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BLESSED MIGUEL PRO

BLESSED MIGUEL PRO: MEXICAN MARTYR (Feast day: Nov. 23)

Father Miguel Pro could have said “No.” His Jesuit superior ordered him back to Mexico for his health. After three unsuccessful stomach operations the superior thought that a return to his homeland would aid in his recovery. It is likely that the Superior was not aware of the perilous state of the country at that time, particularly for a Catholic priest. Father Pro, however, had no such illusions. He knew exactly what he would be facing. He had been in Europe for eleven years as it was considered too dangerous for him to continue his seminary training in his beleaguered homeland. He completed his theological education in Spain and Belgium and was ordained in 1925. He returned to Mexico in 1926.

Miguel was born on Jan. 13, 1891 in the mining town of Guadalupe, Zacatecas where his father was a mining engineer. He was the third of seven children. The high-spirited, musical and ever-witty Miguel (“He could have made a fortune on the stage” said one acquaintance) joined the Jesuits as a novice at the age of 20. “Take all from me, Lord! Only give me souls!” he vowed at this time.

“He sailed back West like the great missionaries of old—to the blood-stained shores of his homeland—in which the Church of Mexico struggled with the powers of hell made manifest,” stated Mrs. George Norman in The Jester of God. Like St. Edmund Campion returning to Elizabethan England from Belgium, like St. Isaac Jogues returning to North America from France, so Father Pro returned to Mexico. To his martyrdom.

To what was Father Miguel returning? It was a time in the country known as La Persecution Brutale under the leadership of the viciously anti-Catholic dictator Plutarco Calles who became President of the country in 1924. He was quite something this Calles. According to Saints and Sinners in the Cristero War, Calles “had a reputation for executing priests without trial—ninety of them during his four years as president. He was an atheist and he wore that as a badge of honor all his life.”  Author Msgr. James T. Murphy says that “he attacked the Church with a fanaticism that often shocked foreign diplomats.”

U.S. Ambassador James Sheffield provides just such an example: he wrote a memo to the U.S. State department about Calles: “This president has become so violent on the religious question that he has lost control of himself. When this topic has been dealt with in his presence, his face turns red, and he has hit the table to express his hate and profound hostility toward the practice of religion.” This was the Mexico that Father Pro was returning to in 1926.

Before he left Europe he asked permission to visit Lourdes. This was granted. He, “who had the devotion of the saints to Our Lady” declared, “It was the happiest day of my life.” He said that it was “all I expected and more.” He composed this prayer while at Lourdes: “May I spend my days near thee—what I ask, O sorrowful Virgin is to be close to thee, to stand near thee, to strengthen my soul by thy tears.” He offered the immolation of himself for the Church in Mexico. “My journey to Lourdes has given me courage,” he said. Which he would need in extraordinary abundance.

And so he departed Europe in July of 1926 “for the Virgin and the sunburnt wilds of my country.” He was entering the country at a time when the radical Constitution of 1917 (now being enforced with a terrible vengeance) struck blow after blow against the Catholic Church. According to Robert Royal in his Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Mexico became the first “explicitly socialist, anti-religious revolutionary republic in the world.” Along with Soviet Russia, Republican Spain and Castro’s Cuba, “it became one of the Communist countries in the last century whose express purpose was the eradication of the Christian religion.”

The Constitution had stripped the Catholic Church of all its property. Article 24 of the Constitution decreed that all religious worship be regulated by the state. Churches were closed, and no priest was allowed to minister to the faithful. Article 3 secularized all education. Religious education was forbidden in all schools. Francis F. Kelley, Bishop of Oklahoma and Tulsa discussed the subject in his aptly-titled book, Blood Drenched Altars. He revealed the oath that the teachers in the state of Yucatan were forced to sign: “I solemnly declare myself an atheist, an irreconcilable enemy of the Roman Catholic religion and I will exert my efforts to destroy it.” Not all teachers complied. In the city of Aguascalientes all the teachers resigned. In the state of Michoacan “60 teachers resigned rather than teach as prescribed.”

Kelley refers to the case of the Minister of Education, a close friend of President Calles, whose “particular educational fad was sexual instruction. He sent out indecent pamphlets to the teachers.” (Does this sound familiar?)

Within a few days of his arrival in Mexico, the bishops of the country were forced to take unprecedented measures: On July 31, 1926, they ordered the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from all the churches rather than submit the Church to government control. With approval from the Holy See all Sacraments would be suspended in all the churches of the Republic. The bishops spoke out with anguished eloquence: “The life of the Church is that of its Founder. The Church of Mexico is abandoned today to its worst enemies; she is mocked, she is scourged, she is reduced to a state like death.” In the words of one author, “The great Good Friday for Mexico had begun.”

Thousands upon thousands flocked to Confession before the churches were closed. Newly-arrived Father Pro heard confessions by the hour in his Jesuit parish church, Holy Family, in Mexico City, to such an extent that he fainted twice. He said his last public Mass at Holy Family on July 31, 1926. From that day on the Church in Mexico went “underground.”

He organized “Communion stations” in which he distributed 300 Communions on a daily basis. His mode of transportation? His brother’s bicycle. “The last First Friday I distributed 1,200 Communions” he said. All at the risk of his life. He was forced to dress in disguise: sometimes as a student (his youthful looks were an asset in this regard); “My student’s swagger gets me off any amount of suspicion,” he said. At other times he dressed as a garage mechanic, a miner and a “dandy” sporting a long cigarette-holder and a flashy dapper suit. Always conscious of the 10,000 “spy”agents in the city who were employed by the Calles government. Discovery could mean torture, imprisonment or immediate death. Always attentive to the poor, he was was the main support for almost 100 poverty-stricken residents of the city.

Father Pro never stopped hearing confessions: “I have heard confessions even in the jails and here I spend most of my time for they are filled with Catholics” he said as quoted by Fr. Wilfred Parsons, S.J., in Mexican Martyrdom. He also gave retreats, baptized countless infants, and blessed marriages. His calls to the sick were legendary. He knew the risks: He said “The Catholics have taken the defensive against Calles and the reprisals are going to be terrible above all in the city of Mexico. The first to suffer will be those who have put their fingers into the religion question. And I have put mine there up to the elbow!”

He spoke about the perils: “From all sides we receive news of attacks and reprisals; the victims are many; the number of martyrs grows every day. Oh, if only I could draw a winning number! “ He knew well of what he was speaking: In the first week of May of 1926, alone, “there was the mass execution of 17 priests in Mexico City.”

