Monday, December 12, 2016

At Mexico's Holiest Shrine Miraculous Image of the Guadalupe Virgin Shines

Words and Images by Russell Maddicks, author of Culture Smart! Mexico

The spiritual heart of Mexico, and the country's most important pilgrimage site, is the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), an enormous concrete chapel on the outskirts of Mexico City dedicated to the Virgin Mary. 

The sacred image of the Guadalupe is the holiest relic in Mexico and arguably in all of Latin America, inspiring both the devotion and fervent patriotism of the Mexican people and Catholics all over the planet. 

So many pilgrims come to see the revered image each year that the basilica has been fitted with a series of moving walkways - Catholic conveyor belts that speed the faithful along as they snap photos of the iconic image on their smartphones. 

The biggest crowds, not surprisingly, are on 12 December, the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, or the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, when tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come to worship at the shrine, some in indigenous dress, others in simple smocks, many inch-worming their way around the holy site on their knees, rosaries in hand, muttered prayers playing across their lips.

The basilica is actually a collection of churches built around the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared several times to an Aztec convert to Catholicism called Juan Diego in 1531.

The history-changing encounter took place just ten years after Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors had bloodily defeated the Aztecs and founded Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

The original image of the dark haired, brown-skinned Virgin Mary that miraculously imprinted itself on Juan Diego's tilpa (indigenous tunic) is housed in circular concrete church that was built in 1974.

Across the plaza, is the old Baroque-style basilica with wonky walls and a sloping floor that at one time threatened to collapse due to subsidence in the marshy soil, necessitating the move to the modern basilica.

Pilgrims file past the Holy Image of the Guadalupe and then climb the steps up to a chapel on the hill where the second apparition of the Virgin took place and where roses are now grown to represent the flowers that the Virgin sent as a sign so Juan Diego's story of his meeting with her would be believed. 

Miraculous Manifestation of Our Lady of Guadalupe
According to Catholic tradition, the venerated image of the Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted on the tilma (agave-fiber cloak) of a Nahua-speaking native called Juan Diego de Cuautitlan, an Aztec who had converted to Christianity.

The Holy Virgin reportedly first appeared to Juan Diego on 9 December 1531 as he was passing the hill of Tepeyac, which coincidentally housed a shrine to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin.

To calm the astonished Aztec after bursting forth in a halo of radiant light, the Virgin Mary said: "Do not be afraid. Am I not here who is your mother?"

She then instructed Juan Diego to tell the local bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, to build a church in her honor on the site she stood upon, but the bishop did not believe Juan Diego's amazing tale and sent him away. 

On 12 December the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again, telling him to pick flowers from the hill and take them to the bishop.

When the astonished bishop saw the beautiful flowers and an image of the Virgin imprinted on the tilma he was convinced Juan Diego's story was true and oversaw the construction of the first shrine to the Guadalupe, which was built in 1533.

Some investigators have cast doubt on the "miracle", suggesting the story of Juan Diego and the radiant Virgin was just a myth cooked up by the Catholic clergy to speed up the conversion of the indigenous population.

They highlight the fact that the name Guadalupe comes from the Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain, the place where Hernán Cortés and many of his fellow conquistadors were born.

Despite the naysayers, the Virgin of Guadalupe remains as important to Mexico and to Mexican identity as she was 500 years ago.

Given the resonance of the Guadalupe story to Catholic America, it is no coincidence that Juan Diego became the first indigenous saint from the Americas when he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2002, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to be the most visited Catholic shrine on the planet.

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