In Santa Fe’s Roman Catholic cathedral, made famous in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, there stand two different depictions of the Virgin Mary.
At the front of the church, perched atop the reredos, reigns La Virgin Guadalupe. Appearing as an Aztec princess, arrayed in blue, she regards the faithful worshippers of Santa Fe with a tilted head and benevolent face. St. Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant to whom she appeared, stands beneath her. The two figures appear right behind the altar, the point of focus of the community.
But to the side, in the Lady chapel, sits another Marian figure. This one is a smaller statue of Mary arrayed as Queen of Heaven: golden crown, white shiny dress, pearl-encrusted robe, …and skintone borrowed from a Snow White Madame Alexander doll. This figure is titled “La Conquistadora, Our Lady of the Rosary”. My Spanish is halting and limited to liturgical phrases, but I can say with near certainty that this is not a fantastic translation. When the first Spanish missionaries came to the Southwest, they took Mary as their patron saint, and dubbed her La Conquistadora– Our Lady of Conquest. They felt sure in the knowledge that the Mother of Our Lord would help them tame and conquer the savage New World they were entering, and all who inhabited it.
But what amazes me is that these two Marys occupy the same church, the same space. When the Jesuit missionary priests came to the Southwest, they claimed Mary as La Conquistadora, the one who would pray for, and enable their conquest. The natives suffered the effects of the Spanish conquest, fought, endured and died in the conflict, and yet, somehow, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, what they heard from the Jesuits became a vibrant vision of their own. An Aztec princess appearing to a peasant, and declaring through the vision that God sees the dignity of all people, and God is confined by no one human claim on His loyalty. As I’ve heard a wise bishop once say, despite the church’s best efforts, we should know by now that the gospel knows how to slip our grasp, and find those who need it.
The Spirit goes where the Spirit needs to go, and yet if we want to participate in the work of the Spirit, as we who follow Jesus are bidden to do, then it seems to me that one of our vital tasks is to learn how to reconcile and redeem these two visions in our Christian past: the times we invoked God in our image to conquer, and the times we have been surprised by God in other guises. As we turn to a new sort of mission field, we have a chance to examine, and learn from our history. The two Marys stand before us and behind us: the Conquering Queen and the Mirror of the People. Which voice will we heed?