As we enter into 2014, social conventions tell us that it’s a time to reflect and prepare for something new. “New Year’s resolutions” are the frequent topic of conversations with friends and family of hopes, aspirations, and goals. Yet rarely do we as Catholics take this opportunity to set resolutions on our spiritual life. How will I pray more? Live my life more faithfully? Grow in love toward those around me? Extend friendship to that family member or friend that I haven’t spoken to in over a year?
Yet, for Catholics the New Year begins much earlier, during Advent, as it marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar. It is the period of preparation and waiting for the birth of Jesus. For those from Latin America, Mexico in particular, Advent brings us the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Across the continent, the Patroness of the Americas brings the message of renewal, love, and of hope. While reflecting on the possibilities for this new year, my mind came back, time and time again, to this previous December, when, across the continent, Catholics celebrated in honor of La Virgen de Tepeyac, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here at Catholic Extension we had the privilege of visiting and celebrating with two of our "mission dioceses" as they expressed their faith, steeped in deep cultural traditions, in Stockton, California and in Anchorage, Alaska.
Situated in the northern San Joaquin Valley, the Diocese of Stockton celebrated its thirty-third annual procession through the streets of Stockton in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Organized and coordinated by our most recent Lumen Christi Award recipients, José and Digna R. López, this event has grown from a small procession to a diocesan wide, mile long pilgrimage, and Mass celebration.
At Catholic Extension, we believe events such as this are fundamental in building the Catholic Church across the country. Funding a portion of this event led us to want to travel from Chicago to California to participate and witness firsthand the growth and joy of this community. Twenty six parishes participated in the pilgrimage, while hundreds watched along the streets and thousands more came together to celebrate mass in the Stockton Arena.
In this procession, the people of Stockton reminded me of the importance of having celebrations of lived expression. Prayer and devotion were embodied and vibrant in the participants of that day. Parishes were each given a theme which they then had to develop in large floats, costumes, songs, or dances. San Antonio Parish from Manteca, California depicted the scene of Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt. But it was not the large float they constructed that brought this familiar image closer to the lives of those watching and participating on that cold crisp Saturday morning. It was the message that was read out over the massive speaker system as the float passed by.
“Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, are the thousands and thousands of children, mothers, and fathers that must leave their own land to survive, to protect their lives, and who seek a better future. The Holy Family is the migrant family that we have seen in the streets of our city that have knocked on our doors, looking for support and understanding.”
It was messages like these that rang out with each parish. Banners and songs from each parish carried forth a message connecting a theological theme to their community and their city. Bringing the messages of the Mother of Jesus closer to the lives.
In Anchorage, Alaska we were received by Patricia Gould and the parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Before sunrise, we were invited to sing the “mañanitas”. The tradition of “waking up” the Virgin Mary with singing on her feast day.
Patricia, a participant in Catholic Extension's Hispanic Lay Leadership Initiative, works to build the ministries and programs as the Parish Director for Hispanic Ministry. It was immediately evident that this community, through deep dedication, had for many months labored to create a successful Feast Day of Guadalupe celebration. With the celebration beginning at 5am, coordinators and participants had only gone home for 2 hours of sleep, many having spent the previous day practicing their dancing, singing, or decorating the church until past midnight.
Praying the Missionary Rosary as a community
One of my favorite moments of the celebration was the living Missionary Rosary. The people literally became an embodiment of prayer as each person represented a Hail Mary or an Our Father, and each group of people (a decade) represented prayer for a geographical area; Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific Islands. In offering this prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, this community in words, and with their full selves, extended a commitment of love to all peoples on earth.
Offering the living Rosary to Our Lady of Guadalupe
The vibrancy and richness of both these both communities were extraordinary. One element evident in both communities was the intentionality of teaching and sharing this faith with younger generations. On more than one occasion grandparents in California and Alaska explained that their purpose for participation was not only their own devotion, but more importantly to share this experience with their own grandchildren. More than one spoke about waking up at 3 am as a child for "las mañanitas." Others remembered bringing roses as a child, all night vigils, and praying the rosary.
Nowhere was this passing on of cultural inheritance more apparent than with the Danzantes. Danzantes, are the dancers based on traditional Aztec and other indigenous groups that present their dancing as an offering to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Every year, thousands gather as traditional groups from across Mexico pilgrimage to Mexico City and perform in front of the Cathedral with her sacred image. Both the communities of Stockton and Anchorage continued this tradition of Danzantes. Over 15 groups of Danzantes processed in the pilgrimage and presented their dancing and brought forth the Eucharist within the mass in Stockton. Every group had young adult or several children participating. The community in Anchorage had two distinct groups participate in the celebration. One of which was comprised solely of children ages 13 and under. Both dances were choreographed and designed by a member of their young adult group.
Danzantes during the Mass at the Stockton Arena
Young Danzantes processing into Stockton Arena
Young adult Danzantes preparing in the early morning before the pilgrimage.
Danzantes waiting to processes in Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Anchorage.
Our Lady of Guadalupe welcomes us into the new liturgical year. Her feast day is a sign of hope, color, music, life, and celebration, demonstrating the possibility of intentional prayer and reflection within our daily faith life.
These two communities reminded me of the importance of bringing a deeper commitment and vibrancy forward to the new year. They demonstrate the possibilities of a lived and embodied faith. One that, through the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, builds our own communities and brings cultural traditions to our younger generations.
As we settle into the new year, keep the image and message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, along with the traditions of the Americas in your heart. As Pope Francis urged on her feast day, "That is the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it is also my message, the message of the Church. I ask all the people of the Americas to open wide their arms, like the Virgin, with love and tenderness.” Let us keep this love and tenderness as our resolution for the year.