“I am pious Aeneas, who carries my household gods in my ship with me, having snatched them from my enemies.” This is the narrative that, for centuries, animated the Irish-American community. The subjugation of our ancestors by the British Empire took on a religious dimension, and the culture of Irish-American Catholicism became inextricably bound up with a struggle for freedom from tyranny.
And so our “household god” – St Patrick – took on significance beyond the merely pious, and St Patrick’s Day became more than the feast of a great saint. It was a kind of Irish Hanukah: a day for our community to commemorate our ancestors’ flight from subjugation Ireland and into the promised land (via Ellis Island).
All that changed when the Irish integrated into mainstream American life. Corporations realised they could use the holiday to market cheap beer, plastic green bowlers, and “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirts. If everyone’s a little Irish on St Patrick’s Day, then no one’s really Irish at all.
On the one hand, that’s a testament to the power of American assimilationism. On the other, the commercialisation of St Paddy’s Day did more to tear the Irish-American community from its Catholic roots than all the 19th-century nativists put together.
It seems safe to assume that the newest wave of Catholic immigrants, the Latino Americans, will slowly undergo the same process. Their “household god” is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron of the Americas. Her feast on 12 December is marked devoutly by many Americans, but especially Latinos. Archbishop José Horacio Gómez, for one, celebrated a Mass on the feast in the Cathedral of the Angels in his archdiocesan seat of Los Angeles.
In his homily, like the Irish-American priests of yore, he spoke to the fears and the hopes of exile:
Tonight, Our Lady is speaking these words to all of you who are worried about your immigration status and the changes in our country.
She is speaking these tender words of assurance especially to the “Dreamers.” Tonight, we ask her in a special way to speak to the hearts of our leaders in Washington, to open their hearts to the pain, the human suffering going on in our families and in our communities and find a permanent legislative solution to bring peace and stability to our young brothers and sisters and their families.
Of course, she will open their hearts – just as she opened the hearts of American politicians to the Irish, the Italians, the Polish, and other minorities who faced brutal discrimination less than a century ago. But what then? Cheap cerveza, plastic sombreros, and “Kiss Me I’m Mexican” t-shirts?
Archbishop Gómez is already defending against that eventuality. Even with the uncertainty facing the Latino American community, he points to a deeper and far-reaching spirit for the feast:
Brothers and sisters, Our Lady of Guadalupe entrusted St Juan Diego with a task – to build a shrine in her name. She wanted this shrine to be a place where people would find God’s “love, compassion, help, comfort and salvation.”
And tonight, she is calling each one of us to “build a shrine” with our lives – to be a beautiful example in our own lives of the men and women that God wants us to be. Our Lady is calling us to show God’s love and compassion to our brothers and sisters and to work for a society that is worthy of the dignity of the human person.
He ended his homily by crying:
¡Que Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!
¡Que viva San Juan Diego!
¡Que viva San Junípero Serra!
¡Que viva Cristo Rey!
“¡Viva Cristo Rey!” was the battle-cry of the Cristeros: the peasant rebels who defended the Church against the militantly secular regime of Plutarco Elías Calle. The memory of persecution, not by a foreign power but by their own countrymen, is integral to Mexican Catholicism. Heaven does not come cheap, and our struggle for justice on this earth is never-ending.
God willing – and He does – there will come a day when everyone’s a little Hispanic on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It will be a day for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to atone for our sins. It will be a day of prayer and self-denial, to steel ourselves against fear and temptation. Then the Church Militant will march, to build the Kingdom of God here on earth.
American Catholics should look forward to the day when, in churches across America, the cry goes out on 12 December: “Long Live Christ the King!”