Much as the Renaissance, humanism and the Protestant Reformation were in part propelled by an urban revolution following the resurgence of trade in Europe, reopened land and sea routes to the East—giving Europeans access to Oriental luxuries such as gems, spices, perfume and silk—spread Christianity to a new continent across the Atlantic named after Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, America.
The story of Catholic evangelization of America in the 16th century is really that of a religious undertaking that ran parallel to, and at loggerheads with, the military and political Spanish conquest of lands from part of what is today the United States to the tip of Argentina and Chile. In little more than a generation, thanks to courageous and remarkably visionary Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit and Mercedarian missionaries, the effort nearly doubled the number of Christians worldwide at the time.
To get the context we must begin the story before the voyage of Christopher Columbus, as the two major naval powers of Europe—Portugal and Spain—were vying for control of the Atlantic, with the pope on the sidelines attempting to play United Nations. Spain was still seeking to unify under a single monarch and recover territory from the Moors—which finally occurred with the marriage in 1469 of the Catholic monarchs Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II and the fall of the last Moorish citadel, Granada, in 1492.
Spain stumbled onto an entirely new continent, and Columbus returned to the Spanish court with strange plants, animals, gold jewelry, the spice still called ají (chili pepper) and even seminaked natives. In response, the pope sent an enthusiastic message in the bull Inter caetera: “Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
Isabella and Ferdinand, both devout Christians, secured for Spain vicarial power to appoint missionaries traveling to the new territories with the responsibility of evangelization. The earliest of these were 12 missionaries who went with Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, under the orders of Friar Bernardo Buil, believed to have been a Benedictine. On January 6, 1494, Buil celebrated the first Mass in the New World, in a temporary church in what is today Haiti.
Buil was also the first of many missionaries to quarrel with Columbus over the treatment of the natives. In response, Columbus ordered that the food ration of the clerics be cut. Seeing that the situation for evangelization and catechizing was impossible, Buil left for Spain with eight others in late 1494, leaving behind the Franciscans Juan de la Deule and Juan Tizín and the hermit Jerónimo Ramón Pané, regarded as the first teacher, catechist and anthropologist of the New World.
The first missionary episode lays bare what would be the constant struggle between the Church and crown (actually, missionaries and conquistadores, the Spanish word for conquerors). Over time, however, the new societies gave rise to a distinct expression of the faith that could be called Hispanic-American Catholicism. It involved a mestizaje, or ethnic intermingling, of Spaniards and American natives that spawned a new people with its own perspective and later included Africans brought in as slaves.
Nonetheless, some did question whether the Americans were human—a very European attitude in the face of very different clothing and manners, although admittedly consonant with the idea of exploiting them. One argument against the Americans’ humanity hinged on the then-novel idea of the Earth as a globe: Americans walked upside down on the other side of the globe, some reasoned, which may have caused their souls to fall out.
The matter was resolved with finality in the papal bull of 1537 Sublimis deus. Pope Paul III declared that the natives were to be regarded as fully human and that their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans. It outlawed their enslavement in any form. The document prevented wholesale and massive slavery for all American natives, but it did not abolish the neofeudal economic system the Spaniards brought with them, nor prevent a social caste system based partly on ancestral origin.
The latecoming British regarded all intercourse—marital or not—with people of other ethnicities, particularly non-Europeans whom they deemed impure, as “miscegenation.” The Spanish had few ethnic biases of that sort. This was in large part due to the centuries of comingling in the Spanish peninsula of Arabs, Celts, Mediterranean Jews and Visigoths.
Fanatically Christian though Spaniards might be—their classic battle cry was “For Spain and St. James”— they had no qualms about intermarriage and sexual union with indigenous women, which was common in Spanish America. Spanish expeditions did not initially transplant Spanish society, but consisted of the men needed for military conquest, navigation and—due to royal interest in the faith—evangelization. Spanish women were scarce in America, especially in the earlier period.
