Mexico City -- Children giggle with hysterical joy as drops of holy water hit them. A handicapped man in pain groans, reaching for the hope that is so palpable here. A pregnant woman takes in a little of the peace of this place, even in the midst of all the noise.
All along, I can't help but remember: "Like it or not, we must be good to the poor, because if we're not, we're going to hell."
The quote comes from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia. It's something to think about this Thanksgiving.
I'm at the Mexican capital's famed Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe church to watch the baptism of a child of friends. As the child is being christened on the second floor, we hear cries of "Vivo Christo Rey!" below, as cheers ring out and a brass band enters the church. Our priest holds up the baby, reminding us all of our baptismal promise and duty; he turns around and holds up the baby to the image of the Blessed Mother that appeared on Juan Diego's peasant cloak centuries ago, the miracle that has turned this church into a shrine for millions of pilgrims.
I'm also here for a conference about the Catholic Church in the Americas, an issue that was of deep importance to the Church even before the election of the first non-European pope. There is a sense of overcoming boundaries. Spanish, English and French are spoken. We cannot stay in our comfort zones -- something I'm reminded of as homeless men and women address me, one, outside a Franciscan church, angrily brushing the sleeve of a religious sister I'm traveling with. There's a renewed sense of mission understood here, underscored by Pope Francis' video address to us as the conference opened.
Pope John Paul II visited the Basilica a little more than a decade ago, when he canonized Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the peasant who had a vision of Mary at the spot that her church would be built on. "(A)s he knelt and prayed awhile before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe," Carl Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez recall in "Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love," "it was clear that he did not want to leave; when he rose to leave, he entrusted all people to the intercession of the newest saint in the Church. He had not only canonized a man of the past, but also given our continent a saint for the future."
Perhaps it has taken an Argentinean pope to wake us up to what JPII was onto. Even as the great pontiff helped change the face of Europe, "he recognized the Americas as a hemisphere with a unique, rich Catholic history, and thus as a hemisphere with a unique, rich place in the future of the Church," Anderson and Msgr. Chavez write.
"Our Lady of Guadalupe's only words of spiritual guidance are her gentle but persistent reminders to Juan Diego about love: a love that can be trusted, a love that gives dignity, a love that is personal ... The Guadalupan message is, in its originality, a spiritual education, an education in love," Anderson and Msgr. Chavez add.
Here in Guadalupe, we are on equal ground -- the cardinal and the poverty-stricken Mexican woman with her children. We are all children of a merciful Father. Here, the mother of God, who will soon adorn our Christmas celebrations, seems to embrace us with a soft, magnetic whisper of "mercy." It's exactly the message and the approach that has intrigued, if not mesmerized, even hardened hearts since Pope Francis was elected pope this March. It's exactly the message that can get us somewhere.
The legacy of President Kennedy, our first Catholic president, is a complex one. The cult of Camelot overlooks a lot. At a time when we are losing a common understanding of so very many fundamentals, including religious liberty, ours is a moment of tremendous opportunity, to reflect on just what it was that inspired us about Kennedy: a sense of hope and renewal about the future. Human dignity is not just a matter to consider in the midst of a massive horror or disaster. The man standing next to us as we try to cross the street is loved by God. Do we realize? Do we do anything about it?
That sense that our lives have a divine purpose and law ensures that we are free to pursue them as great gifts. What are we doing to preserve life and liberty, to advance them, to see men and women flourish? Thanksgiving isn't simply for counting our blessings but for recommitting ourselves to lives of gratitude, lives that help facilitate opportunity and even joy. To not do so would be damned unworthy of the gifts of life and freedom that we must be stewards of and evangelists for.
(Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online www.nationalreview.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)