Clinging to Our Lady, the Pillar of Faith
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone
Votive Mass of Our Lady of the Pillar • Readings: Judith 13:14, 17-20; Luke 11:27-28 • Homily delivered at St. Mary’s Cathedral on the occasion of the Día de la Hispanidad
United in Faith
It is always a joy for us to honor our Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially in the beautiful tradition we have as Catholics in offering a Mass in her honor on Saturday. Sunday is our Christian Sabbath, the “Day of the Lord,” the day we gather as God’s people to commemorate his Resurrection from the dead on the day that he rose from the dead. We can call Saturday, then, the “Day of Our Lady,” a sort of mini-Sabbath to prepare us for the great Day of the Lord on Sunday.
We are also blessed in our Catholic faith to have a treasure chest of special Votive Masses to Our Lady under her many titles. Today, we offer the Votive Mass of the “Blessed Virgin Mary, Pillar of Faith.” We do so on this occasion of the annual Día de la Hispanidad, in continuing to live out the Quinto Encuentro, and in this year dedicated to St. Joseph.
All of this points to the heart of who we are as the People of God: faith. Our Catholic faith was believed and lived most perfectly by Our Blessed Mother, and is also at the heart of this Quinto Encuentro that we are living as missionary disciples: disciples, because we have faith in Jesus Christ; missionaries, because we want to share that faith with those who do not know Him. Faith, too, is at the heart of this Year of St. Joseph that we are keeping: St. Joseph is our father in faith, teaching us to listen silently for the Voice of the Lord and to obey His Voice with faith when we hear it. And faith – especially as symbolized by a pillar! – is at the heart of this Día de la Hispanidad: more than a common language and culture, the genius of Hispanidad is the gift of the Catholic faith that Spain so gratefully received and then spread throughout the world.
Our Lady of the Pillar
Why is a pillar a particularly apt symbol for the Catholic faith that unites us in our Hispanidad? Well, the official international Día de la Hispanidad is celebrated on October 12, which is the national feast day of Spain because it is the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, the Patroness of Spain. In our own Archdiocese of San Francisco, we even have a parish, founded by the Spanish-Mexican settlers of Half Moon Bay, dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar! Who is this Lady of the Pillar?
Her story takes us back to the earliest days in the history of the Church. Just a few years after the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord, the Apostle St. James found himself far away from the Holy Land, preaching the Gospel in Spain, which was a province of the ancient Roman Empire. St. James was the brother of the Apostle St. John; he was very close to Jesus and accompanied Him at the Transfiguration and Agony in the Garden. History tells us that St. James had very little success converting the pagan Spaniards to the Gospel; he made only a few converts, and the converts shared his frustration and sadness at the lack of success in converting the ancient Spaniards. Right there, though, they teach us a lesson: the lesson of remaining united as missionary disciples, as we live the Quinto Encuentro.
The story is told that one day St. James and his converts were so discouraged by their lack of missionary success that they broke down weeping and praying along the banks of the Ebro River in the Spanish city of Zaragoza. And here is another lesson for us, especially when we feel frustration at lack of success in spreading the Gospel, especially in our own families. Look at how the holy Apostle and his holy disciples dealt with their frustration: they turned to prayer. In fact, they began to pray especially to the Mother of Our Lord; she was still alive on earth at the time, living with James’ brother, John, in Ephesus. Then, most unexpectedly, by a miracle of bilocation, she appeared to James on those banks of the Ebro River. This was in the year 40 A.D., and it is the first Marian apparition in the history of the Church.
Our Lady asked James to build a sanctuary there in her honor, and tradition tells us he did so; Zaragoza remains a major center of pilgrimage and devotion to Our Lady to this day! Our Lady also encouraged James with an important prophecy. She appeared to him standing on a pillar of jasper, and she told him not to be discouraged, assuring him that the faith of the Spanish people would one day become as strong as the pillar upon which she was standing.
It is striking that Our Lady chose a pillar as the symbol of the faith she would give to Spain. In our first reading, we see Judith, a type of Our Lady, being celebrated by her people for being the agent through whom God showed them mercy and delivered them from their enemies. The Scriptures tell us that after Judith finished praying to the Lord for strength, she “went to the pillar that was near the head of Holofernes” to get the sword and cut off his head. She slayed the head of their enemies, Holofernes, who represents Satan, the true enemy of God’s people.
It was from a pillar that, strengthened by God, she conquered the evil one. The pillar of faith and trust in God was her means of conquering evil for Israel. We cannot forget, of course, that the pillar of faith produces a spiritual sword of spiritual conquest only for those who “hear the Word of God and keep it,” as our Gospel passage puts it. Judith is a type of the Blessed Mother because she heard the word of God and kept it. Our Lady is pre-eminently the one who hears and keeps God’s Word in faith.