Mrs. George Norman, in The Jester of God writes about Fr. Pro’s statements on the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King on Oct. 31, 1926; it took the form of a pilgrimage to The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Basilica remained open during the entire “reign of terror” in Mexico. Even the Calles government dared not close it! “The pilgrimage to the Basilica began at four in the morning and ended at 7:30 at night. An uninterrupted stream of people—eighty or eighty four percent of the inhabitants of the city—passed before the blessed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was there—it was impossible to tear myself away.” And all shouting along the way, “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!”

On the night of Nov. 15, 1927, Fr. Miguel and his two brothers, Humberto and Roberto were arrested. On the last night of his life he slept on the bare floor because he had given his “thin mattress” to a fellow prisoner. On the morning of Nov. 23, the sweater-clad priest was led out of his cell, holding his crucifix in one hand and his Rosary in the other. Facing the firing squad, with his arms extended in the form of a cross (he refused a blindfold), he kissed his crucifix and said: “May God have mercy on you. May God bless you.” His final words were “Viva Cristo Rey!” His brother Umberto was martyred the same day and his other brother Roberto was released and exiled to the United States.

A nun reported that a month before his death, Fr. Pro had confided to her that he had offered  his life for souls and for the Church in Mexico.

Fr. Miguel Pro was beatified by St. Pope John Paul II in 1988.

THE CATHEDRAL OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, Durango, Durango, Mexico

A MEXICAN MARTYR: ST. MATEO CORREA

Recently, the head of France’s Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort, said that the Seal of Confession should not take precedence over French law (dealing with sex crimes against children). This scandalous statement was the exact opposite of what he had said earlier. What made him change his mind? Well, could it be because he had been summoned for a meeting by the Interior Minister, Gerald Darminin? Could that have something to do with it?  It was after this meeting that he reversed his initial position of non-compliance with the government mandate. Even more scandalous, he asked the public to forgive him for his prior statement! This, from the top bishop in France, the “eldest daughter of the Church.”

According to Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church the Seal of Confession is inviolable. “A confessor who directly violates the Seal of Confession incurs an automatic excommunication.”

This is light years away from another priest, from another time, from another country, who was faced with a similar challenge: Father Mateo Correa. A Mexican priest who literally gave up his life to protect the Seal of Confession. On Feb. 5, 1927, the country’s revolutionary forces ordered the imprisoned priest to divulge the contents of several soldiers’ confessions. “Never! I will never do it!” he said. “I would rather die than violate the Seal of Confession.” “Then you will die!” shrieked his adversary, with a gun pointed at the priest’s head. The next day, at dawn on Feb. 6, 1927, he was taken to the outskirts of Durango and executed. He was canonized by St. John Paul II in 2000.

The years 1926 to 1929 are known as the “Years of the Martyrs” in the history of the Mexican Republic. In the words of English writer Graham Greene (he was an atheist until he converted to the Catholic faith at age 22) the church in Mexico under its socialist dictators suffered “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.” Pope Pius XI, who presided over the Church from 1922 to 1939, declared that the persecutions in Mexico “exceeded the most bloody persecutions of the Roman emperors.” His 1926 encyclical, Iniquis Afflictisque, refers to the barbarities as “without equal, cruelties and atrocities scarcely credible in the 20th century.”

A priest was not allowed to say Mass, give absolution or even say a prayer over a dying Mexican soldier. Such acts were punishable by law. Father Mateo was arrested because he was bringing Viaticum to a dying invalid; Masses, however, were being said. In secret. In private homes. In forests. In garages. The Church in Mexico was forced to go “underground.” Such a scene is vividly portrayed in Graham Greene’s masterpiece novel, The Power and the Glory:

“It had been five years since the people had seen a priest.

A voice whispered urgently to him, ‘Father.’

‘Yes?’

‘The police are on the way. They are only a mile off, coming through the forest.’

This was what he was used to: were they on horseback or on foot? If they were on foot he had 20 minutes left to finish Mass and hide—the Consecration was in silence: no bell rang.

Somebody opened the door: a voice whispered urgently, ‘They’re here—They are all around the village.’ “

The priest was arrested and shot by a firing squad.

Father Mateo Correa was born in Tepechitlan, Zacatecas, on July 23, 1866. Although he was from a poor family, he completed his education with the aid of benefactors and attended the seminary in Zacatecas on a scholarship. After his ordination in 1893 the gentle priest served as pastor in several locations in the state of Zacatecas. One of these was in the mining town of Concepcion del Oro where he became friends with the family of Miguel Pro whose father was a mining engineer. Miguel would eventually become the best-known of all the Mexican martyrs. Father Mateo administered First Communion to the young Miguel and baptized Miguel’s brother Umberto. Both brothers would be martyred on the same day in 1927. As Robert Royal said in his book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, such ironies are “indicative of the all-embracing nature of anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico.”

The remains of Father Mateo can be found in the Cathedral of Durango, a city 600 miles northwest of Mexico City. The church is also known as the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. This “landmark of enduring beauty” is located in the historic centre of the city opposite the Plaza de Armas. Construction on the impressive church with its twin-towered Baroque façade was begun in 1695.

Durango is not only a destination for devout Catholics but for fans of John Wayne as well. Many of Hollywood’s greatest western movies were filmed there. As one writer said, “This is John Wayne country, where the Duke slugged it out, shot it out, and sometimes yelled it out, as he tamed the American West.” One of his most famous movies, True Grit, for which he won an Oscar in 1970, was filmed in Durango. Wayne spent a great deal of time in this city and eventually bought property in the area.

“The Duke” converted to the Catholic faith two days before he died of cancer in 1979. According to his grandson, Father Matthew Munoz, a priest in California, he regretted that he had taken so long to take this step. He blamed it on a “busy life.” All of his seven children were brought up in the Catholic faith and attended Catholic schools. Apparently, he had a life-long reverence for Catholicism. His director John Ford (who didn’t hide his love for his Catholic faith) influenced him, as did his good friend in Los Angeles, Archbishop Tomas Clavel, who had been exiled from his Archdiocese of Panama in 1968.

And one can just wonder at the possible influence of Father Mateo Correa on this movie legend. Surely, Wayne, given his interest in Catholicism, would have visited this beautiful Cathedral many times. And how moved he must have been by reading the description in the church of Father Mateo’s martyrdom.

