Sunday, 12 December 2010

Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Triumph of Life

We interrupt our regular broadcast schedule to bring you some seminal thoughts in honour of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Edit:Added the image of Our Lady, and a comment regarding the title she revealed herself under.

In the December of 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a native convert to Catholicism, named St. Juan Diego, in what is now Mexico City. On the ninth of December, she told him to tell the Bishop that she wanted a church built on the hill where they were (called Tepeyac). The Bishop didn't believe Juan, and dismissed him. On the way home, Our Lady met Juan again, and he related to her what had happened, asking her to send someone else, who was more learned and sophisticated. She replied that while she had many she could ask to do her will, "It is necessary for every reason that you yourself solicit and help." So the next day, St. Juan Diego went to the Bishop again, who again refused to believe him, but, impressed by his forthrightness and simplicity, asked Juan to ask Our Lady for a sign of confirmation. So Juan left the Bishop and again encountered Our Lady on top of Tepeyac hill. He asked for the sign, and she promised him that if he returned the next day, on the 11th, she would provide one for him.

When Juan returned home, however, he found his uncle, Juan Bernardino, deathly ill. He stayed with his uncle the whole next day, but on the twelfth, his uncle sent him to fetch a priest to administer the Last Rites. While Juan was on the way, he remembered Our Lady, and went around Tepeyac seeking to avoid her, not because he didn't wish to complete her task, but because he wanted to take care of his uncle first. The Virgin Mary, however, came down the hill and met him on the way, asking why he had failed to come to her. Having explained about his dying uncle, she assured him that his uncle was already cured of the terminal illness, and sent him to the top of the hill to collect the promised sign. Later, St. Juan Diego would find out that Our Lady appeared to his uncle at that very moment and healed him. She also revealed to Juan Bernardino her title, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Why Guadalupe? Actually, it's a phonetic equivalent in Spanish of the Nahuatl word, Coatlaxopeuh, which means, "I smashed the serpent with the foot," recalling God's promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15.

Mary instructed Juan to go and pick the flowers he would find growing at the top of the hill--and there, in a barren, rocky place, in the dead of winter, he found beautiful Castillian roses growing, roses not native to Mexico, but very familiar to the Spanish bishop. After he had gathered them up, she herself arranged them in his tilma, a mantle made of cactus fibre, and told him not to open the tilma to anyone but the bishop. When he arrived at the bishops house, the servants, tiring of his frequent visits, refused to let him in until he showed them what was in his tilma, but because of Our Lady's instruction, he refused. Finally, the bishop was summoned, and St. Juan opened his tilma, letting the roses fall to the ground. But the miracle didn't end with the roses, for on the tilma was the image of Our Lady as she had appeared to St. Juan Diego. The bishop fell to his knees weeping in remorse for not having believed Juan immediately, and took the tilma to his own private chapel. He commissioned the chapel to be built on Tepeyac, and when it was complete, placed the tilma with the image above the altar. Within ten years of the chapel's construction, nine million natives had converted to Christianity!

This conversion brought about major changes to Mexico. At that time, the natives viewed the Spanish with great distrust, and the Spanish, for their part, had refused to acknowledge that the natives even had real human souls. With the appearance of Our Lady to Juan Diego, hostilities ceased, and peace reigned between the Spanish and the natives, forming a new race of "Mestizo", who still to this day consider Our Lady their Mother. Further, with the natives' conversion to Christianity, their fear-filled religion of human sacrifice was done away with. A culture of death, sacrificing tens of thousands of people to their gods in order that they would be blessed with prosperity, suddenly found themselves in the care of a loving God who Himself provided the only Sacrifice they would need, in His Son.

Now, nearly 500 years later, the cactus-fibre tilma still exists, and the image still is on it. It has survived the elements, accidents, and outright attempts to destroy it (such as a bomb blast by anti-clerical forces in 1921 which decimated the entire church, but the tilma remained intact). Miracles continue to be wrought at the most visited Marian shrine in the world, as healing was worked in the case of Juan Bernardino, and Our Lady continues to reveal that her Son truly is Emmanuel--God-with-us.

