“Where are you going? Where are you headed?”
Those were the Blessed Mother’s first words to St. Juan Diego during one of her miraculous apparitions in 1531.
“That’s Mary speaking to you, too,” stated Catholic evangelizer Scott Watts, keynote presenter at the Jefferson City diocese’s 2021 Day of Prayer for Vocations.
The theme for the event was “Encounter Jesus Under the Mantle of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
Mr. Watts is a Catholic convert, lay missionary for Hope of the Poor, and founder of Guadalupe Missions.
He spoke at length of Our Lady’s interactions with St. Juan Diego, and of the miraculous implications that resonate through the centuries.
More than 9 million indigenous people in present-day Mexico converted to Catholic Christianity within a decade of her apparitions to St. Juan Diego and the gift of her inexplicable image on his tilma.
Millions of people each year now visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City to see and give thanks to God for that tremendous gift.
Our Lady’s words to St. Juan Diego are as fresh and relevant today as they were nearly 500 years ago.
“My dearest child, where are you headed?”
“She asks this not because she doesn’t know, but because she is a wonderful mother who desires to have that conversation with you,” said Mr. Watts.
Her deepest desire is for people to see her Son, Jesus, more clearly and receive Him into their hearts.
“Whatever is in your heart right now,” said Mr. Watts, “whatever may be giving you pain or frustration, know that Our Lady wishes to bring you into a deeper encounter with her Son, the Divine Physician.”
He pointed out that St. Juan Diego was 57 years old when Our Lady spoke to him.
“So if you think it’s too late for you or that you’ve seen it all, open up your heart and let the Lord surprise you!” he said.
“Miracles are real”
Juan Diego had seen the vast and mighty Aztec civilization collapse within two years of the Spanish conquistadores’ arrival in 1519.
“He had seen war, famine and pestilence,” Mr. Watts noted. “He had watched family members and friends die.”
The conquistadores brought with them Franciscan priests. These missionaries preached the Gospel and prayed intently for it to take root among the heartbroken indigenous people.
Juan Diego and his wife were among the first converts. Each Saturday and Sunday, they walked nine miles from their home to the middle of the city, where the priests were stationed.
Juan Diego’s wife died without having any children. He then moved in with his uncle, his last living relative, who was elderly and frail.
Juan Diego continued practicing his faith. He kept making the nine-mile walk.
That’s what he was doing on Dec. 9, 1531, when he heard birds singing on a barren hill at a time of year when nothing grew.
He followed the singing up the mountain, thinking he maybe had died and entered the afterlife.
“And there, in the midst of all of the pain and darkness he was experiencing, honest-to-goodness miracles happened!” said Mr. Watts.
“God wants to do that for you today,” the speaker asserted. “Trust that He desires to do that, that He can and that He will.”
A universal language
Mr. Watts brought with him full-size digital reproductions of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which had appeared on St. Juan Diego’s cloak in the presence of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga and his attendants.
Our Lady sent Juan Diego three times to tell him to build a house of God to be built on that hill.
Before sending him the third time, she told him to fill his tilma with the fragrant roses that were growing on the otherwise lifeless hill.
There had been nothing growing there the day before.
But the real miracle took place after Juan Diego opened his tilma and let the roses fall to the floor.
Our Lady’s image — in the form of a mestiza woman, pregnant with Jesus, and adorned with Christian and Aztec imagery — faded onto the tilma.
“The bishop and his attendants all fell to their knees in tears, begging forgiveness from the Virgin,” said Mr. Watts.
The tilma was made of rough, brittle fabric that otherwise would have disintegrated in a few years. Yet, it remains intact nearly 500 years later.
The image is beautiful art overflowing with universal symbolism and ingenious cryptography.
Every aspect reveals something about Mary and about God, Whom she serves unreservedly.
“Before you even approach Mary, she is already listening, interceding, and she is leaning forward, moving toward you,” said Mr. Watts.
“Her Immaculate Heart burns with desire for us to open ourselves up to Him and let Him work miracles in our lives,” he said.
“Prayer changes everything”
Jacob Cegleninski, a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, had previously heard Mr. Watts give a presentation at the St. Thomas More Newman Center.
Immaculate Conception parishioner Jill Kliethermes told him about the event at the Cathedral.
He and his parents attended.
Two of his friends, Bethany and Alexia Baumgertner, dropped everything and travelled for over an hour to get to the Cathedral on very short notice.
They were not disappointed.
They stood next to an ordinary, full-size digital reproduction of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
They placed their hands below her mouth and could feel breathing. They placed their hands on her diaphragm and could feel her heartbeat and the heartbeat and kicking of Jesus in her womb.
Mr. Cegleninski’s reaction was one of comfort, contentment and gratitude.
“It was nice seeing ‘Mom’ again and bringing other people to see her, too,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of everyone to continue praying for vocations.
“Prayer changes everything,” he stated. “We are each called for a specific mission. We really need to spend time discerning what that vocation is.
“Everybody needs to be generous in answering the call they’ve been given,” he added. “That’s really how the world gets changed.”
Mr. Cegleninski is grateful for everyone who helped organize the event.
“It’s really stunning to see the miracles Our Lady organized that day, and I am truly blown away by the devotion, Scott, Bethany, Alexia and Mrs. Kliethermes had to Our Lady and the willingness of others like my parents to say ‘yes’ to invitations like this,” he said.
He believes the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe and all signs and wonders associated with her reveal a loving mother of a Son Who is eager to save.
“Understand that Mom, the Virgin Mary, loves us very much and is always listening and praying for us and waiting to bring our needs to Christ,” he said.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight closed the Day of Prayer by offering a Vigil Mass for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
“We have meditated and reflected upon the mystery of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the mystery of the call each one of us has received by virtue of our baptism,” he said.
Bishop McKnight pointed out that no one’s vocation is to save the world.
“That is the vocation of Jesus the Christ,” he said. “Rather, it IS our vocation, no matter what our state in life, no matter what our particular vocation is, to share in the work of redemption in some way.”
This will always include some kind of suffering.
It’s a natural human tendency to try to avoid that.
“But we can never be fully happy unless we are like that grain of wheat that falls down to the earth and dies,” said Bishop McKnight, echoing John 12:24.
“Because unless that grain of wheat dies, it cannot produce an abundant harvest,” he stated.
The bishop pointed out that every vocation has its share of trials and difficulties.
Every one of them is a gift from God, bestowed by the Holy Spirit at baptism for the purpose of building up God’s Kingdom and leading all people to Christ.
“My brothers and sisters, we are about to celebrate and offer the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, the Bread that is Christ Himself, Who gave His life for the sake of the world, Who shed His Blood so that our sins might be forgiven, that we might be RESTORED in our relationship with the Father in heaven, Who glorified Him in the mystery of the cross and in His resurrection.”
Bishop McKnight thanked everyone who helped prepare for the Day of Prayer for Vocations, and all who came to spend time in prayer.
“We need vocations,” he said. “We need MORE of ALL vocations. And of course, that includes more vocations to the ministerial Priesthood.”