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Guadalupe icon comes to U.S.

Image heralded south of border arrives here as apologist for Spanish conquest, symbol for struggle against abortion

WILLLAMSBURG, Va. - A crowd of more than 100 pink-faced worshipers carried candles through the cold night air recently as they trudged behind an uplifted, 5-foot-tall image of the Virgin of Guadalupe during a special evening service at Our Lady of Ascension Byzantine Catholic. They were a somber but happy crowd: Knights of Columbus with sashes pulled tight across their chests, women bundled into parkas youngsters in pinafores and suits.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, Latin America's favorite religious icon, was at Our Lady of Ascension as part of a now two-year-old tour of the United States.

But the life-sized photo of the Virgin awing Catholics in Virginia's Hampton Roads region may not be conjuring the same image and feelings north of the border as it does south of the border. The photo, donated by the Mexican Council of Bishops, is being heralded by its sponsors as nothing short of a divine apologist for Hernan Cortes' conquest of Mexico. The photo is also being employed as a symbol for the American antiabortion movement.

"In his justice, God sent Hernando Cortes and the Spanish to conquer and evangelize Mexico," according to a companion text that follows the image from church to church. The text was written by a Vermont lawyer and antiabortion activist, Dan Lynch, whose organization, Missionary Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, based in St. Albans, is sponsoring the tour.

"In 1531, Mary appeared before Juan Diego to stop the human sacrifices of the Aztecs," said Father Glenn Davidowich, pastor at Our lady of the Ascension. "In the 20th century she is here to stop the senseless slaughter of the unborn."

The belief that Guadalupe is a symbol condoning Cortes' victory over the Aztecs is at best a fringe one, said the ologian Virgil Elizondo, pastor of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas. "It was really a call to the conquerors, a call to the powerful who were destroying the weak," he said. "It was Catholicism itself that was called to conversion."

As legend has it, Mary appeared to the Mexican-Indian Juan Diego in December 1531 in Tepeyac, now a suburb of Mexico City. The Virgin sent Diego to ask his local bishop to build a shrine temple for her and, as a sign, gave Diego a cloakful of roses.

When he opened his cloak to present the roses to the bishop, a Gothic image of the Virgin appeared painted inside the cloak. It has since been stored behind glass at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The sash that Our Lady of Guadalupe is wearing indicates pregnancy, according to antiabortion activists.

"The story has more to do with the conversion of the bishop than the conversion of Juan Diego." Elizondo said. "The real meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe was that of bringing the conquering powers to the gospel. She is the patroness for those who need help, the unemployed, those who are considered illegal."

In Mexico - where the question "Are you religious" is often phrased "Do you believe in the Virgin?" - Guadalupe's haloed image is ubiquitous.

Public buses in Mexico City suburbs have flower-adorned shrines to the Virgin on their dashboards, Mexican factories often post pictures of the Virgin to discourage bad behavior and tens of thousands of annual pilgrims to the Basilica finish their journey crawling on their knees.

The original impetus to bring the image north came from a Washington State man who claimed he received personal messages from Mary telling him she wanted to travel throughout the length and breadth of the Americas" (NCR, Aug 2, 1991). Mary yearned to join antiabortion activists in the United States, the seer said.

The seer's cause was taken up by Lynch before the Mexican Council of Bishops. The bishops were sympathetic, but not quite ready to give up Juan Diego's cloak, which forms the centerpiece of the most-visited Marian Shrine in the world. Hence, the 5-foot photo at Our lady of Ascension Parish.

While the Virgin of Guadalupe may never achieve the cult following she has in Mexico, Anne Power, who helped coordinate the image's tour through Hampton Roads, said she hopes an antiabortionist understanding of the icon will take hold in Virginia.

"They're showing her across the country to stop the killing of the unborn," said Ken Ayltt, who had just emerged from an alcove where the Virgin was displayed at Our Lady of Carmel Church. "I take care of children in my home, and I'm for the right to life," added his wife, Debbie.

"We believe so deeply in her," said Eileen Mardenborough as she left the church. It's not just the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, it's the image of our mother," added her husband, Bob.
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Title Annotation:Virgin of Guadalupe
Author:Smith, Matt
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 29, 1993
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