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St. Juan Diego hailed as messenger of hope, healing for Native Americans

Photo courtesy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe Photo courtesy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The Feast of St. Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant who witnessed an indigenous apparition of the Virgin Mary and later became the first canonized indigenous American saint, is a time for hope and healing for Native Americans and for recognition of the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in bringing Christ to the New World, a Native American priest said Wednesday.

“Hope has enabled me to live the Christian life and also to strive for and achieve my personal goals and aspirations, even as I have had to deal with historical traumas, and difficult challenges and obstacles, and untruths, that have been part of my journey as a native person of these lands,” Father Henry Sands, the eighth executive director of the the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, said in a Dec. 9 homily during a Mass for Healing at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C.

“Because Christ is my hope, I want to help others, especially my Native American brothers and sisters, who can also receive Christ’s gift of hope, and experience in their lives the same transformative effects that hope has had in my life.”

Sands himself belongs to three tribes: Ojibway, Odawa and Potawatomi. He is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of the Odawa Indians in Michigan. A priest of the Detroit archdiocese, Sands is believed to be the only active priest to have grown up on a Native American reservation. His organization, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, was founded in 1874 to serve Native American Catholics and to act as their advocate with the federal government.

On Wednesday he celebrated a Mass for Healing Among Native Communities at the St. John Paul II Shrine at the invitation of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization of more than 2 million members in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and other countries.

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.”

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“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.

“If the Church in America, in fidelity to the Gospel of Christ, intends to walk the path of solidarity, she must devote special attention to those ethnic groups which even today experience discrimination,” John Paul II said in his exhortation. “Every attempt to marginalize the indigenous peoples must be eliminated. This means, first of all, respecting their territories and the pacts made with them; likewise, efforts must be made to satisfy their legitimate social, health and cultural requirements. And how can we overlook the need for reconciliation between the indigenous peoples and the societies in which they are living?”

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At the 2019 Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention in Minneapolis, Anderson reflected on Our Lady of Guadalupe as the answer to the question of “how Christianity could survive and how it could flourish in our land.” Our Lady of Guadalupe leads Catholics to “a new and inculturated evangelization,”  he said. Her story can “offer a message of healing to our land.”

“As we attempt to bring a message of healing to our native brothers and sisters, we need to be mindful of the difficult history of injustices and discrimination and marginalization that will make this effort a very challenging one,” Anderson said.

The Saint John Paul II National Shrine described Father Sands as an “integral partner” with the Knights of Columbus initiatives in the U.S. and Canada focused on Native Americans and First Nations people. The shrine stressed the Knights of Columbus support for Native American communities since 1903, when it advocated for their fair treatment by the U.S. government and society.

In remarks at the end of Mass Wednesday, Sands cited comments from Patrick Mason, an enrolled member of Osage Nation of Oklahoma and Assistant Supreme Secretary for the Knights of Columbus, discussing the work of the Knights of Columbus.

The Knights are supporting efforts to build a national shrine to St. Kateri Tekawitha, a Mohawk woman, in Gallup, N.M. In the American Southwest, Knights of Columbus members brought necessities to reservations in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. There are similar efforts in Hawaii, such as the Kupuna Needs project to help native Hawaiians on the island of Oahu.

At a Native American leadership school in Minnesota, Knights of Columbus helped give out hundreds of winter coats and snow pants for kids. On the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, they provided support for the St. Francis Mission Food Program after its funds were exhausted. To honor every Native American who has lost their life in the pandemic, the organization will be working to plant trees and set up other memorials.

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“The suffering of native peoples is not wholly material,” Mason noted.

For his part, Sands mentioned the new Native American pro-life group “Life is Sacred,” which brought a pilgrimage of 200 young people and their chaperones to participate in the 2020 March For Life. There are hopes that many planned activities canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic might resume. This effort could be a future opportunity “to invite many young native people to become active members of the Catholic Church,” Sands said.

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