ROME — Pope Francis sympathized Monday with the caravans of Latin Americans “seeking freedom and well-being” in the U.S. as he celebrated a major feast day dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The first Latin American pope spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish to denounce the plight facing Latin Americans today and in the past.
The Argentine Jesuit was marking the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which falls each Dec. 12. To Catholic believers, the date is the anniversary of one of several apparitions of the Virgin Mary witnessed by an Indigenous Mexican man named Juan Diego in 1531. Every year, millions of pilgrims flock to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which holds an image of the Virgin that is said to have miraculously imprinted itself on the man’s cloak.
In his homily, Francis said Mary appeared then “to accompany the American people in this difficult path of poverty, exploitation and socioeconomic and cultural colonialism.”
And he said she remains a mother figure to Latin Americans today.
“She’s there, in the middle of the caravans that, seeking freedom and well-being, head north,” he said, referring to the caravans of migrants seeking to cross into the United States.
Francis has made caring for migrants and refugees a hallmark of his papacy.
Francis also warned against any ideological exploitation of the image of the Guadalupe Virgin, whose mixed, mestiza complexion has long been held up by the Catholic Church as a positive model of the colonial-era encounter between Europe and the Americas.
Francis noted that church preparations are underway for the 500th anniversary celebrations of the original apparition, and he called for them to take place in the context of the true “spirit” of Guadalupe.
“I am concerned about ideological-cultural proposals from various places that want to appropriate the encounter of a people with their Mother, who want to desmestizaje and put make-up on the Mother,” he said.
Andrew Chestnut, chair of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the comment was an apparent reference to the intensifying debate on the role of the Catholic Church in the Iberian conquest and colonization of the Americas.
“While long a symbol of Mexican mestizaje, the blending of Indigenous and Spanish cultures, the Virgin of Guadalupe has recently been targeted for desmestizaje, as the pope said, by both the left and right,” Chestnut said in an email.
He said some on the left view her as purely Indigenous, while some on the right object to her darkening skin tone in portraits over time “and prefer to view her as a lighter complected, European-style advocation of Mary.”
Francis begged for this polemic to not take away from the centrality of Guadalupe to the faithful of the Americas.
“Please let’s not allow the message to be distilled into mundane and ideological patterns,” he said.