The image of Our Lady has been studied repeatedly, and found to have no human explanation. Moreover, there are elements that would have been unthinkable to portray by a human artist--such as the reflection of the bishop and servants in the eyes of Our Lady, as revealed by ophthamological studies. But the image itself is a message, having not simply the image of Our Lady radiating the light of God as Revelation 12 describes, but her garment is covered with Aztec heiroglyphs, among which is the symbol for the infinite, transcendent, all-powerful God, right over her pregnant belly. In other words, the image told the native Mexicans, as it tells us, that Jesus is the Infinite, Transcendant God, but that He loves us and makes Himself intimately Present to us.

Throughout the world, thousands upon thousands of people are brutally and savagely murdered in what should be the safest place in the world for them--all in the name of convenience and prosperity. Similar to that perpetrated by the Spaniards upon the native Mexicans, this mass murder is perpetuated with the excuse that these people aren't really people anyway--that they thus don't have the right to live.

They are the unborn. They are the human sacrificial victims of our culture of death's worship of the gods of lust, convenience, libertarianism, and prosperity. They are the victims of the lying gods whose names are "Freedom" and "Choice"--otherwise known as Moloch and Tláloc.

The children are not the only victims. No one is untouched by this travesty. The mothers, especially, are wounded incredibly. Often the "choice" they make is not a choice at all, but they are pressured by all sorts of sources, be it their husband or boyfriend, their parents, even their workplace. Abortion has been shown to lead to severe depression, reckless behaviour, accidental and violent deaths, and even suicide. The lying gods do not bring "freedom" through "choice", but only repay death for death.

Just as Our Lady crushed the serpent's head, and brought an end to human sacrifice in Mexico, she desires the end of the culture of death rampant in the world today. She calls us continually to turn to her Son in prayer and penance, and to speak out against the culture of death, with the Gospel of Life. Especially during this season of Advent, as we await the Birth of Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe shows herself as a pregnant Mother, who herself was an unwed pregnant girl in a society where such a scandal could have cost her her reputation, her freedom, even her own life. Yet she gave her Fiat to God, "Let it be unto me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

We too must respond in faith, hope, and especially love. We are not called simply to defend the unborn, but to aid frightened, hopeless mothers and their families in their distress. The Culture of Life reaches out to everyone at every stage of life, bringing God's promise of hope and help to their lives. We must each do our part to reach out in love to those trapped by the culture of death. Our Lady's words to St. Juan Diego apply to us today, as well: "It is necessary for every reason that you yourself solicit and help."

God bless,
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

(For a more detailed account of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the miraculous image, click here.)

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

What I Saw in Haiti: Chapter 3

True Religion...
In the last two chapters, I told you about various aspects of our preparations to travel to Haiti. The only other preparation was exercise, to be able to endure the two-and-a-half hour climb up into the mountains. But since describing taking the ten flights of stairs up to my apartment is rather boring, and can be achieved in this sentence, I'll bypass it and get right into the departure. Although, I suppose Nassrin would accuse me of omitting pertinent, if unflattering, details, if I failed to mention the one time we went hiking and running up a hill in preparation. After tackling the hill for the first time, my rather unfit self began feeling rather nauseous, and later threw up the blue lemonade I'd drank earlier, much to both the concern and the disgust of Nassrin. She feared that I would be completely unfit for the trip for weeks to come, but thankfully, I almost proved her wrong--but that's getting ahead of myself...
When the Earthquake struck Haiti, as with when other disasters befall, such as the flooding in Pakistan this past year, or the Tsunami in 2005, or Hurricane Katrina, or even the events of 9/11, these elicit in us certain responses, and make us ask certain big questions. In the wake of the quake, people tried to find an answer to "why?" On the one hand, many took it as a sign that there was no God, for how could He allow such devastation? Others reacted to this by trying to put a reason in God's mouth. One televangelist proclaimed on his "Christian" television show that the Haitians somehow deserved this tragedy--that is was God's judgement upon them for allegedly making a "deal with the Devil" for their independence so many years ago, despite the utter lack of historical veracity for that claim. And so the discussion went on.

