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Madre Maria in Mexico.

D.H. Lawrence wrote a novel about Mexico in the 1920's, a time of fierce persecution of the Catholic Church in that country. In his novel The Plumed Serpent, we read about Dona Carlota as she speaks to her Irish friend, Kate. The "Ramon" to whom she refers is her husband, the leader of a group devoted to Quetzelcoatl, the Aztec serpent god. "Could you follow Ramon? Could you give up the Blessed Virgin? I would sooner die!" She continues: "Ah senora, as if a woman who had ever known the Blessed Virgin could ever part from her again!"

Marian devotion

Although these words were written in 1929, they could well describe Mexico's love for the Blessed Virgin Mary at the present time: the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere. In taxicabs. Buses. Hotels and restaurants. Roadside shrines. In every bus station in the nation one can see a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, complete with kneeler. It is commonplace to see a person kneeling down in front of the shrine and making the sign of the Cross-and this in the middle of the bus station! Imagine, if you can, such a scene being duplicated in Canada.

There is another phenomenon associated with Marian devotion in Mexico and that is the sheer volume of pilgrims visiting these shrines. The numbers are staggering; they are so enormous that they take one's breath away: an employee of the Mexico City Tourist Bureau reports that seven million people attend the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on her feast day, December 12, and other sources state that 20 million people attend the basilica in the course of a year.

EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) reported in October 2004 during the Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, that three million people joined in the procession to escort the diminutive image of Our Lady of Zapopan to her shrine in Zapopan, a suburb of Guadalajara. The procession took three and a half hours.

Then, of course, there was the famous trip of Pope John Paul II to Mexico City in 2002 for the canonization of the Guadalupe visionary, Juan Diego. Peggy Noonan described this visit in her article in the August 2, 2002 issue of the Financial Post. "Twelve million people lined the streets of Mexico City to greet John Paul the day he arrived--Twelve million!"

Who else in the history of the world has garnered such crowds? Pope John Paul had a special love for the Mexican people and it was obviously reciprocated. His presence is highly visible in Mexico. One can see his picture or statue all over the country--in churches, of course, but also in storefronts and plazas as well. He, like them, shared a special love for the Mother of God. He went to Mexico five times and, most significantly, the first trip of his papacy was to the basilica of Guadalupe. In fact, so important was she to him that he entrusted his entire papacy to Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1979. It was a trip of historical significance for Mexico: it was the first time that a Pope had set foot on Mexican soil. At the present time his actual "Popemobile" is on display on the grounds of the basilica in Mexico City, a gift to the Mexican people from President Vincente Fox. How they revere this memory of their beloved "Papa!"

Our Lady of Guadelupe

One of the most visited shrines in the world is Our Lady of Guadalupe. The story is well known: in December 1531, Our Lady made a series of four appearances to Juan Diego, a 57-year-old Aztec Indian, newly converted to the Christian faith. The appearances culminated with the miraculous imprint of Mary's image on Juan Diego's cloak ('tilma') which is made of a coarse cactus fibre; the tilma remains intact and vibrant after almost 500 years, despite the fragility of the fabric, which would normally disintegrate in 20 years. This tilma can be seen today at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is set up high on a wall, near a moving sidewalk, going both ways, so pilgrims can stand on the "sidewalk" and look at the image.

Conversion to Catholicism

H. Rahm in his book Am I Not Here? declared that the apparition of Guadalupe resulted in an "explosion of the supernatural" in Mexico; hundreds of churches were built in a short time and within a decade nine million Indians converted to the faith. The dark-skinned Lady of Guadalupe was one with them. They had found their Mother. As Rahm asserts, "Many, after a lifetime of searching, find their true Mother and their true home at last, at the feet of America's Mother."

Until the event of Guadalupe, human sacrifice had been practised in Aztec Mexico on an immense scale--it was not uncommon for thousands of people to be sacrificed in one day to celebrate the opening of a new temple. After the miracle of 1531 all human sacrifice was abolished. Fittingly, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been declared the Patroness of the pro-life movement.

The apparition has received Church approval from the beginning: the kindly Bishop Zumarraga, the first bishop of the New World, was present when the miraculous image appeared. Countless Popes have acclaimed its wonders, including Pope Benedict XIV, who in 1746 declared, "God has not wrought such wonderful things for any other nation" (Psalm 147). In 1945 Pope Pius XII proclaimed Mary as Empress of all the Americas. In 1999 Pope John Paul II consecrated the whole continent to her and named her as the Star of Evangelization.

