All to Bring the Poor to Christ
Which was the most difficult for Washington D.C. native Venerable Aloysius Schwartz:
a) Become the first American seminarian in the history of Maryknoll formation to leave (he considered their missionary work too comfortable) and join an obscure order of missionary priests in Belgium whose charism was to spend their lives as poor priests in the most impoverished places in the world. Seminary classes with the Société des Auxiliaires des Mission (the Samists) demanded he speaks only French in classrooms, a language he did not know. When he boarded a ship for Europe to begin school in January of 1953, Aloysius was four months behind in the class load – and every member of his family and each of his friends told him he was making a terrible mistake.
b) After he was ordained in 1957, he asked his seminary rector to send him to the worst place in the world, which at that point was post-war Korea. He did not speak the language when he stepped off the train in Seoul with his brand-new cassock on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. On that day, he looked into a dystopian novel of squalor, illness, and a rejection of the Catholic faith. Within 15 years, numberless thousands of the poor and humiliated were brought into his care.
c) Amid a bodily collapse under the weight of his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1989, he opened his ear to Our Lady, who said to him, “Al, come to Mexico – I am losing my Juan Diego’s. Poverty is crushing them; they are leaving the faith.” So with a cane, withering arthritis, a fading voice, and a weakened body, he left the Far East for the first time in 35 years and boarded a plane for Mexico City. Although he knew he would likely die within a short period, he wanted to fade away fighting to bring the poor Mexican youth to Christ, just as he had accomplished in Korea and the Philippines.
d) All of the above.
I imagine the answer is d – but for the sake of today’s Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we’ll just focus on C. – his rescue of Mary’s suffering “Juan Diego’s.”
Virgin of the Poor
But first some background: In the years before Fr. Al’s ordination in 1957, he had become captivated by the apparitions of the Virgin of the Poor in Banneux, Belgium, where in 1933 Mary appeared eight times to a young peasant girl named Mariette Beco. Her message was one of great compassion and love for the poor and humiliated. Because the message so pieced Fr. Al’s heart, he decided to consecrate his priesthood to the Virgin of the Poor and surrender his life to Mary’s Immaculate Heart.
He left Belgium as a 27-year-old priest with a new motivation: he would honor his Queen and strive to orient his priesthood to the rawest form of Christ’s gospel call to serve the poorest of the poor – which he did consistently until his death on March 16, 1992. As he lay dying, he whispered to religious sisters gathered around his bedside, “My apostolate is [the Virgin of the Poor’s] and I would like to be buried at her feet and say, that all praise, honor, and glory for anything good accomplished in my life goes to her and her alone. … The Virgin of the Poor has been working with me from the beginning. She does not need me anymore.”
Three years before his death, after his diagnosis of ALS, Fr. Al had a wrenching decision to make: live out the remainder of his priesthood on the Far East, assisted by the Sisters of Mary – or tend to the poor in Mexico and detach from the Boystown and Girlstown communities, hospitals, schools, hospices, tubercular wards, and homeless shelters he had built in the Far East over the past three decades.
Aware that his time on earth was limited, he was deeply troubled by what he felt was a very real call from Mary to take his groundbreaking work for the poor youth to Mexico. For the first time in his uncommonly bold priesthood, doubts haunted him. He lacked confidence that he could manage the salvific work while caught up in the throes of his disease. After some time, though, things began to become clearer; in a sense, he began to see the Virgin of the Poor change form. She no longer appeared in white with a blue sash and a gentle smile. More and more, he saw the Virgin clothed with the sun, and stars were thrown about her turquoise mantle. Her head was downcast and in her womb was Jesus.
Appearing as Our Lady of Guadalupe
While in prayer, for the first time in his priesthood, Mary kept appearing to him as Our Lady of Guadalupe – not as the Virgin of the Poor. And it was within his doubts that she asked a single question; the same question she asked Juan Diego in 1531: Am I not here, I, who am your Mother?
Thereafter, in blind faith and obedience to the Women to whom he consecrated his priesthood, he came to the rescue of the Mexican poor. In the fall of 1990, Fr. Al took off for the other side of the world. Eighteen months later, with his frail body nailed to the cross of his wheelchair, he oversaw the completion of the first of the five seven-story Girlstown buildings in Chalco.
“[While in the Far East] the Virgin was always there waiting for me and crossing my path, kindly leading me to Mexico,” Fr. Al said near the end of his life. “Sometimes, I would see Her image thinking of Her as a loving adversary. Whatever I did, she was always there, and she won me over, finally taking me to Mexico”.
On today’s Feast Day, as we recall the miraculous events that led to perhaps the greatest conversion to Christ in the history of the world, we would be wise to recall Fr. Al’s radical act of surrender to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Fr Al was deeply drawn to the miracle of the tilma, which would eventually act as an evangelization tool for millions of natives.
When Juan Diego unfurled his tilma, roses spilled out and the world changed. In a sense, Fr. Al’s miracle of the roses was his “Yes” to Mary with full knowledge of his impending death. Instead of unfurling his tilma, though, he unfurled his heart – and because he trusted Mary within his physical travail, tens of thousands of boys and girls have been brought to Christ with the help of the Sisters of Mary at World Villages for Children’s Boystown and Girlstown communities in Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, and Guatemala.
“Among all the reasons that brought me to Mexico, the most powerful was the opportunity to do apostolic work,” Fr Al said. “We take children, children of the poor, unschooled, underfed, and without hope for the future. Such children represent a wonderful resource today and an undiscovered spirit. Our aim is to turn them into lay apostles and witnesses of the new and rejuvenated church.”