Early on the morning of August 5th, we were set to leave for Toronto Airport. We'd planned to meet at the church and carpool down, and since Melissa didn't feel comfortable with me leaving the car in the church parking-lot for nearly two weeks, we decided that we'd take a cab up to the church, where she would see me off. It was this early morning cab ride where I would once again face the question of "why?" and hear some pundit's theories of an answer. This particular pundit happened to be driving the cab, so I decided not to engage in too strenuous of a debate with him. His Islamic faith led him to conclude that the apparently religious citizens of Haiti must not be very religious, after all, since if they were really following God, He'd never have allowed this tragedy. Because it's plainly obvious throughout all the world that those who really serve God get off scott-free in all of life's difficulties. Uh-huh...right. As I said, I didn't really get into it too much with the cabbie, since I didn't really fancy walking to the church, but I gently tried to give him an alternative perspective.

Having said our good-byes to everyone at the church, Fr. Bill blessed us, and we set out on our way. We managed to get through the Toronto airport without too much hassle, and were off to Montreal. Upon arriving at Montreal, five weary pilgrims found our departure gate for Haiti, and flopped down on the chairs to anticipate what we'd encounter in just a few more hours. Fr. Bill and I decided to practice our French skills by scouring the local paper, where I discovered yet another response to tragedy--that of the problem-solver, the man who claims to have all the ideas of how to fix everything. The present instance was the article about recording artist Wyclef Jean's bid to run for the Haitian presidency. According to the article, his "homecoming" was hailed as having almost Messianic undertones (or even overtones) as he billed himself, and many people were ready to receive him as, the needed change to their country's corrupt political system. This reaction (the term Messie, that is, "Messiah", was actually used repeatedly in the article) caused another reaction in me, namely, cynicism and worry. Any mere man who bills himself, or gets billed as, the Messiah is doomed to fail. I'm sure M. Jean doesn't see it this way, but he's perhaps lucky that the policy protectors down there rejected his bid to run. Even if it was decided corruptly, that decision will have likely spared him a potential crucifixion once popular opinion turned against him.

On the flight down to Haiti, I was able to bond more deeply with my priest, Fr. Bill Trusz, as we sat together on the four-hour flight. It turned out, we had both brought the same spiritual reading with us for the trip: the Confraternity of the Precious Blood's edition of Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ. Upon our return, he had me as a guest on his weekly radio show to discuss the book. Good times.

The airport in Port-au-Prince had suffered some major damage, and so we were directed to a rather large warehouse that was acting as the luggage retrieval area. We had our first taste of good ol' Haitian chaos at this moment, as everyone scrambled for their luggage in a frenetic free-for-all. We five Canucks felt seriously overwhelmed by the lack of order as airport attendants and travellers willy-nilly grabbed anyone's bag and threw it on the floor to keep the conveyor belt from jamming. Thankfully, Père Ronal, the priest from Beau-Sejour, whom we were visiting, came at that moment and rescued us from the madness. At least, he gave us a bit of stability in the madness, because unfortunately, our luggage happened to be the very last that was unloaded off the plane, making us fear for over half an hour that someone had made off with it. This, we decided, would not have been a terribly bad thing--we'd packed precious little personal items, only the bare essientials--except that the vast majority of our 10 bags were gifts for the people of Beau-Sejour, ranging from clothes and shoes to schoolbags and toys! It was the gifts we were most worried about. Thankfully, though, just when we thought all was lost, one last carrier drove up and unloaded more luggage--with our bags, clearly distinguished by patches of red duct tape thanks to Nassrin's planning ahead, on the very bottom of the pile.

Once we'd collected our luggage, Père Ronal guided us through the airport out to his Toyota Hylux hybrid pick-up truck, which was paid for by a church in Germany so that he could get around in the cities and bring resources back to Beau-Sejour. That evening, we saw more than a few of the terrifying parts of Port-au-Prince. One sight in particular was the teenager security guard at the super-market that we briefly stopped at, patrolling the parking-lot with the biggest shotgun I've seen! The gun itself wasn't quite as scary as the thought that went through our heads: "Just why exactly does he need such a big gun?" The other frightening aspect of Port-au-Prince was the traffic. There is apparently only one traffic rule in Haiti, and that is, simply, if you get out of your lane to pass someone, and hit the oncoming vehicle, you're responsible for the damages. Based on this one rule, there are many a game of chicken on the streets of Port-au-Prince. One such feat of derring-do was when Père Ronal tried to pass some slow-moving vehicle and faced down a giant UN military vehicle (I'm comfortable referring to it as a tank) replete with UN soldier at the gun turret mounted on the back. Somehow, we survived that encounter, and several others, and after few hours made it to our lodging for the night.

