By Tracy Wilkinson
Times Staff Writer
October 16, 2006
VATICAN CITY — A Mexican bishop who worked clandestinely in order to elude execution and a French-born nun who was a missionary in the 19th century American wilderness were elevated to sainthood Sunday in a regal ceremony presided over by Pope Benedict XVI.
Thousands of pilgrims from Mexican villages, U.S. cities and elsewhere crowded into St. Peter’s Square to salute the naming of four Roman Catholic saints, the second canonization that Benedict has performed in his 18-month papacy.
"Their names will be remembered forever!" proclaimed the pope, dressed in bright Kelly green vestments. The new saints, he said, embodied the "humility and generosity" of total sacrifice made to truly know the love of God and serve his people.
American flags and Mexico’s red, white and green national colors dotted the audience, which erupted in cheers and joined in prayer and song.
One of the new saints is Rafael Guizar Valencia, the late bishop of Veracruz in Mexico. Known for his work among the poor and his struggle against anti-clerical governments in the early 1900s, Guizar in death has attracted an enormous following in Mexico.
As the ceremony was taking place in St. Peter’s Square, hundreds of supporters were following along on giant television screens erected in the main town square of Xalapa, the Veracruz state capital where Guizar is buried. It was about 3 a.m. in the Mexican city, but the turnout was festive and emotional, with tamales and atole for all, as one Veracruz official put it.
In St. Peter’s Square, Juan Carlos Sanchez Jimenez held a Mexican flag aloft and strained for a glimpse of the pope. He and his 72-year-old mother, Maria, had traveled from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
"It is a real honor for us to have a Mexican saint," said Sanchez Jimenez, a sandal maker. "He was wise and holy and fought for the faith."
A few rows over, Rosaluz Guevarra Garcia, who runs a stationery store in Xalapa, said she grew up hearing about Guizar from her grandparents, who knew him.
"My granny always told me about him, his humility and his love for Christ," she said.
Ordained in 1901, Guizar tended the wounded during the Mexican Revolution. He often disguised himself as a street peddler to administer the sacraments and eventually became a target of the government as it cracked down on traditional elites such as the church.
As the story goes, he was condemned to death before a firing squad. But before the soldiers could carry out their order, Guizar offered them a gold watch as a gift. He tossed the watch in the air, and as the soldiers scrambled for it, the priest escaped.
Guizar, who died in 1938, becomes the first bishop born in the Americas to become a saint, church officials said.
He was a great-uncle of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ order whom the Vatican sanctioned this year after an investigation of years of allegations that Maciel sexually abused boys and seminarians. Maciel, 86, has always denied the allegations.
Another of the saints named Sunday was the French-born Mother Theodore Guerin, who as a frail nun in the mid-1800s crossed a storm-tossed Atlantic and much of the American continent to reach Indiana. There, in 1840, in a log cabin in the town of Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods, she established a chapter of the Sisters of Providence order.
By the time she died 16 years later, the pope said, Guerin and the order had established schools and orphanages throughout Indiana, conquering harsh conditions and anti-Catholic prejudice.
"There are no words for it," the order’s general superior in Indiana, Sister Denise Wilkinson, said as she took her place in the square. "The feeling is overwhelming. Positive. Love. Joy."
In addition to Guizar and Guerin, two Italians became saints: Father Filippo Smaldone, who died in 1923, opened schools for the deaf and mute; and Sister Rosa Venerini, who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, started the first public schools for girls in Italy.
Benedict’s predecessor, the late John Paul II, named hundreds of saints and blesseds, the category just below sainthood, during his 26-year reign. Critics said the high number tended to devalue the process. Benedict has made a point of reducing the number of people he places on the path to sainthood.
For a person to become eligible for sainthood, a Vatican committee must certify two "miracles" attributed to the candidate. The first is needed for beatification; a second miracle is decisive for sainthood.
In Guizar’s case, the second miracle involved a pregnant Mexican woman whose ultrasound showed a fetus with a harelip and cleft palate. She prayed to Guizar for the health of her child. He was born without the deformities, and today Rafael de Jesus is 4 years old.
The family — mother, father and boy, all dressed in white with the males wearing white straw hats — attended Sunday’s ceremony and were among the faithful on stage to present the pope with gifts.
In Guerin’s case, the second miracle involved an employee of the Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods campus who was told he needed a cornea transplant or would face blindness. The man, Phil McCord, is not a Catholic but decided to pray to Guerin. His eyesight improved immediately.
The Vatican uses a team of doctors to establish that there is no scientific explanation for the cure in these cases.
McCord said Sunday that he was awed to be participating in the canonization, during which he gave Benedict a gift.
"I looked up and there was the front of the church, and the pope sitting there, and oh my God! It’s all true. It’s real," McCord said. "It was pretty neat."