Mexico City — Children giggle with hysterical joy as drops of holy water hit them. A handicapped man in pain groans, reaching for the hope that is so palpable here. A pregnant woman internalizes a little of the peace, even in the midst of all the noise.
All along I can’t help remembering a recent pastoral caution: “Like it or not, we must be good to the poor, because if we’re not, we’re going to hell.”
The words are those of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, and it was repeated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in an e-book reflection, Praying in Rome, on the time he spent in Rome this year, between Pope Benedict’s becoming “emeritus” and the election of Pope Francis. Both bishops have been here in Mexico City, for a discussion that began last year in Rome, convened by the Pontifical Commission on Latin America and the Knights of Columbus. The discussion is of the Church in the Americas, and it was initially guided by a document John Paul II issued during his pontificate. Today there is a whole new sense of responsibility, of urgency, since the new pope is from the Americas, and we — all of us, North and South Americans alike — had better get with joining him in his evangelical zeal. He is living the Gospel, teaching it, opening doors. What are we doing?
The gathering joins in a spirit of thanksgiving, even though by no means all of us are from the United States. Gratitude, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet insists at one point, is commitment.
There is hope here at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And the urgency comes not just from the wailing and celebrating. I’m present as Cardinal Ouellet baptizes the newborn son of friends. As the child is being Christened on the second floor of the Basilica, we hear cries of “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” from below, as cheers ring out and a brass band enters the church. It all seems coincidental, but we trust it’s actually providential. Our priest holds up the baby, reminding us all of our baptismal promise and duty; he turns around and holds up the baby to the image of the Blessed Mother that appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak), the miracle that brings us all here for meditation. If we believe this, we must live this hope beyond our pilgrimage to this shrine.
There’s a healing that happens here, as, for our conference, North and South America meet. Spanish, English, and French are spoken. We cannot stay in our comfort zones, something I’m reminded of both as homeless men and women approach me — one, outside a Franciscan church, with anger, angrily brushing the sleeve of a religious sister I’m traveling with — and as I try to get around while linguistically impaired (Lopez’s high-school Spanish needs some work). There’s a renewed sense of mission understood here, which was underscored by Pope Francis’s video address to us as the conference opened.
Pope John Paul II had visited our meeting place, a shrine dedicated to Mary, on July 31, 2002, when he canonized Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. “In Mexico that day, as he knelt and prayed awhile before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe after the ceremony,” Carl Anderson and Monsignor Eduardo Chavez recall in Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, “it was clear that he did not want to leave; when he rose to leave, he entrusted all people to the intercession of the newest saint in the Church. He had not only canonized a man of the past, but also given our continent a saint for the future.”
Perhaps it has taken an Argentinean pope to wake us up to what John Paul II was onto. Even as JPII helped change the face of Europe, Anderson and Chavez write, “he recognized the Americas as a hemisphere with a unique, rich Catholic history, and thus as a hemisphere with a unique, rich place in the future of the Church.”
“Our Lady of Guadalupe’s only words of spiritual guidance are her gentle but persistent reminders to Juan Diego about love: a love that can be trusted, a love that gives dignity, a love that is personal. If we are to see in her words an answer to a spiritual problem, the spiritual problem it answers is a lack of love and a lack of understanding about love as relationship rather than as practice. The Guadalupan message is, in its originality, a spiritual education, an education in love.”
So many of our political divisions exacerbate pain and lead to failed policies and practices. Here in Guadalupe, we are on equal ground — the cardinal and the poverty-stricken Mexican woman with her children. We are all children of a merciful Father. Here, the mother of God, who will soon adorn our Christmas celebrations, seems to embrace us with a soft, magnetic whisper of “Mercy.” It’s exactly the message and the approach that has intrigued if not mesmerized even hardened hearts since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope this March. It’s exactly the message that can get us somewhere.
The legacy of President Kennedy, our first Catholic president, is a complex one. The cult of Kennedy overlooks a lot. But at a time when we are losing a common understanding of so very many fundamentals, including religious liberty, ours is a moment of tremendous opportunity, to reflect on just what it was about Kennedy that inspired people — a sense of hope and renewal about the future. Human dignity is not just a matter to consider when disasters hit Holocaust levels. The man standing next to us as we try to cross the street is loved by God. Do we realize that? Do we do anything about it?
That sense that our lives have divine purpose and that the law ensures we are free to pursue it is a great gift of living here in the United States. What are we doing to preserve it, to advance it, to see men flourish? Thanksgiving isn’t simply for counting our blessings but also for recommitting ourselves to lives of gratitude, lives that facilitate opportunity and even joy. The alternative is damned unworthy of the gifts of life and freedom we’ve simply got to be stewards of and evangelists for.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.