Some of Wayne’s most memorable quotes dealt with the subject of courage. One of his best-known was: “Courage is being scared to death—and saddling up anyway.” How in awe he must have been by Father Mateo’s bravery!

One can only barely surmise the terror in Father Mateo’s heart on that night of Feb. 5, 1927. Alone in his prison cell he had no illusions about any such fictions as a last-minute reprieve. How easily he could have “given in”! Knowing what possible tortures and brutalities awaited him.

Yet he stayed the course. To the point of martyrdom.

Unlike another priest, an Archbishop at that, decades later, who did “give in.” To the Interior Minister’s admonitions. Or threats. Or whatever it was. To which one can only say, “God help the Church in France.”

Saint Mateo Correa, pray for the Church!

 

 

OUR LADY OF THE PILLAR, La Ensenanza Church, Mexico City

Step into the church of La Ensenanza in the historical district of Mexico City and you will be entering what many writers refer to as one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Its façade is outstanding as well.

The architecture of La Ensenanza is known as Churrigueresque, a type of ultra-Baroque construction that is named after the Spanish architect, Jose Churriguera, who dominated Spanish architecture for the first half of the 18th century. As is evident by the photos on this website, this style of architecture is characterized by an extravagance of sculptural details, or, to quote one author, “a plethora of elaborate decoration.” Gilded carvings, rosettes, sculpted clouds and angels, paintings and statues, adorn all surfaces in splendid array. All with one mystical purpose: to give glory and praise to God with all one’s heart and soul. It is a style of architecture unique to Spain and Latin America, particularly Mexico. The church is quite small (I doubt if it could hold even 100 people) and is a five-minute walk to the zocalo (central square of the city).

The church of La Ensenanza was named for the convent of the same name which was founded by one of the most distinguished women in 18th century Mexico: Mother Maria Ignacia de Azlor y Echevers. Her primary goal was to provide quality education for the girls and women of the city, a project to which she dedicated her life. She died in 1767 and the construction of the church was begun a few years later. By 1778 the church was completed and was consecrated by Archbishop don Alonso Nunez de Haro y Peralta. The expulsion of the religious in 1861 by the edicts of the revolutionary government resulted in the abandonment of the convent. The church, however, was conserved.

The Virgin of the Pillar is the central figure above the main altar. She is holding the Child Jesus and is standing on a column which is typically obscured by a mantle (in this case a brightly coloured green fabric). Can you see the column below the mantle in the photograph?

But what was the origin of the name, “The Lady of the Pillar?” Tradition relates that Our Lady appeared to the apostle St. James in 40 AD in Zaragoza, Spain. Apparently he was having many trials in his preaching and was getting discouraged with his lack of progress. She came to encourage him and offer him strength! She was accompanied by a myriad of angels who carried a column of marble and a small statue of Our Lady on top of the column.

She asked that St. James have a temple built in the area of the apparition. It is considered the first apparition of Our Lady in history. In 1730 Pope Innocent XIII authorized veneration of Our Lady of the Pillar throughout the Spanish Empire (including Mexico and Latin America). The Spanish mystic, Venerable Mary of Agreda, described the happenings in her book, THE MYSTICAL CITY OF GOD. The feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar is October 12.

 

 

 

 

 

OUR LADY OF THE ANGELS, Tecaxic (Toluca) State of Mexico

 

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the iconic image of Mexico. You see her image everywhere. On billboards, on store-fronts, on buses, in taxis. There is a statue or painting of her in every church in the country and a multitude of churches dedicated to her throughout Mexico.

But did you know that there is another miraculous image of Our Lady in Mexico that closely resembles her? It is the image known as Our Lady of the Angels, found in Texacic, a small town 2 km. distance from the city of Toluca, the capital city of the state of Mexico (64 km west of Mexico City).

Like the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, this ancient image of Our Lady of the Angels is painted on a tilma, a cloak made of a fabric similar to cotton. Like Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Angels assumes the same posture with her hands joined in prayer. And can you see the golden rays which burst forth behind her? For a moment you almost think you are looking at a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe! Two angels hold up Our Lady of the Angel’s mantle as she is lifted up to heaven ( this is an image of Our Lady of the Assumption).

In the early history of the painting we discover that Tecaxic was once a thriving pueblo with a vibrant Catholic faith, thanks to the preaching of the Franciscans who journeyed from their monastery in Toluca. The plague of 1640, however, devastated Tecaxic and the town was ultimately abandoned.

Also abandoned was the painting of Our Lady of the Angels, which had been displayed on the walls of a tiny hermitage in the town. Over time the hermitage became a total ruin. The roof broke down and enormous holes appeared in the walls. The painting was left exposed to the mercy of the elements “pummeled by rains, dust and scorched by a glaring sun.”

Despite the attacks of the weather throughout the years, the painting remained intact and the colours remained fresh and vivid. Its preservation is remarkable considering that it was painted on a fabric that should have disintegrated within a few years. After its removal to a new shrine, the miraculous nature of the painting was officially established in 1684 by Fray Baltazara de Medina, Censor for the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

Many are the miracles associated with the 300-year-old painting of Our Lady of the Angels: the cure of a cancerous arm that was to be amputated, sight restored to a blind man and the healing of a crippled woman are just some of the cures attributed to Our Lady of the Angels. The reports of all these miracles prompted Fray Jose Gutierrez, the Guardian of the Convent of San Francisco in Toluca, to begin the building of a new sanctuary in her honour in 1650.

Miracles of another kind were also witnessed in the new sanctuary: mysterious singing and the emanation of lights! Reports were told of hearing music of “remarkable beauty” from the shrine. When investigators entered the church, however, they witnessed only silence and solitude. Similar reports were told of seeing flickering lights emanating from the shrine. When passersby investigated they found only darkness. No one was present in the shrine!

Today Our Lady of the Angels in Tecaxic is a thriving parish church. And fervent devotion to her has been ongoing for almost four centuries!

One detail from the painting should not be missed: noticeable is that Our Lady’s left ear is exposed, (it is not covered by her dark hair) indicating that Our Lady is most willing to listen attentively to the sorrows and joys of all of her children who implore her intercession.

