During the Mass held on October 15, 2006, in St. Peter's Square, which was attended by around 30,000 people (including some 10,000 Mexicans), Pope Benedict XVI canonized four Blesseds. Among those canonized is St. Rafael Guízar Valencia (1878-1938), a Bishop of Veracruz, Mexico, who is the first Bishop-saint born in Latin America, known as the "Bishop of the Poor".
Rafael Guízar Valencia, one of the heroes of the Mexican persecution of Catholicism in the 1930s, was born in Cotija, State of Michoacan, in the diocese of Zamora on April 26, 1878. His parents, Prudencio and Natividad, were wealthy landowners, but also devout Christians who gave their 11 children a careful religious upbringing. One of Rafael's brothers also became a Bishop.
Blessed Rafael lost his mother at the age of nine. He spent his early years studying in a religious school and then spent time with Jesuit priests. His calling in life was to enter the priesthood thereby dedicating his life in the name of God. In 1891, he entered the minor seminary in Cotija and, then in 1896, he entered the major seminary in Zamora. In June of 1901, at the age of 23, he was ordained to the priesthood.
An evangelist at heart, he began to move about Mexico giving popular missions. Because of this special talent, he was appointed an "apostolic missionary" in 1905, and named spiritual director in the major seminary of Zamora where he himself had been trained. Here he communicated to the seminarians a deep love of the Holy Eucharist, a tender devotion to Our Lady, and his own zealous missionary spirit.
In addition to conducting missions in several Mexican states, Padre Rafael also founded a school for poor girls, using his own funds. He established two colleges for boys, hoping that they would serve as "feeders" to the Congregation of Missionaries of Our Lady of Hope, a religious community that he set up in 1903.
All these efforts were thwarted, however, from 1911 on, by the outbreak of persecution against the Church. His missionary congregation was wiped out, and even his public career as a missionary preacher was officially cancelled.
Unofficially, of course, Fr. Guízar continued his work. In 1911, in Mexico City, to counteract the persecution of the Catholic Church, he set up a press and launched a Catholic periodical, although this, too, was quickly shut down by the revolutionaries. Undaunted, Guizar accompanied the armies of the revolution in disguise — now as a hardware peddler, now as a homeopathic physician, now as an accordion player. He ministered to the wounded and preached whenever opportunity offered. Sometimes he returned from his good works with bullet holes in his hat and clothing.
The revolutionists were increasingly infuriated by this missionary's "guerrilla" ministry. Several times they condemned him to death. He escaped that fate, but became so notorious that he finally decided it was wiser to leave the country; so in 1916, after a brief stay in the United States, he went to Guatemala. There he spent a year of missionary work under an assumed name. From 1917 to 1919, he lived in Cuba, where he preached a total of 153 parish missions.
Father Guízar was preaching in Havana on August 1, 1919, when he was informed that he had been named Bishop of Veracruz, Mexico. Unwilling at first to accept the task, he fled to Colombia, South America, to give missions there. Eventually, however, he returned submissively to Havana, and there he was ordained a Bishop, on November 30. He arrived in Veracruz on January 4, 1920, and took possession of his cathedral five days later. At almost the same moment, a terrible earthquake devastated the diocesan area. Bishop Guízar immediately added the work of relief to that of re-evangelizing his new flock.
He dedicated his first two years to visiting personally the vast territory of his diocese. He conducted missions, and later assisted those affected by a terrible earthquake, which caused mass destruction and death among the poor of Veracruz. His work included preaching in parish churches, teaching doctrine, validating marriages, spending time listening to confessions, and helping earthquake victims.
One of his main preoccupations was the education of future priests. In 1921, he was able to save and renovate the old seminary of Xalapa, which was confiscated in 1914. Once again, however, the government seized the building shortly after its renovation. He then moved the seminary to Mexico City where it continued to function clandestinely for 15 years. It was the only seminary that remained open during these years of persecution. There were 300 seminary students.
Of the years in which he was in charge of the diocese, 9 years were spent in exile or fleeing for his life. In 1931, Governor Tejada of Veracruz decreed that only one priest would be allowed for each 100,000 Catholics. Bishop Rafael countered with a nonviolent protest: he closed all the churches in his diocese. Tejada thereupon ordered that the Bishop be shot on sight. On learning this, Guízar at once went to the Governor's palace, and strode into his office. He respected authority, he told the Governor, but said that he wished to spare Tejada's assistants the trouble of shooting him. Boldness won out. Governor Tejada did not dare execute Bishop Guízar personally, so he was allowed to remain free.
The persecution did not cease until 1940. In December of 1937, while on a mission in Cordoba, Bishop Guízar suffered a heart attack and spent the rest of his days bedridden. From his deathbed, he managed the diocese and the seminary while he prepared his soul to meet Almighty God. He also celebrated Mass every day.
He died on June 6, 1938 in Mexico City. The next day he was laid to rest in Xalapa. The funeral procession was a triumphant event: everyone wanted to have a last look at "the Saintly Bishop Guízar". This modern St. Athanasius died widely venerated for his zeal and holy courage.
On January 29, 1995, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Rome. And on October 15, 2006, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Saint Rafael Guízar Valencia, pray for us!