By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Some of the most famous Mothers and Fathers in Mexico are truly saints. Mexico has more saints than any other country in this hemisphere, and many of them began their road to canonization as priestly fathers or mothers in convents. The very first father who became a Mexican saint was Saint Philip of Jesus, the patron saint of Mexico City, a Franciscan friar who died in 1597; he was canonized by the pope 265 years later, in 1862. This is an example of how the posthumous path for mothers and fathers to become saints in the Catholic Church can be lengthy and requires many steps.
The first step in becoming a saint is to submit an application to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS, formerly called the Congregation of Rites), one of the nine congregations in the Roman Curia in the Vatican. The application is submitted by the person’s diosecan Bishop, who, after waiting usually five years or more after the death of the potential applicant, investigates his or her life to determine whether he or she appears to have the holy attributes of a saint. The investigation entails examining witnesses and exploring written works. The findings can either be used to end the path to sainthood or passed on to the authorities in the Vatican.
One of the first Mexican applicants for a potential path to sainthood was Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico City, who died around age 80 in 1548. Although he was known for his cogent doctrinal writing and praised as the protector of the indigenous population, the application submitted in his behalf was never acted on by the Vatican organization that preceded the CSS.
One of the most recent applicants is the Reverend Mother María Concepción Zúñiga López, who died in 1979. Raised during the post-revolutionary period in Mexico when Catholicism was brutally suppressed, young María nevertheless sought out clerics and nuns in hiding who could be her mentors. At age 28 she founded an order of nuns devoted both to contemplation and acts of kindness. Her writings were sufficiently influential to be deemed noteworthy by the Pope. Given the glacial pace on the road to becoming a saint, it would be surprising if the Reverend Mother had already reached the next level.
The second step to sainthood is to become a Servant of God. Once a bishop submits an application to the Vatican, the CCS, consisting of 34 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, reviews the application and the supporting documentation. If the application is accepted, the applicant is designated a Servant of God and the CCS takes on the mission of further investigation.
Numerous Mexican applicants were accepted for further investigation as early as the 16th century and were designated Servants of God, but stalled in the process of being recognized as a Saint. María Regina Sánchez Muñoz was one of the several Servants of God recognized for founding religious organizations. Also known as María Amada del Niño Jesus, she did not found an order for women seeking an exclusive religious life, but rather organized lay people seeking a way to contribute to the church and betterment of their community – Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Mary of Guadalupe. First founded in Guadalajara in 1926 during the period of Catholic suppression, the organization currently operates in many Mexican states and in Belize. While Mother María Amada has not yet reached the stage of recognized sainthood, her enthusiastic and committed followers appear to have recognized her as an unofficial saint.
The third step is to become a Venerable. The CCS examines the life of the Servant of God to determine and document whether there is sufficient evidence of living a life of holiness which drew others to prayer and participation in the church, including whether miracles have been attributed to the Servant before or after their death. Once the CCS completes their investigation, the documents are sent to the Pope. The Pope decides whether the Servant has led a life of “heroic virtue” and, if yes, a mass is held in which the Pope raises the Servant to the status of Venerable.
The majority of Mexico’s Venerable mothers and fathers were early Bishops or founders of religious orders. One of the newest additions to the Mexican Venerable list is Father José Antonio Plancarte y Labastida, founder of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe. He was born in Mexico City in 1840, and died there in 1898. His heroic virtues were recognized by Pope Frances in January of this year
The fourth step is to become a “Blessed” which entails examining witnesses who attest to miracles having been performed for them after praying to a Venerable. The intent of the examination is to rule out cases in which, rather than miraculous events having occurred, natural causes can be demonstrated. Once one miracle has been attributed to a Venerable, the miracle is believed to be evidence that the Venerable is in heaven and capable of interceding with God for the sake of living human beings. The Pope then designates the Venerable as a “Blessed.”
Since Martyrs just need to have one miracle attributed to them to be canonized as a saint, they can be designated as a Blessed without miraculous intervention. A large majority of Mexican Blesseds are Martyrs from across decades of persecution and slaughter of Catholic fathers and mothers.
One of the most recent papal elevations of a Venerable took place in a Mass on June 8, 2018, by Pope Francis, who formalized the attribution of a miracle to María Concepción Cabrera de Armida and recognized her as a Blessed. Born in 1862 in San Luis Potosí, and known as La Conchita, she was known for her piety, visions and self-mortification from a very early age. Rather than becoming a nun, Maria decided to marry and have many children, which she did. In addition to raising her brood with the goal of teaching them to love God, she was a prolific writer, and described her life succinctly:
I carry within me three lives, all very strong: family life with its multiple sorrows of a thousand kinds, that is, the life of a mother; the life of the Works of the Cross with all its sorrows and weight, which at times crushes me until I have no strength left; and the life of the spirit or interior life, which is the heaviest of all, with its highs and lows, its tempests and struggles, its light and darkness. Blessed be God for everything!
She suffered many deaths in her family before she herself died at age 74 in Mexico City in 1937.
Finally, sainthood is confirmed upon the Blessed, if and when other miracles are testified to and found not to be based on natural causes. Basically, Catholic doctrine holds that a person who is a saint has been recognized by God as holding that attribute and canonization by the Pope is confirmation of that status.
Mexico currently has over 30 Saints. About one-third of them were Martyrs, primarily Fathers who were killed during the Mexican Revolution. Between 1926 and 1934, about 40 priests died violently for carrying out the government-banned Church sacraments and refusing to renounce their faith. They are all celebrated in masses on May 21.
The most recent Mother to be canonized, by Pope Francis in 2013, is María Guadalupe García Zavala, better known as Mother Lupita. She devoted her life in Guadalajara to caring for the poor and the ill and founded the Handmaids of Saint Margaret Mary and the Poor. During the period of extreme anticlerical suppression, she risked her own life hiding priests in her hospital. And during periods when the hospital ran low on funds, she begged in the streets until she had sufficient funds to continue her efforts.
The newest Father to be recognized as a saint, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, is Rafael Guízar y Valencia. Originally from Michoacán he became the Bishop of Xalapa. Rather than hiding, he openly provided comfort to the wounded and dying during the Revolution. He died in 1938, and when his body was exhumed in 1950, it was said to be virtually intact.
The most famous of all saints in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, was not recognized by the Catholic Church for centuries. First appearing in a vision in 1531 to Juan Diego (who himself became a Saint), the reported appearance of Saint Mary mother of Jesus as a dark-skinned Mexican native, speaking the indigenous tongue Nahuatl, was decidedly rejected by Church officials. Nevertheless, Mexicans en masse prayed for her intervention with God, and so many miracles were attributed to her that the Church could hardly ignore the phenomenon. Beginning in the 1700s, Church officials began to bow to the grassroots movement and started to accord respect and recognition to her followers’ belief. Ultimately, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego and, in 1997 during his first foreign trip, proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe to be Mother of the Americas as he prayed to her in her basilica near Mexico City. This basilica is reportedly the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Obviously Mary, mother of Jesus envisioned as the Virgin of Guadalupe, holds the title of the most saintly Mother in Mexico.