 

 

 

OUR LADY OF LIGHT, Leon, Guanajuato

Our Most Holy Mother of LightShoes. Shoes. Shoes. And more shoes! That’s what you’ll find in Leon in exuberant abundance. Leon, the fifth largest city in Mexico, in the central state of Guanajuato, is known as the shoe capital of the country. That is one of its two claims to fame. Leon has not just one mall devoted exclusively to shoes, nor even two or three. It has four malls which sell nothing but shoes. Hiking boots. Sandals. Golf shoes. Ballet shoes. Tennis shoes. Oxfords. And cowboy boots. Particularly cowboy boots. In every colour of the rainbow. From canary yellow to aquamarine. One display featured an assortment of different cowboy boots—all in Hunter green—of all colours. These malls are all grouped together in one location—conveniently (and cleverly!)—right beside the bus station. You can see them as soon as you get off the bus.

But as popular as they are, the shoe malls are not the main source of pride for the citizens of Leon. The real treasure of the city is a remarkable painting just a few blocks away: the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light which is displayed over the main altar of the city’s elegant cathedral, a church that was begun by the Jesuits in 1746.

Our Lady of Light (La Luz) was named the chief Patrona of the city of Leon in 1849. When Leon was declared a diocese in 1872 Our Lady of Light was named its Patrona as well. Approval of the authenticity of the painting’s origins came from the highest levels of the church: The painting was crowned in 1902 with the authorization of Pope Leo XIII.

She is known for her miraculous powers of intercession. One of these occurred in a spectacularly public manner on June 18, 1876. The cathedral was packed that Sunday morning for the 11 am Mass. Suddenly, without warning, a loud crack reverberated throughout the entire church. To everyone’s horror “the keystone of the main arch, a tremendous block of masonry, fell into the aisle.” It looked as if the entire ceiling would crash down killing everyone below. The congregants froze in terror.

At this terrible moment, Bishop de Sollano, with supreme presence of mind and faith, walked down from the altar and stood under the arch. The congregation held its collective breath. He prayed urgently to Our Lady of Light to support the arch so that all would be protected. His prayers were heard. Miraculously, not a single person in the church was injured. They are still talking about it in Leon to the present day!

The painting originated in Europe: It all began with a Jesuit priest, Father Giovanni Antonio Genovesi, who was born in Sicily in 1684. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1703 and spent the next twenty years as a missionary priest, “traversing the length and breadth of Sicily.” He was becoming disheartened, however, because so few people were converting. Father Genovesi, who had a great love for the Blessed Mother, had an inspiration: “I need an image of Our Lady to carry with me,” he said, “one that will convert sinners and move hearts!” She will do it! He was sure of it! But what image? And where would he find such a one?

He had heard that a holy nun in Palermo was receiving visitations from Our Lady. “I will ask her!” he said. “And she can ask the Blessed Virgin what she herself would like!” Father Genovesi travelled to Palermo to meet with the nun. The year was 1722. The nun thought this was an excellent idea and proceeded to ask Our Lady this very question. Before long, Our Lady appeared to her in a splendour of light surrounded by a “courtege of angels.” She was holding the Infant Jesus in one arm and with the other arm, she was snatching a sinner from the jaws of a demon. An angel knelt before her holding a basket of human hearts; The Infant took them “one by one, sanctifying them with His hands.”

Our Lady then spoke, repeating the command twice: “I wish the painting to be as you have seen me,” she said. “The title of the painting should be known as the Most Holy Mother of Light.” The nun immediately passed on the message to Father Genovesi who commissioned an artist to carry out Our Lady’s wishes.

No matter how many times the artist tried, however, he was not able to match the nun’s description of the sacred scene. Time and time again this happened. “No, it was nothing like that!” said the nun. Apparently, not even the Blessed Mother was happy with the painting!

Our Lady appeared yet again to the nun: “What are you doing here, Lazybones?” she said to the nun who lived a fair distance from Palermo, “when I need you in Palermo for a matter which concerns my glory?”

Our Lady told the nun to meet her at the artist’s studio and that she, herself, would guide the artist’s brush-strokes! Our Lady would be visible only to the nun. “When the work is done,” said the Virgin, “all shall know by its more than human beauty that a greater mind and a higher art have arranged the composition and laid the colors.”

Our Lady was delighted with the finished painting; it became known as Our Most Holy Mother of Light. She raised her hand to the completed work and blessed it with the Sign of the Cross.

Father Genovesi carried the painting with him on his missionary journeys; wherever he went conversions multiplied exponentially. “Our Lady moved the hearts of all sinners!” he said. “The Virgin worked marvels through her image,” reported one historian. And devotion to Our Lady of Light spread throughout all of Sicily.

But how did the painting end up in Mexico?

It happened like this: Another Jesuit from Sicily, Father Jose maria Genovese (with almost the same surname as the original Father Genovesi), had arrived in Mexico in 1707. News spread  about the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light and Father Genovese began erecting altars to her in Mexico. Devotion to her flourished just as it did in Sicily. The Jesuits decided that the painting should be sent to one of their many churches in New Spain (Mexico). But to which church? Where? In which city?

They agreed that the selection would be made by casting lots: The choice? The Jesuit church in Leon. A second, then a third drawing, confirmed the first. Leon it would be!

On July 2, 1732 the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light arrived in the city of Leon amid crowds, “triumph,” and “indescribable enthusiasm.” Every year on the second of July, to the present day, the people of Leon commemorate the event with a joy-filled lively fiesta.

A statement written on the back of the painting testifies to its authenticity: “This image is the original which came from Sicily and which was blessed by the same Virgin, who with her blessing, entrusted it with the power to do miracles.” It is dated August 19, 1729 and is signed by a number of Sicilian Jesuit priests.

Since then Our Lady of Light has become known for her outstanding powers of protection for the people of Leon: She has saved them from epidemics, storms, lightning, and plagues. Even revolutions! Leon is known as the “City of Refuge” because it enjoyed serene peace during the many revolutions and invasions that have beset the rest of Mexico for almost two centuries.

Although she is celebrated throughout the republic of Mexico (you can see her image in many churches in the country) she is especially revered in Leon. You will see her image everywhere in the city: in cars, churches, coffee shops, billboards, and city buildings. Taxi drivers and bus drivers erect tiny shrines to her on their dashboards, complete with flashing, sparkling lights. Parents name their daughters after her. The two most common girls’ names in Leon are Guadalupe and Luz (after Our Lady of Light).

It is said that Leon is the city of Mary. The sumptuous cathedral is the centre of the religious life of the city. And at its heart is the miraculous image of Our Lady of Light.

And the shoe malls? They run a distant second. A very distant second.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

OUR LADY OF THE LONELY, Oaxaca, Oaxaca (La Soledad)

There is one business that is thriving in this pandemic: The dog-breeding business. Of all things!

