” In Cuba he gave a mission to 1,200 prisoners, most of whom had lived a “violent and turbulent life.” At the end of the week all but twelve went to confession, many reduced to tears. Called a “magnet for souls” the kindly and humble bishop was able to penetrate the “hardest of hearts.”
Catechesis (the catechism he wrote is still in use in the state of Veracruz today) and the formation of priests remained his priorities during his lifetime. He considered his seminaries “the apple of his eye.” He opened a seminary in Xalapa, Veracruz in 1920 but this was closed down by the anti-Catholic government. He moved his seminary to Mexico City in 1922 and during the height of the persecution his underground seminary had 300 seminarians! It continued to operate for 15 more years.
Bishop Valencia has often been compared to St. John Bosco (1815-1888) of whom Pope XI said, “the supernatural almost became natural and the extraordinary, ordinary.” Among many mystical phenomena associated with St. John Bosco was the miraculous multiplication of food for his impoverished school-boys. Like this saint, Bishop Valencia also experienced the multiplication of food and bienes (goods) for all of the poor he assisted in his lifetime.
Most astonishing, though, was his experience of levitation, a state in which “one’s body is lifted in the air with no apparent physical assistance.” Several anciones (elderly people) interviewed for his cause of canonization, testified that they were eyewitnesses to this phenomena while he was saying Mass. St. Teresa of Avila described the experience: “It seemed that I was lifted up by a force beneath my feet that was so powerful that I knew nothing to which I can compare it for it came with a much greater vehemence than any other spiritual experience.” Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, and Pope Celestine V, as well as 200 other saints and holy people, also experienced levitation.
In 1950 his body was found incorrupt, twelve years after his death (he died of natural causes). He was known as “the bishop of the poor.” He gave away all of his inherited wealth to build schools, orphanages, and seminaries. He lived frugally and gave away everything he had to the poor.
At his death “a river of light which never ended”—thousands of mourners with lit candles—filed by his casket all night long. “A halo surrounded him all his life” said one mourner.