Four years ago, a story from Western Pennsylvania shocked a nation already numbed by the epidemic of opioid overdoses. Shortly before Christmas 2016, a young couple was found dead nearly a week after they had overdosed on fentanyl. Before the couple’s bodies were discovered, their infant child had also perished – of starvation and neglect.
The opioid crisis has been ravaging America for nearly 20 years. While drug overdose deaths in the United States decreased slightly in 2018, they rebounded in 2019 to a record 70,630. For 2020, it is estimated overdose deaths exceeded 75,000, another record. Over the past two decades, nearly 800,000 Americans have died by overdose. In recent years 70% of these deaths are attributable to prescription (e.g., oxycontin) and street (i.e., heroin and fentanyl) opioid abuse. With respect to the street drugs, almost all the heroin and a significant portion of the fentanyl responsible for American deaths comes from Mexican drug cartels.
While north of the Rio Grande thousands die every year from the cartels’ drugs, south of the border thousands are dying from cartel violence – over 250,000 in the last 15 years. The headlines tell the story. “Why is Mexico the Deadliest Place to be a Priest?” (National Catholic Register, 5/22/18); “It’s a Crisis of Civilization in Mexico: 250,000 dead, 37,400 Missing,” (Wall Street Journal, 11/14/18); “26 Killed at Drug Rehab Center in Mexico’s Most Violent State”(New York Times, 7/2/20). With their beheading and dismemberments, the cartels outrank even ISIS in cruelty and evil.
While the United States and Mexican governments spend more and more on drug prevention, treatment and interdiction, there is a spiritual aspect of this crisis that should not be overlooked. Hopelessness, loneliness and alienation feed the drug demand, while the lure of money and a lawless environment draw the marginalized, particularly the young, to work with the cartels. As with other crises in history, it is natural to turn to the heavens for help. Catholics in Mexico and the United States together have recourse to an advocate who is in plain sight. This advocate can help with not only crime and addiction, but the myriad of issues we face, including poverty, migration, economic development, racial conflict and, most important, the protection of human life.
In ten years, the Americas will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Over several days between December 9 and December 12, 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a native Mexican peasant (now a saint), and asked him to go to Mexico’s presiding bishop to request that a church be built. At the church, Mary said she would hear the people’s cries and cure their troubles, miseries and pains. Skeptical of the request, the bishop asked for a sign.
Mary responded with a remarkable gift. In that cold December, she sent Juan Diego up Tepeyac Hill and told him to gather the flowers he would find there. Atop the hill were blooms of roses from Spain. Not only were these not native to Mexico, they were also out of season. Mary then arranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s cloak, or tilma, which was made of natural plant fibers, and had him take them to the bishop.
When Juan Diego presented his tilma to the bishop, the flowers were not the only surprise. On his cloak was left the famous image of Our Lady that is known the world over. The miracle prompted millions of Indians to convert to the Christian faith within a decade.
Juan Diego’s tilma can be seen today at the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Still intact after nearly 500 years, the fabric should have disintegrated more than four centuries ago. With no evident paint brush strokes and unlikely coincidences on the image, such as the stars on Mary’s mantle being arranged as they would have appeared in the sky at the time of the apparition, the cloak is a mystery. She appears as of mixed race, but in reality she is the mother of one race – the human race. The image is also a codex, or manuscript, with many symbols that would have been understood by the native Indians at the time. One such symbol is the type of flower that rests over Mary’s abdomen (she is pregnant in the image), which bloom symbolized the Indians’ highest deity.
As consoling was the image, so too was Mary’s message. After telling Juan Diego that she is the Mother of the true God and that she wanted a church built, she further said “I am honored to be your compassionate mother, yours and that of all the people that live together in this land, and also of all the other various lineages of men, those who love me, those who cry to me, those who seek me, those who trust in me.”
Mary’s words to Juan Diego, spoken not long after the Spanish conquest put an end to the unspeakable barbarism of industrial scale human sacrifice, are timely for our age as well. While the violence of ritual human sacrifice is long gone, today we contend with mass murder in Mexico and mass overdose deaths in the United States. On another front, we see industrial scale violence in the abortion industry, which has left a staggering toll of more than 60 million lives lost in the United States since 1973.
In his book “Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Civilization of Love,” Carl Anderson quotes St. John Paul II in describing Our Lady of Guadalupe as “Patroness of all America” and the “Star of the first and new evangelization,” who will “guide the Church in America … so that the new evangelization will yield a splendid flowering of Christian life.” John Paul II’s trust in Our Lady of Guadalupe should not be lost on the generation that came of age during his pontificate.
As a member of that generation, who was one of the 800,000 gathered with him at the foot of the Rocky Mountains at Cherry Creek State Park in Colorado, I remember well John Paul II’s commission to us on a hot, dry August day in 1993. “Have no fear,” he encouraged, “…[t]he church needs [you] to make the Gospel of life penetrate the fabric of society, transforming people’s hearts and the structures of society in order to create a civilization of true justice and love … It is time to preach [the Gospel] from the rooftops!”
With the approaching 500th anniversary of Mary coming to Juan Diego and the Americas, let us, like St. Juan Diego, seek the help of the Patroness of the Americas and resolve anew to build a culture of life. May she intercede to cure the “various troubles, miseries and pains” of those suffering in the United States, Mexico and all the Americas. May the next ten years be a decade of and for Our Lady of Guadalupe as the new evangelization of life, hope, love, justice and peace takes hold. And God willing, may we present to her, by 2031, the gifts of a reconciled continent, an end to cartel violence, an end to overdose deaths, an end to addiction, and an end to abortion.
Hail Mary, full of grace … Dios te salve María, llena eres de gracia…
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