This I did not know. I discovered this one day as I was walking along the pier at our lake-side city. A popular spot with dog-walkers. Of which we have a great many in our town. As I struck up a conversation with one dog owner, another couple came along admiring this fellow’s pooch. They wanted one just like it but couldn’t afford it. “The prices have doubled, maybe even tripled since the pandemic began. The prices have gone through the roof!” they lamented. This was news to me.

When I got home I decided to look the subject up on the Internet. And sure enough, this was the case: Barry Harrison, of London, Ontario, a dog-breeder for over thirty years, said “People are scrambling to buy any type of puppy.” He has never fielded so many calls. “Breeders are incredibly overwhelmed with all the inquiries they’re getting,” he said. He cited the main reason as loneliness. “With the pandemic people are incredibly lonely and cut off from social contact. They buy a dog to have company.”

On the subject of loneliness, the people of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, know a thing or tow about dealing with such trials, albeit on an exalted plane, a heavenly one to be exact. They have their special protector, Our Lady of the Lonely, LA SOLEDADE who is the Patrona and protector of their state. She has been looking after her citizens of Oaxaca for over four hundred years. And consoling them when they are feeling lonely and bereft. Many believe that she has supernatural healing powers as well.

Travel writers rave over the city of Oaxaca and rightly so. They call it “a rare beauty, a wonder to behold.” It is no surprise that this elegant city has become a major tourist destination. It is nestled in a valley in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains and boasts an “ideal climate.” Its zocalo—with its sprawling jacaranda trees and outdoor cafes—is the centre of the city’s social life where visitors can enjoy live music almost every night of the week.

Because her original shrine (the chapel of San Sebastian) was too small to hold her ever-increasing devotees, the bishop authorized the construction of a much larger church to house the magnificent image of La Soledad. The Basilica of La Soledad was completed in 1689. One travel guidebook calls it “the most important religious centre in Oaxaca,” quite an accolade in a city with twenty-seven churches!

The “outstanding façade” of the church is singularly unique in the country: It is formed almost like a folding screen that “moves” on different planes, a Baroque technique which enlarges the surface available for decoration. Twenty-one sculptures adorn the façade. The beautiful interior of the church is in the neo-classical style and above the main altar resides the magnificent statue of Our Lady of the Lonely. Almost life-size, she is sumptuously adorned in a black velvet robe encrusted with thousands of pearls donated by grateful sailors. She is their special patron, after all! She is reputed to be the richest Madonna in Latin America. And this is in the literal sense: Her crown has two kilos of solid gold and six hundred diamonds! All donated by her devoted Oaxacans.

Many are the honours bestowed on Our Lady of the Lonely from the highest levels of the church:

  1. In 1909 she was solemnly crowned by the authorization of Pope Pius X.
  2. The sanctuary was elevated to the category of a Basilica by Pope St. John 23rd in 1959.
  3. Pope St. John Paul ll visited the shrine in 1979.

And one wonders: What was her history? Where did she come from?

She has a most fascinating background! And one of the most unusual in all of Marian scholarship:

The date was December 17, 1620. The muleteers were rejoicing because they had only one day left before they reached the city of Oaxaca. They had left Veracruz several weeks earlier enroute to their final destination, Guatemala. This last night they were camping in the country under the “open skies and the stars.” They woke up before dawn and loaded the mules in preparation for the last leg of their long journey. It was still dark as they continued on their way.

Suddenly, one of the muleteers shouted out in a panic, “Patron! Patron! One of these mules doesn’t belong to us! It is a strange mule!” The leader went to investigate and sure enough, it was not one of theirs! But whose was it? And where did it come from? No one in the area had ever seen it before. Not only that—its cargo was different too—the mule had a large box on its back. The patron ordered everyone to search the surrounding countryside to find the owner of the lost mule. Search as they might, they could not find its owner! Nor did anyone they encounter know anything about this particular mule. There seemed to be not a trace of him anywhere! By now the muleteers were worried about reaching their destination of Oaxaca in good time. They could look no longer. They would take up the matter with the mayor of Oaxaca once they reached there.

Famished and exhausted they finally arrived at Oaxaca at 9 am and rested in front of the chapel of San Sebastian. After a quick meal they planned to depart and resume their march forward.

But that mule, “the strange one,” threw himself in front of the chapel and would not budge. And that was that! They tried to rouse him, prod him, beat him, shove him and shake him. He still would not move.

And yet they couldn’t leave him there! What to do? They were completely frustrated with this stubborn creature! As if things were not bad enough, the mule then shook himself violently, “as if struck by lightning” and fell down dead!

Now, not only would they be accused of stealing the mule, they would be accused of killing him as well! By this point in time, quite a large crowd of curiosity-seekers had gathered round. “They’ll think you killed him!” they said. “You had too heavy a load on him! That’s why he died!” said another. The muleteers were frantic. They were terrified that they would not only be arrested but that they would be put in jail!

At 11 am the mayor and his four employees arrived. They were startled to find a dead mule! No one had yet dared to open up the box on the mule’s back. “Open the box!” declared the mayor in an authoritarian manner.

Inside the box they saw an image of Our Lord Jesus Christ and a sign. At the other end of the box, “as though sustained by a mysterious force” they found an image of Our Lady—a beautiful head and delicate hands, exquisitely sculptured as by a “master sculptor from Spain.” The words on the sign, in upper case letters, declared “HOLY MOTHER OF THE LONELY, AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS.”

 

The mayor was overcome by emotion and in a shaken voice said: “This is not within my competence, call the priest!” Several of the group immediately ran to get the bishop, Bishop Bartolome de Bohorquez e Hinajosa. When he saw the image of Our Lady he proclaimed, “Milagro! Milagro!” (Miracle! Miracle!). He placed the image of Our Lord in a nearby chapel. Once the statue of Our Lady was fully completed and garbed the bishop ordered that it be situated in a place of honour in the chapel of San Sebastian.

And that is the story of how Our Lady of the Lonely became the Patrona of the state of Oaxaca.

One of Our Lady’s titles is “Our Lady, Comforter of the Afflicted.” She is known for this. It is her specialty. St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) speaks prophetically about this very thing in his True Devotion to Mary. He says we are consoled by her in “the crosses, toils and disappointments of life—in the ever-perilous times which are to come.” 

And are we not living in such perilous times now?

