Sands’ homily reflected on the Feast of St. Juan Diego, the first indigenous American to be canonized.
Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Catholicism, witnessed the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City 1531. The apparition and its miraculous Marian image led to mass conversions of native American communities to Catholicism. Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe has continued for native communities, Mexicans, and across the Americas and the world.
Sands noted the frequent Scriptural imagery of an eagle soaring as a metaphor for “the empowered life that we can live when we place and trust in the Lord.”
In St. Juan Diego’s native language, Sands said, his name means “The eagle who speaks.” The priest described the saint as “the poor Indian cousin who became the Church’s first saint indigenous to the Americas.”
The patron saint of indigenous people was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1990 and canonized in 2002. John Paul II called him “a simple humble Indian who accepted Christianity without giving up his identity as an Indian.”
After Juan Diego first witnessed the Marian apparition, the local bishop requested proof of the vision. On the hilltop where the apparitions took place, Juan Diego discovered roses growing, despite it being winter. He wrapped them in his tilma and took them to the bishop. Upon presenting the roses to the bishop, the tilma had been miraculously imprinted with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The tilma and image are preserved to this day at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City.
“It shows a woman with native features and native dress,” Sands said. “She is supported by an angel with wings. The moon is beneath her feet. Her blue mantle is covered with gold stars. The black girdle at her waist signifies that she is pregnant.”
“This image graphically depicts the fact that Christ is to be born again among the peoples of the new world,” said the priest. “This message is as relevant to the New World today as it was in the lifetime of St Juan Diego.”
At St. Juan Diego’s canonization Mass, whose thousands of attendees included members of Mexico’s 64 indigenous groups, John Paul II said, “In praising the Indian Juan Diego, I want to express to all of you the closeness of the Church and the Pope, embracing you with love and encouraging you to overcome with hope the difficult times you are going through.”
For Sands, there are many reasons “why we Native Americans are very much in need of healing.”
“We have experienced multi-generational and deep historical trauma that have been caused by the United States government’s policies of genocide, annihilation, termination, relocation and assimilation,” he said. “We also experienced the forced placement of native children in government boarding schools from the 1870s until the 1970s. We have experienced many acts of racism, prejudice and discrimination.”
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“The present day brings circumstances in which native peoples live, both on and off reservation, that create a very difficult situation in which it is difficult for people to have hope,” he lamented.
These difficult circumstances include poverty, high unemployment, substandard housing, lack of access to health care, poor quality schools, and lack of running water, electricity, and telephones in their homes. There are circumstances like family dysfunction, a lack of marriages, “chaotic and unstable home life,” domestic violence, and substance abuse, including both alcoholism and drug abuse.
“Many native peoples have little or no hope,” Sands said. “People who live without hope do not believe that anything can make things better. Not themselves, not someone else, not any changes in their circumstances.”
Lack of hope is the root cause of high rates of alcoholism, drug use and suicide experienced by many native peoples, said the priest.
“Helping native peoples to experience a living and personal faith in Christ, and inviting them to live that faith as members of the Body of Christ, is the best way that we can help them to receive that hope and healing that only Christ can offer them,” said Sands. “It is this hope that will help them to begin to experience healing, to believe that things can be better with them, and to begin to take steps to improve their lives.”
Sands’ homily drew significantly on both John Paul II’s 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America and the remarks of Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus Carl Anderson. They have addressed the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the need for the Church to embrace Native American peoples, their contributions and their needs.