The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Call to Environmental Justice: Part I

Amazon GuadalupeIn honor of the Memorial of Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, and in preparation for the Memorial of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, FAN shares the first of a two-part reflection from Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM of Holy Name Province.

I still have vivid memories of participating in the traditional, communal fishing done with bows and arrows by members of the Ashaninka tribe in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. There was a small river that flowed through a lush, sweet-smelling tropical forest. The sounds of the river and countless birds and forest creatures chimed in with the joyful cries of women and children. At the end of the day, I walked back to the village with an Ashaninka man who had caught three large fish – enough for his wife and three children. However, by the time we reached his thatched-roof dwelling, he had given away all he had to other families. Startled by such a display of generosity, I turned for an explanation to one of my Franciscan brothers who had lived among the Ashaninkas for decades. He said that for them, what came from the forest was a gift to be shared, not hoarded. He also added, “Their lives are so beautifully in tune with the biblical worldview and the Gospel values. We, who call ourselves ‘civilized,’ have so much to learn from the native people of the Amazon.”

Franciscans have lived in the Amazon region since the 16th century. Two years ago, recognizing the gravity and urgency of the environmental crisis, the General Chapter of the Franciscan Order approved the Amazon Project. The Amazon Project represents a strong commitment to environmental justice and solidarity with indigenous people who are defending their human rights and the rainforest.

JPIC Quito GatheringRecently, in Quito, Ecuador, I joined over 70 Franciscans gathered from across Latin America, the U.S. and Canada for the 3rd Inter-Continental JPIC Congress. We were challenged to follow in the footsteps of the Patron Saint of Ecology, our Father Francis, with passion, creativity and audacity. We listened to a scientific presentation that underscored the critical role that the Amazon plays in maintaining the life support system of our planet. In addition to being the lungs of our planet, the Amazon region holds one of the largest quantities of fresh water and contains over 35 percent of the of world’s species of fauna and flora. The Amazon is also a home to many indigenous communities, which are marginalized and rapidly diminishing in numbers.

Map of the AmazonThe rapid deforestation of vast areas of Amazon is already altering the climate in that region. Just in the course of the past five years, the Amazon suffered two “once in a century” droughts. If the current rate of intensive logging continues, over the next few decades, the Amazon will be turned into a savanna. This will have devastating consequences for millions of people and the ecosystems across our planet.

Is there hope? Can we safeguard our civilization and the diversity of life on our planet in the face of such daunting challenges? Are there spiritual resources we can draw upon that could help us to stir up the members of the Body of Christ from a slumber to being prophets of the “new heaven and new earth where God’s justice will abide” (2 Pt 3:13)?

In the course of many centuries, a devotion to Mary has profoundly shaped the religious imagination of hundreds of millions of Catholics across the globe. This has been particularly true on the American continent, where in 1531, the Mother of God, Our Lady of Guadalupe, appeared to a poor indigenous man. The Guadalupe event had a decisive effect on evangelization of the Americas. Within just 15 years, about nine million native people flocked to Church seeking baptism, a conversion that was not brought about from the top down through an alliance with political power, but rather from the bottom up, through the agency of marginalized, indigenous people like Juan Diego. John Paul II proclaimed the Holy Mary of Guadalupe “the Star of the first and new evangelization.”

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her message continue to reveal new meanings for Catholics in the 21st century. She challenges the Church to strengthen Her efforts in defending poor and vulnerable members of the community of life, both human and non-human. Many of the features in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe have cosmic overtones. The young, dark-faced young woman wears a dark belt above her waist, a sign that she is pregnant. There is something unique about the baby in her womb. The four-petaled jasmine flower placed on the red tunic, right over the womb, indicates the divine identify of the child. In the Nahuatl language and culture, flowers are more than flowers: they are symbols, words, and concepts. The four-petaled jasmine flower symbolizes the four directions – north, south, east, and west – that span the entire universe. The small circle in the center of the jasmine flower signifies for the Toltec Indians the only living and true God.

When we look at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we see that she wears a turquoise mantle covered with stars symbolizing the heavens. In the Aztec culture, the sun and the moon were associated with gods and were objects of awe and fear. To appease them, the Aztecs used to offer human sacrifices, believing that they could thus ensure cosmic harmony and preservation of life on earth. The Virgin eclipses the sun and stands on the moon, assuaging fears of cosmic collapse. Beneath her feet is an angel whose wings are those of an eagle. In the view of the indigenous people, an eagle was considered to be a herald of the Aztec civilization. Here, the eagle-angel is a messenger of a new civilization as he holds up the woman who is about to bring the divine child to the world, joining together heaven and earth.

In the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we recognize Mary as the woman described in the Book of Revelation, the woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” (Rev 12:1). In a homily at World Youth Day in Czestochowa (Aug. 15, 1991), John Paul II referred to this biblical image in these words:

“This is the sign of fulfillment in the dimensions of the entire cosmos. In this sign, creation in all its many riches returns to God who is the Creator, that is, the absolute Beginning of everything that exists. … Opposite the woman clothed with the sun, which symbolizes the cosmos transformed into the Kingdom of the living God, appears another sign … a dragon who wants to devour the Virgin’s child.”

In other words, in addition to being the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples, Mary also represents the Church and the destiny of all creation. Our popular secular and religious imagination has been heavily influenced by the notion of separation between matter and spirit, creation and salvation. All too often, Christians tend to regard God’s creation merely as a stage for the spiritual dramas of our souls. We generally do not understand salvation as a continuation, transformation, and fulfillment of God’s creation. Theologian John Haught observes, “The Evangelist Luke pictures Mary as the very model of genuine eschatological faith because she ‘believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’” As Mary knew that “God’s promise covers the whole temporal and spatial sweep of creation,” so we “ought to learn to treasure the totality of nature not simply for its sacramental transparency to God, but also because it carries in its present perishable glory the seeds of a final flowering.” (“Ecology and Eschatology” in ‘And God Saw That It Was Good’ from USCCB Publishing)

The pregnant woman in Rev 12:1-6, faced with a dragon ready to devour her child, dared to issue forth her tiny act of love. We 21st-century Americans battle other dragons: frenzied consumerism and powerful corporate interests that devour the lives of the poor and wreak havoc upon future generations and ecosystems. In the midst of this struggle, we are challenged to act with courage and hope, as Mary did, and give birth to tiny acts of love and resistance. Do we dare to believe with Mary that the words spoken by God will be fulfilled? Do we dare to believe that God indeed has loved the world, and do we desire that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Do we dare to believe that not only our human souls, but all creation is called to “share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21) beyond the highest limits of human dreams?

Virgin de GuadalupeO God, Father of mercies,
who placed your people under the singular protection
of your Son’s most holy Mother,
grant that all who invoke the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe,
may seek with ever more lively faith
the progress of peoples in the ways of justice and of peace.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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