Pope on Guadalupe Feast: Church is Mestizo, Native, Black

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis urged Latin American and Caribbean Catholics to celebrate and defend their diversity, saying Tuesday the face of the Catholic Church is indigenous, mestizo and black.

Francis celebrated a special Mass to celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the dark-skinned virgin who appeared to an Indian peasant in the 1500s and is particularly important to Latin American Catholics, the Argentine pope included.

In his homily, Francis said indigenous peoples, women, peasants, migrants and the unemployed often aren’t treated with the dignity they deserve. He urged the region’s faithful to not only cultivate their diverse cultures but “valiantly defend them” against homogenization.

“Our fertility compels us to defend our people against an ideological colonization that cancels out the richest of them, be they indigenous, Afro-American, mestizo, peasant or suburban,” he said, speaking in his native Spanish.

“We want to learn to be a church with a mestizo, indigenous, Afro-American face,” he said. “A face that is poor, unemployed, of children, old and young so that no one feels sterile or shameful or worthless.”

The first pope from the Americas has continued a tradition started by Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate a special Mass for the Guadalupe feast day, recognizing that Latin America has accounted for about 40 percent of the world’s Catholics and that Mexico (and Brazil) remain the countries with the most Catholics.

The most memorable Guadalupe Mass was the Francis’ 2014 edition, which featured the “Misa Criolla” folk Mass with hymns composed by Argentina’s Ariel Ramirez. Tuesday’s Mass was a more traditional affair, although Francis — who usually doesn’t sing — mouthed the words to the final “La Guadalupana” hymn.

According to tradition, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared before the Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531 at Tepeyac, a hillside near Mexico City where Aztecs worshipped a mother-goddess, and her image was miraculously imprinted on his cloak.

The image helped priests inculcate Catholicism among indigenous Mexicans during Spanish colonial rule, and the church later made Guadalupe patron of all the Americas. Juan Diego was canonized as the hemisphere’s first Indian saint in 2002 during the papacy of St. John Paul II.

The basilica dedicated to the virgin in Mexico City draws millions of pilgrims each year and is the most-visited Marian shrine in the world. Francis prayed before the image of the virgin during his 2016 visit to Mexico.