 

OUR LADY OF IZAMAL

 

 

 

The Yucatan. To winter-wearied North Americans the name revives images of turquoise seas, powder-white beaches, and ancient Mayan ruins. The Yucatan Peninsula is alleged to have one of the richest stores of archaeological ruins in the world and is home to the Maya Indians, the largest indigenous group in North America. The peninsula is comprised of the three states of Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo.

If tourists can pry themselves away from the beaches, a prime location for the exploration of such ruins would be the town of Izamal, “a jewel of a colonial city” in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, 70 miles from Cancun and 45 miles from the state capital, Merida. As fascinating as the ruins, are, however, the “top attraction” of Izamal, according to travel guidebooks, is the “magnificent” Franciscan convent of St. Anthony of Padua which was initiated almost five centuries ago. It was one of the first monasteries in the western hemisphere and became the centre of evangelization for the entire peninsula.

The enormous complex, consisting of church, atrium, and convent, is one of the largest of its kind in America and its atrium (with its seventy-five distinctive arches), is reputed to be the second largest in the world, after St. Peter’s in Rome. The entire edifice is painted a vibrant shade of yellow. The entire town, in fact, is painted in this same colour which is why it is called “The Yellow City” in travel books. “Jewel” indeed! Instead of taxis, the main mode of travel in the town for both locals and tourists are the calesas, the horse-drawn buggies and one notes—the horses, also, are decked out in yellow! And the pleasant metronome-like sound, clippity-clop, clippety-clop, clippity-clop resounds through the tropical town. Cobblestone streets and colonial lampposts complete the idyllic setting.

The convent was built upon the platform of the immense temple, Pap-Hol-Chac, a ceremonial temple dedicated to the Maya pagan god of rain. The town of Izamal had been the headquarters for the worship of the supreme god, Itzamna, and the sun god, Kinich-Kakmo; it had been the centre for the Mayan priesthood as well.

Franciscan friar, Fray Diego de Landa, who founded the convent complex in 1549, was named its guardian in 1553. He became the second bishop of Yucatan in 1572. He chose the site, himself, “in order that a place that had been one of abomination and idolatry could become one of sanctity,” thus making holy a place where human sacrifice and idolatry had once been practiced. The pagan pyramid was demolished and its stones were used for the building of the new monastery, thus signifying the sublime triumph of Christianity over paganism. With his own hands he chopped down the trees and hauled stone for the buildings, working alongside the Maya at every turn.

At the heart of the monastery is the church dedicated to Our Lady of Izamal, the principal Marian shrine in the Yucatan. Because Izamal had been the headquarters for the Maya priesthood, the Franciscan friars dedicated the area to the Virgin Mary. According to the secular periodical, Yucatan Today, “Izamal’s people are very devoted to the Immaculate Virgin to this day.” As early as 1519, two years before the Spanish Conquest, Cortez landed on the island of Cozumel in Quintana Roo and erected an image of the “Most Pure Virgin” on the site. Fray Diego de Landa recorded that the first Spanish words the Maya of Cozumel learned were “Maria! Maria! Cortez, Cortez!” Even today you can see signs of this devotion: As soon as you get off the bus at Izamal, the first thing you see is a statue of Our Lady of Izamal—right in front of the bus station!

And one has to wonder: What is the origin of this revered statue? In 1588 Fray Landa travelled to Guatemala, the famed New World centre of religious art, to procure an image of the Blessed Virgin for the monastery at Izamal. He had heard legendary reports of an exquisite statue of Our Lady in the Franciscan church in Guatemala, which had been created by the renowned Franciscan sculptor, Fray Juan de Aguirre. He wanted one just like it for his monastery! To Fray Landa’s great delight, Fray Juan was still alive and flourishing, although advanced in years. The sculptor took on the charge with gusto and within a short time, the 46” tall statue, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, was completed.

The return journey from Guatemala began to manifest Our Lady’s special predeliction for her children of the Yucatan: as the caravan processed through the town of Vallodid a group of Spaniards—struck by the beauty of the statue—demanded that the statue be retained in their town. “It’s too lovely to be relegated to an Indian pueblo!” they decided. “Hand it over!” they bellowed. The Maya refused. At this juncture in the debate a group of the sturdiest of the Spanish men amassed together and said, “Move over! It’s ours now!” And then a miracle happened: The box containing the statue refused to budge! It became so impossibly heavy that twelve men could not lift it an inch off the ground. After much exertion and humiliation, the Spaniards realized that Our Lady’s intention was to remain with her beloved Maya people. Historians recounted another miracle on this journey: Although it rained frequently on the trip “the area about the bearers and their cargo always remained dry.” And in this way the group continued blissfully on its way to Izamal—

Perhaps the greatest miracles associated with Our Lady of Izamal occurred in the ensuing years, miracles which are most pertinent to us now as we face the Covid-19 plague. The Yucatan had its share of lethal plagues: In August 1648 a great epidemic, “a horrible peste” roared across the Yucatan peninsula. In this crisis the Maya turned to Our Lady of Izamal, consecrating the province to her as their special patroness “against epidemics, illnesses and public calamities.” That the plague abated quickly was attributed to the direct intercession of Our Lady.

Toward the end of the 17th century “another plague raged so fiercely that it was feared that the town of Campeche would have to be abandoned.” Those who were able, fled to Merida, which “within a month was one vast hospital of dead and dying.” In this “extremity” the Meridians begged the Franciscan Provincial to bring the statue of Our Lady of Izamal to the capital for a solemn novena of prayer. In a short time the plague disappeared from the city. A similar plague struck the city again in 1730 and once again Our Lady of Izamal came to their aid.

Many honours have been bestowed on Our Lady of Izamal: in 1949 she was not only crowned by the authorization of Pope Pius Xll but she was also declared the Reina, the Queen of the Yucatan. In 1970 she was named the Patrona of the Archdiocese. Her greatest honour came when St. Pope John Paul ll visited her shrine in 1993 and crowned her a second time. She may be the only statue in the western world to be crowned twice. By the authorization of two pontiffs!

As the Covid-19 plague envelops the world, let us turn to Our Lady of Izamal. She is experienced in these matters. And will know exactly what to do.

 

This article has been reprinted with permission from  ONE PETER FIVE.

OUR LADY OF SAN JUAN DE LOS LAGOS, San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco, Mexico

 

 

Who doesn’t love a circus? The acrobats. The clowns. The trapeze artists. And the inhabitants of San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco were no exception. They were abuzz with excitement. The circus was coming to town!

