A fascinating duo: I recently read, back to back, two firsthand accounts of the Spanish conquest of America. The first is from Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortez’s conquistadors. The other comes from another conquistador, then missionary, and later bishop, Bartolomé de Las Casas. The former emphasizes the amazing heroism of the conquistadors, overcoming overwhelming odds through the grace of God and the help of Our Lady in order to subjugate a civilization focused on human sacrifice and cannibalism. The latter focuses on the disastrous consequences of this conquest for the native population, which amounted, in the West Indies in particular, to the complete destruction of a people, all for the lust of gold.
The irony is that both accounts shed light on a complex historical event, which at once could be seen as great and terrible. The terrible element clearly comes from human sin, but the great part was not actually derived from the heroism of the conquistadors. Despite their problems, the conquistadors knew that God’s hand and that of Our Lady were somehow at work in their discovery of Mexico.
Inculturation is the process by which the Gospel meets a culture, sifts through it, accepts what is good, removes and heals what is bad, and brings the light of Christ to it. The Spaniards had many early opportunities for a general meeting and cooperation of cultures, as Las Casas notes, none the less from the vast acceptance of vassalage to the Emperor Charles V, including by Montezuma himself. This vassalage allegedly was assisted by an ancient prophecy of conquerors coming from the land of the rising sun. However, the greedy conquistadors, with their mixed motives, quickly subjugated Mexico for their own gain and sought to enslave the entire native population, as even Diaz relates. Not much hope for inculturation there it seems. Not much hope, that is, until something unexpected happened.
God’s hand may have been on the Spaniards’ arrival, despite their own shortcomings and sin. We see God’s answer to the invasion and his great love for the native people in the apparition of Our Lady to St. Juan Diego, an Aztec man. Did God want an end to human sacrifice and cannibalism? No doubt. Did God also want good for Native Americans and peace to reign between peoples in the America? No doubt, as well. Our Lady had to intervene miraculously for this to happen. She is the true conquistadora of America, bringing about a new Catholic culture and joining of peoples under her protection.
I had an unexpected encounter with La Conquistadora in the Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was on pilgrimage there with my family, visiting the numerous holy sites: the holy dirt at the shrine of Chimayo (called the Lourdes of America), the miraculous stair case of the Loretto Chapel, the oldest shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States, San Miguel Mission, which is the oldest church in continuous use in the US, and many other historic churches. Kneeling in a side chapel of the cathedral, I looked up and saw the oldest statue of Our Lady in the United States, enthroned in her first shrine in this country. This encounter stuck with me more than any other event of the pilgrimage. I had a sense that I had met the true mover and shaker of our land: La Conquistadora.
I think it is no accident that this statue, brought by Spanish settlers in the early seventeenth century, is now located within the United States. Though not well known today, the statue received an episcopal coronation from Cardinal Spellman in 1954 and a papal coronation from a delegate of John XXIII in 1960. The Cathedral of St. Francis notes in its historical pamphlet that when a new settlement was founded by the Spanish, they would enshrine an image of Our Lady, which they termed La Conquistadora. They had a sense that the expansion of their civilization depended not on themselves, but on Our Lady. That understanding may be controversial, depending on one’s view of Spanish settlement in America, but the concept is nonetheless profound, given that we are so desperately in need of Our Lady’s protection and even conquest of our own culture.
There are some striking parallels between our times and when Mary appeared to Juan Diego.
First, we see a great destruction of life, even on a more monumental scale than the Aztecs! Bl. Pope John Paul II has described our culture as a culture of death. We know that the Aztecs aggressively sought victims for their regular sacrifices. Today, our assault on life is much more hidden. Nonetheless, millions of lives have been sacrificed in abortion, and this destruction now expands even to the grocery store as children can buy abortifacients over the counter. John Paul also pointed out that we undermined human dignity more indirectly in the culture of consumerism that turns life into a commodity.
Second, after some initial alliances with the natives against the Aztecs, the Spaniards pretty quickly placed themselves in complete opposition to the natives. The United States has also been built upon the sin of division, both with aggressive oppression to Native Americans and in the widespread use of slavery, which, of course, became a further source of cultural division and even war. Could we not say that America is now becoming divided very starkly once again? It is becoming very difficult to work together for the common good, when ideological division makes common discourse and cooperation ever more futile. We have two camps with completely different visions for our country, which are becoming more and more hostilely opposed.
Third, America has its own idolatry, or ideology, that is taking its toll on the culture. The rapid decline of the family and the acceptance of decadent life styles can be seen as the logical conclusion of an excessive focus on the individual and a misconstrued notion of liberty. The Spaniards found a culture of death that stemmed from a corrupt religion. We also have to overcome the restraints of secular religion that turns our minds and hearts away from the truth. Though Americans are rightly proud of the stability, peace, and prosperity of their nation, it is time to reevaluate our principles and recognize that we need stronger moral and religious principles to guide our lives. Frankly, like the Aztecs, we need conversion.
These three points add up to a cultural situation that seems pretty impossible. Death, division, lies—all of which are too much for us to overcome on our own.
Enter, La Conquistadora. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas, is the true founder of American culture. The process of inculturation began with her, as she united Europeans and natives in a common faith. Yet, after five hundred years, the conquest of America is still just beginning. The blueprint is there, responding to each of the three problems – a renewal of our culture that affirms the dignity of life, unites people together in charity, and orders our lives toward true happiness. Our Lady has shown us the way in that the building of true culture comes from within, from a conversion of heart, which opens us up to the power of God, who can overcome our sin and the wounds we inflict on one another.
Winning the spiritual war, which is completely intertwined with the decline of our culture, is not something we can do on our own. It is only through the intercession and aid of Our Lady, our true conqueror, that we will make progress. I urge us to take the title of La Conquistadora seriously. It is the oldest shrine in the United States for a reason and we need to invoke Our Lady not only to conquer the dark forces at work in our country, but also to build up a new culture, focused on life, unity, and faith. Let us avoid the division and violence that we have seen in the history of the Americas and embrace the heritage given to us by Our Lady, when she laid the true foundations for a new civilization in this hemisphere.