Virtually unknown, however, to the English-speaking world is the multitude of other Marian shrines in the rest of Mexico. They are a marvel to behold and are part of what Rahm refers to as the "explosion of the supernatural" following the Guadalupe miracle. Fr. Cassidy wrote about these shrines in the 1950's in his book, The Wonders of diary in Mexico. And wondrous they are--the rest of this article describes three of these shrines.

Our Lady of San Juan De Los Lagos

The second most popular shrine in Mexico, after Our Lady of Guadalupe, is the shrine of Our Lady of Los Lagos in the state of Jalisco about an hour's drive from the city of Guadalajara. The events of this shrine began with a tragedy: a little girl, aged 6 or 7, died in a horrifying accident in the town of San Juan de los Lagos. It so happened that the child belonged to a family of itinerant aerial acrobats who were on their way to perform in Guadalajara. At a practice session on this fateful day in 1623 the little trapeze artist was flying through the air, high above the crowds. The child lost her balance and fell to her death, impaled by a dagger through her heart. (To increase the excitement factor for the onlookers, daggers had been planted in the ground with their points directed upwards).

The grief-stricken parents prepared the small corpse for burial. Several hours later, a devout lady, Ana Louise, brought forth the neglected, disfigured image of Our Lady of Los Lagos (who represented the Immaculate Conception) and placed her on the dead child's chest. In the midst of a multitude of witnesses, slight movements could be seen under the burial cloths. The crowd was mesmerized. The parents frantically cut away the bonds of the cloth. To the astonishment of the onlookers the child sat bolt upright, in perfect health, and wondered what all the fuss was about!

News of the stupendous miracle spread like wildfire. People began flocking to the shrine. Wondrous graces and miracles continued to proliferate through the centuries down to our present times. The image itself displays miraculous properties: it is sculptured from a combination of cornstalks and glue known as 'pasta de Michoacan' (Michoacan is a neighbouring state), a common sculpting medium of the time. Despite the delicacy of this substance (it normally crumbles to pieces in a short time) the image has remained intact for over three and a half centuries.

The church is now raised to the status of a basilica and has received ecclesiastical approbation at the highest levels: on August 15, 1904 the statue was crowned by the Archbishop of Guadalajara with the authorization of Pope Pius X. To celebrate the centenary of the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1954, Pope Plus XII declared Our Lady of Los Lagos the principal patron of the diocese of Guadalajara and the Mexican nation.

There is a touching story to illustrate papal approval in our own time: it concerns Pope John Paul II's visit to the shrine. It was reported by Mexican author Guadalupe Pimentel, in Sanctuarios Marianos, that Pope John Paul was "enchanted" by Our Lady of Los Lagos. That he knelt "in front of the image with his eyes closed--with an expression of intense recollection and prayed for almost three minutes." Then, at the point of exiting by the side door, he turned back towards the image "and prayed for another 120 seconds." It was as though he couldn't bear to leave her presence. Another feature unique to this shrine is the penitential aspect of the pilgrims who visit here: at all hours of the day large numbers of pilgrims can be seen traversing the entire length of the church on their knees, from the youngest toddlers to the eldest in the family.

Our Lady of Ocotlan

One of the most striking churches in Mexico is Our Lady of Ocotlan, located in the picturesque city of Tlaxcala in the highlands of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, 120 km east of Mexico City. Commonly referred to as the "wedding cake" church because of its white stucco ornate decoration, it is in the "Churriguesque" style, a type of architecture named for the seventeenth-century Spanish architect, Churriguera. He was known for his lavish Baroque surface decoration.

The events surrounding the apparition of Our Lady of Ocotlan are as extraordinary as those of Guadalupe and occurred in 1541 exactly ten years after the Guadalupe miracle. At this time in its history, a devastating smallpox epidemic was sweeping through the region of Tlaxcala and nine out of ten Indians perished as a result. Now we see another Juan Diego enter into our scene: Juan Diego Bernardino worked for the friars of the Franciscan monastery, and on this February day he was bringing water to his sick relatives. As he entered the forest a beautiful lady appeared to him and said: "Come with me? I will give you a different water that will cure the sicknesses of your people." She then led the astonished Juan Diego to a previously unknown spring. She continued with her message, so redolent of a loving mother: "My heart always desires to help those who are suffering. My heart cannot bear to see so much pain and anguish among people without healing them."

Juan distributed the miraculous water to the sick townspeople and all were healed! There is more: Juan had a message for the Franciscan friars from the Mother of God: "Tell the monks that in this place (the forest) they shall find an image of me-through which I will bring forth my mercy and blessings." The skeptical friars set out at night to explore this mysterious turn of events when suddenly they were blinded by a great light "spewing huge flames of fire." The forest was on fire? Yet, strangely, none of the trees burned.