The year was 1623. A family of trapeze artists had just arrived enroute to Gaudalajara. The star of the entourage was a six-year-old girl. The audience marvelled at her performance on the high-wire. She seemed to glide through the air like a bird! Like a tiny ballerina with wings. The spectators were dazzled by it all and couldn’t stop applauding.

To increase the thrill factor, daggers, instead of a safety net, had been placed in the ground with their points positioned upward. All was going perfectly until the child attempted a risky maneuver. And then the unthinkable happened. The little girl lost her footing and plunged to the ground, impaled by a dagger which pierced her heart. The crowd gasped in horror. And sorrow swept through the audience like a tsunami. The little trapeze artist died instantly.

But then, a while later, something happened: A commotion was heard. What was going on? A woman was barreling her way through the crowd. “Wait! Don’t bury the child! I have the remedy,” said 78-year-old Ana Lucia in a firm voice. She was carrying a small, somewhat shabby statue of the Madonna in her arms. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ana Lucia!” bellowed a skeptic. “The child has been dead for hours!” Ignoring him, Ana Luisa placed the statue on the little corpse. Within minutes the faintest of stirrings rippled across the burial cloths. The crowd stared spellbound. Rapt. The girl’s hands began trembling. To the astonishment of all the young performer sat upright and opened her eyes. She was alive! The crowd went wild with cheering and yelling and rejoicing.

Word of the great miracle spread and pilgrims came running from everywhere to see the miraculous statue. And they have never stopped coming.

But to step back a bit: one must wonder why the statue of Our Lady had become so unsightly: The reason, first of all, is its antiquity. Franciscan Friar Venerable Miguel Bolonia had brought the exquisite statue to the town in 1542. He had ordered it from the Tarascan Indians of Patzcuaro, Michoacan, who were renowned throughout the country for the sculpting of religious images. They had developed a compound known as pasta de Michoacan, a mixture of cornstalk glue and orchid bulbs, which formed a lightweight and malleable substance, ideal for their purposes.

The diminutive statue (it is slightly over a foot in height) was housed in a humble adobe, grass-roofed, chapel. Pedro Antes and his wife, Ana Luisa, were the chapel’s caretakers. Ana was particularly devoted to the statue of Our Lady and called it Cihuapilli (“Lady”). Over time, however, the statue’s face became blackened and disfigured by insects and the elements. By 1623, the statue was no longer the exquisite image it had been—it had become tattered and dishevelled. But this was soon to change!

After the miracle of 1623 the acrobat’s father was so immensely grateful to the Virgin, that he asked permission to take the statue to Guadalajara to be restored. The pastor, Don Diego Camerena, gave his permission for the undertaking. When the father arrived in the city he was met by two handsome strangers who approached him: “Are you looking for an artist to repair a sacred image?” they asked. “If so, we are at your service.” In a short time the statue was “beautifully restored” and the artists vanished, without asking for any payment. No one has ever discovered the identity of the two “mystery” artists. Who were they? “Well, of course they were angels,” explained Ana Maria, who lived to be 110 years old.

Today, defying all scientific explanation, the statue is in pristine condition. Like the tilma of Juan Diego, the statue should have disintegrated into a powder-like substance in a few short years.  Instead, after four centuries, it is intact and robust.

An investigation by ecclesiastical authorities in 1634, 1639, and 1668, verified the authenticity of the 1623 miracle as well as a “multitude of miracles performed by Our Lady by means of her image of San Juan de los Lagos.”

These miracles are continuing to the present day. Beside the sanctuary is a sala (a room) which gives evidence of “an uninterrupted series of favours and miracles.” Its walls are covered with testimonials of thanksgiving from grateful recipients. We read about Adriana Bastida who is thanking our Lady on May 21, 2006; she fell and fractured her cranium and is “all cured” and about Margarita Perez from San Felipe who is thanking Our Lady in December 2005 for curing her sick husband.

Today the shrine is the second most visited church in Mexico, after Our Lady of Guadalupe. The original little adobe chapel is no more. In its place is a magnificent Baroque cathedral-basilica which is home to four large paintings by the 17th century Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens.

The basilica has received the approval of the church at its highest levels: In 1904 the statue was solemnly crowned with the authorization of Pope Pius X. In 1923 the church was raised to the level of a Collegiate church by a Papal Bull of Pope Pius XI and in 1947 Pope Pius XII elevated the sanctuary to the category of a minor basilica.

Probably the greatest honour of all accorded to the statue occurred on May 8, 1990: St. Pope John Paul ll visited the shrine on that day. He was so moved by the image that he spent three minutes before the statue in a spirit of “intense recollection.” As he was exiting from her presence, he turned back (as if he couldn’t tear himself away) and spent an additional “120 seconds” in prayer before the revered image.

No stranger to religious persecution under the Nazis and the Communists, St. Pope John Paul ll would have been acutely aware of the persecution in Mexico. San Juan de los Lagos, as did all of Mexico, suffered during the fierce, anti-Catholic revolution of the 1920’s. According to Graham Greene, in his book, The Lawless Roads, “It was a time when every priest was hunted down or shot.”

One of those who suffered grievously was the martyr, San Pedro Esqueda Ramirez (1887-1927), who was born in the town. As the pastor of the nearby St. John the Baptist church (just steps away from the Cathedral-Basilica) he had a fervent passion for Eucharistic Adoration, Our Lady (particularly in her title as Nuestra Senora de San Juan de los Lagos) and the catechesis of children. As a young priest, he had founded a school for the training of catechists.

He was taken prisoner by the revolutionary soldiers and beaten, scourged and bludgeoned. For four days. “Deny Christ! Deny your priesthood! Then we will let you go!” “Never! Never!” answered the saint. He was shot to death by a soldier on Nov. 22, 1927. He was canonized by St. Pope John Paul ll in 2000.

And in Mexico we saw the chronology:

First they came after the statues: “The statues were carried out of the church while the inhabitants watched, sheepishly, and saw their children encouraged to chop up the images in return for little presents of candy.” (The Lawless Roads)

Then they came after the churches: “They went to the cathedral—and sprayed it with gasoline and bombs were set—and the imposingly massive structure—was badly damaged.” (Mexican Martyrdom by Fr. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J.)

And then they came after the priests—

 

Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, St. Pedro Esquada,

Pray for our beloved priests.