The history of Spain thereafter is a history of an increasing embrace of the Catholic faith, under the watchful protection of Our Lady of the Pillar and St. James. In the battles for the soul of Spain, there were sometimes reports of a mysterious rider who would come out of the mountains, riding a white horse and carrying a white banner, miraculously leading the Christians to victory. The Spanish Christians believed this rider was St. James, and their battle cry soon became “Santiago!” [“St. James!”] in honor of the Apostle of Spain. By 1492, the Spanish Christians, under this battle cry, had re-conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula for Christ. For the first time in her history, Spain was completely Catholic. Our Lady’s prophecy had been fulfilled, almost 1500 years later: the faith of the Spanish people was as strong as a pillar of stone.
No sooner had Our Lady of the Pillar conquered Spain for her Son than she began to work through Spain in other parts of the world. I would imagine that for most you, when you hear the date October 12 and the year 1492, you think of something different. But, yes, it was on the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, Patroness of Spain, in 1492 that Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, claiming it for Christ and His Mother. That encounter did, indeed, bring much suffering and hardship, due to the selfish interests that mar our human nature. But in God’s plan, it was Our Lady whom He once again used as his agent: not content with her Spanish victory, she now wanted to give the gift of the pillar of faith to the peoples of the New World, just as she had conquered Iberia.
To that end, she appeared again, as we all know and for which we all joyfully give thanks, this time at Tepeyac in Mexico, in 1531, again asking that a sanctuary be built in her honor. Before long, she had created an entirely new people in Central and South America as the Spanish and native peoples married and started families together, united by their common Catholic faith. And we, too, are blessed to be inheritors of this legacy, as the King of Spain sent missionaries to our very own Alta California under the leadership of the great St. Junípero Serra. Thus, we see that the apparition of Our Lady of the Pillar to St. James is intimately connected to our own history here in California: the California missions were the fruit of the encouragement that Our Lady gave to St. James 1700 years earlier.
St. Junípero Serra, the New St. James
St. Junípero Serra is for us what St. James is for Spain. St. Junípero is truly the Apostle and Father of California, establishing the first nine of the 21 missions of Alta California, including our very own Mission Dolores. Like St. James, St. Junípero also experienced many frustrations in his work of preaching the Gospel. While he converted many of the indigenous people, he struggled to protect his converts from the rapacious vices of some of the Spanish soldiers.
We even have to this day a physical reminder of the care and protection St. Júnipero gave to the native peoples of our state. It can been seen in the four missions that also served as the military centers of Alta California: San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and here in San Francisco. These locations featured a Presidio, the barracks for the Spanish soldiers. The Franciscans always built the Presidios miles away from the mission church and school, in order to protect the indigenous people from the abusive soldiers. We need think only of here in San Francisco: the Presidio is located near the opening to the bay, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, while Mission Dolores is south of here, in the heart of the city. In this way, St. Junípero and his brother missionaries could form the new converts in the Catholic faith in peace, without worrying about interference from the troublesome soldiers. Like St. James, St. Junípero was motivated by love, love born from his faith. And because of this, he also, like St. James, was deeply devoted to Our Lady; he even composed a novena in honor of her Immaculate Conception and Queenship.
Faith giving birth to love, a love expressed through great personal sacrifice, is what enabled St. Junípero’s California missions to become exceedingly fruitful in a short period of time. The indigenous converts, in addition to receiving the pillar of faith, also learned new trades and began to enjoy the benefits of Christian civilization. Tragically, the anti-Catholic Mexican government secularized the missions in 1834, exposing the indigenous converts to tremendous hardship, first from the rancheros and then from the American governors of California. Most of the missions are now active churches again, thanks be to God. However, sometimes, I feel like we sons of St. Junípero in California are in a similar situation to St. James in Zaragoza. We are poor like he was, often confronted with discouraging results and lack of support.
In this Quinto Encuentro, as we strive to deepen our faith in Christ and bring Him to others, we can do nothing better than to turn to Our Lady of the Pillar, just as St. James did. She assures us that the gift of our Catholic faith, by which we receive the Word of God and keep it, is a pillar to which we can cling in all of life’s difficulties. This is the way forward for the missionary disciples of California in the 21st century.
We stand on the shoulders of St. James and St. Junípero, who teach us that the only way forward in spreading the Gospel is to follow the example of Judith and Our Lady, to hear the Word of God and keep it. Which means we must first listen, as did St. Joseph: listening silently for the Voice of the Lord and obeying His Voice with faith when we hear it. And when that faith gives birth to love, we can, like St. James and St. Júnipero, make the sacrifices necessary to spread the Gospel to all around, beginning and especially with our own families. We will then live the principle that St. Júnipero based his life on and modeled so well: ¡Siempre adelante, nunc atrás!