The people that emerged from crossbreeding during colonial times, especially after a relatively small contingent of African slaves was introduced, led to the development of a new lexicon, whose beginning was in three Spanish words: mestizo (half-American, half Spanish), mulato (half-African, half-Spanish) and zambo (half-African, half-American). Colonial-era parish records are replete with a variety of subcategories that developed with time, after ethnicity became associated with socioeconomic caste and identity, in the 18th century. The development is also memorialized in Miguel Cabrera’s “Paintings of Castes” from the 1760s Mexico.
The faith response to the new society, as instilled by missionaries, is most notably evident in a new piety around miraculous apparitions and events. The first of these occurred on the morning of December 9, 1531.
According to the best accounts, that morning a native peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision of a maiden at the Hill of Tepeyac, outside Mexico City. Speaking in Nahuatl (the Aztec Empire’s language), the maiden identified herself as the Virgin Mary and said she was the “mother of the very true deity.” She asked for a church to be built at that site in her honor. Acting on the command, Juan Diego went to the archbishop of Mexico City to tell him what had happened; the archbishop did not accept the idea as possible: imagine, the Virgin Mary appearing to an Aztec young man!
|Our Lady of Guadalupe|
However, on Monday, December 11, Juan Diego’s uncle Juan Bernardino fell sick and the young man felt obliged to attend to him. In the very early hours of Tuesday, December 12, with the uncle’s condition much worse, Juan Diego set out for Tlatelolco to get a priest to hear Juan Bernardino's deathbed confession.
To avoid being delayed by the Virgin and ashamed of having missed the Monday meeting, Juan Diego chose a route around the hill, but the Virgin intercepted him and asked where he was going. When Juan Diego explained the situation, Mary gently chided him for not asking for her help, “Am I not, standing here, your mother?” She assured him that Juan Bernardino had now recovered and told him to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in December.
Juan followed her instructions, and he found Castilian roses, not flowers native to Mexico, blooming there. Mary arranged the flowers in Juan’s cloak. When he opened his cloak before the archbishop on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was an image of the Virgin.
The next day, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered, and Juan Bernardino recounted that he too had seen her, at his bedside, and that she had instructed him to tell the bishop of the apparition and of his miraculous cure and that she wanted to be known as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The choice of name has been puzzling. Guadalupe is originally the name of a river in the province of Extremadura, Spain, that was under Moorish control for centuries, thus is possibly an Arabic word, Wadi-al-luben (“hidden river”) or an Arabic/Latin compound Wadi Lupe, a compound of Andalusian Arabic for “river” and the Latin for “wolf.” Indeed, a 14th century Marian apparition associated with the town of Guadalupe, which lies on the banks of the river of the same name, had prompted the erection of a statue originally known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, today Our Lady of Extremadura.
Complicating matters, some linguists have pointed to the Nahuatl phrases Coatlaxopeuh (“the woman who defeated the snake,” sometimes interpreted as a reference to the serpent-Devil in Genesis), Tequatlanopeuh (“she who originated in the rocky summit”) and Tequantlaxopeuh (“she who banishes those who devoured us”) as possible origins of the Spanish-sounding Guadalupe.
Returning to our story, the bishop kept the mantle, first in his private chapel, then in the church on public display. Finally after a December 26 procession, it was placed in a small chapel at Tepeyac. On the way there, an Indian was accidentally mortally wounded in the neck by an arrow shot during a stylized martial display in honor of the Virgin. His companions carried him before the Virgin’s image and pleaded for his life; while the arrow was being withdrawn, the victim sat up fully recovered. This was yet another miracle attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the first being the Spanish roses at Tepeyac in December.
Guadalupe was the first of many apparitions, including the Virgin of Copper in Cuba, the Virgin of Lujan in Argentina, Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, all expressing divine favor toward the lowliest of Iberoamerican society. Later they infused the new lands with an almost messianic sense of mission and identity, which was to be invoked in rebellion against Spain.
Juan Diego was canonized in 2002 as Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin.