This weekend a group of Catholic Extension staff members and I had the opportunity to travel on an immersion trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico, a mission diocese supported by Catholic Extension. This particular trip occurred in conjunction with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a three-day celebration that concludes today. On Sunday we joined thousands of Native American and Hispanic Catholics on their hike up to the top of Tortugas Mountain in Las Cruces, to celebrate Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a tradition which is over 100 years old.
In Mexican culture, Our Lady of Guadalupe is very important. She is not only a symbol of faith. She is a symbol of cultural identity, of God’s concern for the poor, and of the amazing optimism and strength of the many marginalized communities across the world. As the story goes, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to a poor Aztec convert named Juan Diego. Mary told Juan to build her a shrine, but when he asked for permission, the bishop demanded a sign from Mary herself.
Juan returned to Mary, explained the dilemma, and she gave him a bundle of roses to present to the bishop. Juan did so, and when he opened his cloak in front of the bishop, the now famous image of Mary appeared on his cloak. The bishop was convinced.
Each December, this story is remembered across the world. It is often accompanied by a “pilgrimage,” celebrations of Catholic mass, lots of food and singing, dancing, music, and the memory of lost loved ones. It is the principle time to celebrate the cultural heritage and the Catholic faith of many Mexican people.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is also about empowerment. Mary, a woman, appeared to a poor indigenous farmer, someone the local leadership had forgotten. Mary spoke up for the powerless when no one else would. And when the bishop refused to believe Juan Diego, Mary stepped in to make sure he was heard.
Among the exchanges Mary is said to have had with Juan Diego, one goes, “I desire a church in this place where your people will experience my compassion.” Mary’s visit to Juan Diego was a signal that God cares about the marginalized.
The many celebrations of Our Lady energize this sense of empowerment. Mary is not simply “The Virgin.” She is “Our Virgin.” She is not the Mary who had been handed to the Mexican people by a European missionary movement all too influenced by colonization. Mary appeared to a poor farmer who represented all of the challenges tied up with la lucha, the struggle to survive in a challenging world.
Simply remembering this event is a way of standing up against the many forces that threaten to steal poor people’s sense of agency. It is the story of their lady, the one God gave to them as an expression of love.
A few other thoughts:
1. The feast is about family. At all the events we attended, families were together – from very young babies to very old abuelas. Last night I met two women over 90. And families also brought along those who have died. They carried images or other memorabilia of deceased grandmothers, fathers, and children whom they love. The feast helps bring the dead and alive together.
2. The feast is about serving one another. We often heard the phrase No te olvidas aqui estoy – “Don’t forget I’m here.” This was something that the women would say to one another when leaving their celebrations. Facing the struggles of life together gives them strength.
3. The feast is about memory. It tells a story that may otherwise be forgotten and tells the many stories of the thousands of Juan Diegos today.
4. The feast is about faith. In spite of all the problems with religion, I still believe there is something profoundly unique about faith. Faith provides a sense of optimism for those with plenty of reasons to be cynical. Faith reminds us that the realities facing us now are not the only realities possible. It reminds us that the future holds promise. The Mexican people find hope in the lady – their lady – the mother of God who cared enough about their situation to leave her heavenly throne and share God’s love.
It was a blessing to experience that love this weekend.
William Myatt is director of development for Catholic Extension