 

 

 

 

OUR LADY OF OCOTLAN, Tlaxcala, Mexico

This strange, new vocabulary! Which dominates the evening news, night after night: “Variants, ‘compulsory jabs,’ Moderna, Pfizer, mRNA vaccinatios, Astra Zeneca, digital passports, ‘needles-in-arms’.” And as if that were not enough there is the ubiquitous Doctor Fauci.  At some point you must have to wonder if the fellow is bi-locating. He seems to be everywhere. At all times. In all places. Such is our world of 2021. Everyone seems to be worried to some extent or another about Covid-19. Where do we turn? And in whom do we trust? Do we put our faith in vaccines? In the WHO? Or, heaven forbid—in Dr. Fauci?

The Tlaxcalans of Mexico, almost five centuries ago, were worried too. And they had a lot more to be worried about than we do! A plague of smallpox swept over their countryside like a tidal wave, leaving hardly a family untouched. Ninety percent of their population died from the disease.

The Tlaxcalans, of all people! Because of their loyalty they held a special place of privilege in the newly conquered Mexican nation: They were the first friends of the Spanish, they were the first Christians in the new land and they were home to the first archbishopric in the country; it was established in 1525.

So outnumbered were the Spanish by the mighty Aztecs, that historians believe that the Spanish conquest of 1521, “an utterly unbelievable victory,” would have been impossible without the alliance with their new friends, the Tlaxcalans. The Aztecs had never been able to subdue this tiny, but fierce, warrior state.

The first convent in the country was built in Tlaxcala in 1526. This Franciscan convent plays a role in the story of Our Lady of Ocotlan. It was headed by the legendary Fray Torobio Motolinia (“the poor one”). He was one of the 12 Franciscan friars who landed in the country in 1524 to begin the evangelization of Mexico. They were known as “the twelve apostles,” friars of exemplary character and holiness. Fray Motolinia would go on to become “the greatest evangelizer in Mexican history.”

After the Guadalupe apparition of 1531 many Indians had become fervent Christians. One of these was Juan Diego Bernardino (no relation to the Guadalupe visionary) who worked for the friars at the monastery. Because of his innate holiness and his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin, he also served as sacristan at the convent.

One radiant, sunny day, on February 27, 1541, Juan was out fetching water for his sick relatives, many of whom were close to death. As he entered the forest, he was startled to see a beautiful lady standing in front of him. She greeted him with a joyful smile and said, “God be with you, my son. Where are you going?” He replied, “I’m fetching water to bring to the sick people of my village who are dying with no hope of a cure.” The lady then said to him:

“Come with me! I will give you a different water that will cure the sickness of your people. Not only your relatives and friends will be healed, but also all those who drink it.”

Juan followed the lady to the peak of a hill where a fountain of water was gushing forth. He was shocked because he had never seen such a fountain before and he had walked along this path many times. She continued:

My heart always desire to help those who are suffering. My heart cannot bear to see so much pain and anguish among people without healing them. Drink as much water as you desire. Upon drinking just one drop, the sick will not only be cured, but they will receive perfect health!”

Juan realized—incredibly— that he was speaking with Our Lady, the Mother of God! He quickly filled his jug with the miraculous water and raced to his village with the amazing news. He soon became aware of a new sensation: it seemed that a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. And that he ran with a light step and an even lighter heart! Even the heavy jug of water seemed weightless. Juan was ecstatic: All who drank of the water were healed!

Our Lady had also given Juan a message to deliver to the Franciscan friars at the monastery:

“Tell the monks that in this place, they shall find an image of me, which not only will represent my perfection, but also through it, I will bring forth my mercy and blessings. I want the image to be placed in the chapel of St. Lawrence.”

The Franciscans decided to investigate the astonishing events for themselves. They accompanied Juan to the forest to locate the miraculous fountain. What a sight they encountered: the forest was on fire! They also noticed a strange phenomenon: only one tree, the tallest tree—defying all scientific explanation— was aflame! Because it was so late at night they decided to return the next morning to resume their investigation

The friars, accompanied by half the town, returned in the morning when the fire had dissipated. But how would they ever find Our Lady’s image in such a vast forest? Impossible task! But by a mysterious series of signs they were directed to one particular tree, the tallest tree which had been ablaze. The friars took an axe to the tree to split it open.

An early chronicler documents what happened next:

“A new marvel met their eyes: within the trunk of the fallen tree was visible the image of the Holy Mother of God.”

All fell to their knees in wonder and awe. The magnificent 5’ (1.5 m.) statue was carried in solemn procession to the church where it resides today above the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Ocotlan in the city of Tlaxcala. It is considered by many church historians to be one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Architects cite it as a “masterpiece of the late Mexican-Baroque style known as Churrigueresque.” The name of Our Lady of Ocotlan comes from ocote del ande—the oak tree that burned.

Five popes have granted approval of this apparition: Clemente XII (1735), Benedicto XIV (1746), Pius VI (1799), Pius X (1906), and Pius XII (1941). The statue of Our Lady of Ocotlan was pontifically crowned in 1906.

Although Our Lady of Ocotlan is such an important Marian apparition and is well-known and revered in Mexico, it is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. It seems to be completely eclipsed by the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe! Yet the parallels between the two are striking:

– It occurred 10 years after Guadalupe. 10-year anniversaries are always significant! Guadalupe occurred in 1531. The Ocotlan apparition                            occurred in 1541.

-Both visionaries were named Juan Diego. The last name of the uncle of the Gaudalupe visionary was Bernardino. The second Juan Diego’s                      last name was Bernardino as well.

-Both were converted Indians who were devoted to Our Lord, Our Lady and their Catholic faith.

-In both apparitions Our Lady gave motherly messages of concern: “AM I NOT HERE WHO AM YOUR MOTHER? WHAT DO YOU NEED?” she said at Guadalupe.

-At Ocotlan, Our Lady fulfilled and extended the promises she made at Guadalupe: “MY HEART CANNOT BEAR TO SEE SO MUCH PAIN AND ANGUISH AMONG PEOPLE WITHOUT HEALING THEM,” she said at Tlaxcala. And heal them she did!

-Both apparitions exhibited wondrous and miraculous images of Our Lady—not made by human At Guadalupe, the image was a painting, at Tlaxcala, the image was a statue!

The sisters at the Basilica assured me that healings and all kinds of blessings are ongoing at the shrine. They have witnessed countless numbers of them. Now that the plague is wreaking havoc in the world perhaps it is high time that Our Lady of Ocotlan be made known to the world outside of Mexico!

 

 

THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM ONE PETER FIVE

 

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