Friday, October 13, 2006

Saints Alive! And Dead: Rafael Guizar Valencia

I grew up Protestant in the Deep South, Southern Baptist, specifically, so the world of Catholic sainthood always held for me an exotic allure. As a child, I thought of saints as figures from the distant past, mysterious, alien icons that made the Catholic church seem odd and formal compared to the country-fried religion of my youth.

So I was interested when we were in Veracruz to learn one of Mexico's own will soon join the ranks of the Catholic blessed. Everywhere in the state, it seemed, Kathy and I saw images of Rafael Guizar Valencia, the former bishop about to be elevated to sainthood on Sunday. Guizar will be canonized for his work as the sometimes-exiled Bishop of Veracruz in the face of anti-Catholic persecution after the Mexican Revolution.

Huge banners featuring his image adorned the cathedral in downtown Xalapa when we were there in August, and local travel agencies were booking package trips to Rome for the occasion.

Our Spanish wasn't good enough when we were in Mexico to understand everything we saw and heard about the good bishop, so I learned more from recent news coverage than we were able to discern when we were there. Here are a few excerpts about Guizar's life from a recent article in Catholic Online ("Mexican becomes first Catholic bishop born in Americas to be named saint," Oct. 11):
In an Oct. 15 papal ceremony at the Vatican, Blessed Rafael Guizar Valencia is scheduled to become the first bishop born in the Americas to be declared a saint.

As a priest during the anti-clerical era that marked the start of the 20th century in his native Mexico, he often disguised himself as a junk dealer to bring the sacraments to both sides fighting the Mexican Revolution which started in 1910.

After the revolution when anti-clerical measures were adopted by the new government, he lived in exile in Cuba, Colombia, Guatemala and the southern United States to escape persecution. He was ordained bishop of Veracruz in absentia in 1919 while living in Havana. ...

"He lived from 1878 to 1938, and actually survived the Mexican government's persecution of Catholicism – but only barely," Anderson said in a statement.

"One anecdote about him says he returned from a mission with bullet holes in his hat and clothing," said Anderson. ...

Father Maciel has cited his great uncle, who was the brother of Father Maciel's grandmother, as an inspiration for his own priestly vocation.

Writing about Blessed Rafael, Father Maciel, now 86, told of a time when his great uncle took him for a walk in Mexico City.

"He carried an accordion, which he played very well. I had no idea what he was going to use it for. We arrived at a well-trafficked spot. He took out his accordion and began playing popular songs. People gathered around him in a circle. When the number was substantial, he put aside his accordion and began preaching (about) Christ," said Father Maciel.

Blessed Rafael was born to a wealthy family in Cotija de la Paz in the Mexican state of Michoacan April 16, 1878. In 1894 he entered the seminary of the Diocese of Zamora and was ordained a priest for the diocese in 1901.

When the Mexican Revolution started, the Catholic Church was a target of rebel forces because it was considered one of the privileged institutions that dominated society under Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. The then-Father Guizar became a target because of his defense of the church.

After the successful revolution, the new government ordered Father Guizar shot on sight and in 1915 he fled the country, entering the United States. He then moved to Guatemala, Colombia and Cuba.

Blessed Rafael returned to Mexico in 1920 as bishop of Veracruz and in 1923 joined the local Knights of Columbus council.

As church persecution continued, he founded a clandestine seminary.

"A bishop can do without a miter, a crosier and even a cathedral, but never without a seminary, because the future of his diocese depends on the seminary," he said.

Persecution of the church forced Blessed Rafael to flee Mexico again in 1927. He returned in 1929, after the church reached an accord with the government.

He became known as "the bishop of the poor" and died of natural causes June 6, 1938. Pope John Paul II beatified him Jan. 29, 1995.

More people might aspire to sainthood if you didn't have to be dead to enjoy the honor ... I'm just sayin'. ;)

UPDATE: Here's coverage of Guizar's canonization from the SA Express News and the Dallas News. More from a Veracruz-based expat blogger.

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