Tonton Jan (Uncle John) is the oldest man in Beau-Sejour, and is also the most respected, holding a position of honour not unlike the mayor. He was not in Beau-Sejour when we arrived, however, but was down in Port-au-Prince staying with family, Jacques and Soulange. Jacques and Soulange had left Haiti for a while, and lived in New York. When they came back to Haiti, they were pretty well-off, and lived in the rich quarter of Port-au-Prince known as Petionville. It was to their home that Père Ronal took us that first night. These two saintly people took five tired and grubby strangers into their home, even giving up their room so that we'd have a comfortable place to sleep, and made us a wonderful Haitian dinner, the contents of which escape me other than to say it was fish, rice, and yum!

Having been so warmly received, Haiti began to become a less intimidating place, and when we set off for Beau-Sejour the following morning, we were in high spirits. While the four men squished ourselves into the back seat of Père Ronal's Hylux, and Nassrin comfortably situated herself at shotgun, Père Ronal gave us the whirlwind tour of the city. We saw the damage of the earthquake, the rubble lying as though it had happened only yesterday. We saw where the people still lived in tents, and the poor begging in the streets, or washing their clothes in the gutters. We saw dogs, goats, and pigs running around loose in the streets. But we also saw signs of faith and hope. The Haitians are very proud of their Catholicism, naming everything they can after Jesus, Mary, or the Saints. It was not uncommon to drive by "Immaculate Conception Bank" or "Jesus Saves Lottery". This was most evident in the crazy contraptions that drove around called "tup-tups". Haiti's "taxi service", a tup-tup is a pick-up truck with seating built into the tailgate, and painted the brightest colours, with images of scenes from Scripture or the lives of the saints (for the most part--we also saw the more "secular" versions with Bob Marley and naked women painted on them), sporting names like "Dieu est Amour" or "Merci Jesus". On a pick-up that normally would hold three or four people comfortably, the added seats made it possible to hold many, many more. I think, between the people in the cab, sitting in the seats, and hanging onto the sides and back, we counted 25 on one tup-tup! We decided that we should paint Père Ronal's white pick-up and convert it into a tup-tup, bearing the name "Fou et Fort dans Jesus", or "Crazy and Strong in Jesus", because honestly, that's what you had to be to get into a vehicle with him!

One other sign of hope that we saw was the graffiti. On the crumbled walls were signs that life was going to go on, or hopefully even improve, as "So-and-so for President" appeared throughout. But the most repeated and striking slogan was the phrase "Jèn kore jèn", roughly translated as "People standing together" or "People encouraging each other" or "People strengthening each other." In the aftermath of the earthquake, the people of Haiti did not abandon God, but continued to love Him and cry out to Him. As we left Port-au-Prince, we ruminated on the fact that, ultimately, that slogan summed up why we had come to Haiti--to express our solidarity with these brave people.

St. James tells us that "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). Our Lord Himself so idntifies with the plight of the poor that He tells us we'll be judged on how we treat them, saying, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). We'll never know the full reason for the tragedies in life, but in answer to those who think they prove that there is no God, and in answer to those who rush to assume God's wrathful vengeance, I reply that maybe, just maybe, He lets these things happen to remind us that there are other people out there--people who need our love and help. Tragedies bring us out of ourselves, out of our complacency and selfishness. They give us the opportunity to serve the Lord and each other, if only we can see beyond our preconceived notions of what He ought to do, and simply respond the way we ought.
I hope you're enjoying my narrative as much as I'm enjoying writing it. I've finally made it to Haiti; next up, the trek to Beau-Sejour itself!