The Society of Mary—the Marianists—welcomed Joseph Kroger in the early 1960s, right out of high school in his native Ohio. The Marianists were the founders of the University of Dayton, where Kroger earned his undergraduate degree. He spent 10 years with the order, teaching high school in Ohio and later in St. Louis. There he met his late wife, Althea. Marriage redirected him toward graduate studies in Canada and a job with Saint Michael's as a religious studies professor, beginning in 1972.
In the decades since, Kroeger has pursued special interests in the nexus of Eastern religions with Western spirituality, liberation theology, ethics and social activism to address world hunger. In the late 1990s he also began teaching periodically in Mexico through a Saint Michael's/Universidad De Las Americas Exchange Program in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico.
In a forward to his new book, Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the Divine Feminine, which he coauthored with garden historian and iconography specialist Patrizia Graziera, Kroger writes of how he was surprised and intrigued by the widespread intensity of devotion to various Madonnas in Mexico, each with its own colorful history and legends. He found himself "turning to Mary again... this time with scholarly interests" in hopes of better understanding the origins and cultural expressions of these devotions.
After learning Spanish from Saint Michael's colleagues Marta Umanzor and Amanda Amend, Kroger started traveling and reading extensively on the topic, visiting Madonna sites and learning from an anthropologist he met in Cholula. As he came to better understand indigenous religious traditions of that region, he discovered numerous connections between ancient Aztec goddesses and the later post-Spanish-conquest devotions to Mary. Kroger also found virtually no scholarly work on that specific topic.
The book describes Aztec civilization before the Spaniards arrived, and explains Mariology in Catholic tradition and its arrival in Mexico. Marian devotions reached a peak in medieval Spain, from whence Conquistadors came. "They were devoted to Mary and carried with them little statues, 'saddle Virgins,'" he says. He describes "what happened when these two cultures encounter one another," with Mary "kind of replacing Aztec goddesses." The book examines 28 Madonnas that have popular devotion in Mexico, along with histories of 22 Aztec goddesses. The book's Madonna section starts with Mexico's two most prominent, "Remedios" or Our Lady of the Remedies, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"A kind of competition developed between the Madonnas," Kroger says, "with groups rallying around one or the other in armed conflicts, or even when praying for rain." In the context of Mexican Catholic devotional lives, Madonnas came to function "as powerful mediators of divine grace and terror," just as Aztec goddesses did. "For the Aztecs, they were both good and bad. Like the earth, they were going to feed you and bury you; or like water, it's essential but can drown you. Mary was associated with all those natural symbols too. They saw goddesses and Mary as good and bad."
All the books that the publisher brought to the major convention for religion scholars this past fall in Chicago sold out, Kroger said, which was encouraging. He's working on a manuscript for another book about Buddhist and Christian doctrinal development and the parallels therein.