One particular tree caught their attention--it was the tallest of the bunch. The next day, armed with axes, they returned to the forest and split the tallest tree open. To their utter amazement they found a statue of the Virgin Mary encased inside the hollow of the tree. Amidst great wonderment and jubilation they carried the exquisite adult-sized statue to the nearby chapel of St. Lawrence, where it resides to this day in the Basilica of Our Lady of Ocotlan. 'Ocotlan' is the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) word for "place of the pine tree."

The Church has granted approval of this apparition at the highest levels: five popes have endorsed it; from Pope Clement XII in 1735 to Pope Pius XII in 1941, elevating the church of Ocotlan to the status of a basilica. As a further sign of its distinction the statue was canonically crowned in 1906. Miraculous graces and healings abound to the present day at Ocotlan. Fr. Bachill Manuel Laoyzaga, a distinguished historian from the 18th century, reported that an extraordinary phenomenon occurs on the statue's facial expression during particular religious festivities: the face changes colour, from red rose to pale and back again. Many people have witnessed this miracle through the centuries, including the Bishop of Taxcala, Luis Munive Escobar in 19877 Fr. Loayzaga also testified that he had witnessed the statue sweating on different occasions and that at times the statue was as heavy as lead and at other times as light as a feather.

Our Lady of Zapopan

Another renowned shrine in the state of Jalisco is Our

Lady of Zapopan, a stunning Franciscan church near the city of Guadalajara. The miraculous nature of this image began with the arrival on Mexican soil of the first Franciscan missionaries: in 1524 the first twelve (known as "the twelve apostles") arrived from Spain and in 1525 the second group arrived, among them Fr. Antonio de Segovia, who figures principally in the history of this shrine.

Fr. Segovia, who loved the Indians as his sons, had an intense love for the Virgin Mary. On his missionary endeavours he brought with him a small image of Mary, representing the Immaculate Conception. In order to facilitate his apostolic efforts he always wore the image of Mary around his neck, calling her "the evangelizer." He begged Our Lady's help in his apostolic work.

One day, Our Lady answered his prayers in a most extraordinary manner: while he was preaching to the Indians and trying to make peace among them and the Spaniards, luminous rays of light emanated from the image in a most startling manner. So impressed were the Indians by this amazing sight that they laid down their arms and begged for Baptism. Six thousand were baptized in one momentous day. Henceforth, she became known as 'La Pacificadora' ("she who makes peace"). Fr. Segovia gave the image to the Indians and she continues to convert hearts to the present time in her shrine at Zapopan.

After reports of numerous miracles the bishops ordered an examination of the image and presented its findings in 1641: she was declared 'taumaturga' (meaning "wonder-working"). Among these verified miracles were the curing of a blind man and the restoration of a dead child to life. New investigations in 1731, 1732 and 1733 confirmed even more miracles. Her protective care continues through the centuries, saving the people of Guadalajara from great calamities, from epidemics, storms and even wars. In 1852 while Guadalajara was in a state of siege (with her water supply being cut off), the Virgin of Zapopan once more saved her people. In 1919 the Vatican authorized the Canonical crowning of the image and in 1940 Pope Plus XII elevated the shrine to the status of a basilica.

Even secular guidebooks refer to her fame: Lonely Planet guidebook to Mexico states: "In all of Mexico, only the Virgin of Guadalupe exceeds in adoration the all-Jalisco trio--the 'Three Sister' Virgins of Talpa, Zapopan, and San Juan de los Lagos. Yearly they draw millions of humble Mexican pilgrims who bus, walk, hitchhike--to festivals honouring the virgins." Another guidebook says that the numbers who participate in the annual Zapopan procession every October 12th are "beyond belief." The October 13, 2005, issue of the Miami Herald reported that one million people participated in this event in 2005. Amidst great pomp and ceremony, the image, dressed in her traveller's costume, is borne back to her home in Zapopan, having travelled through the diocese for the previous four months. She is accompanied by throngs of rejoicing people, marching bands, mariachi musicians, and Indian dancers in traditional costumes. Airplanes strew flowers along the route. Fireworks punctuate the night sky. All to celebrate "La Zapopanita," the beloved image of Zapopan. It too has received church approbation at the highest levels.

On the 450th anniversary of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, 1981, in a taped message, Pope John Paul praised Mary for her role in bringing people closer to her Son. He had intended to be there in person, but the assassination attempt in May of that year prevented his coming to Mexico. It is interesting to observe that most of the Marian shrines in Mexico have Eucharistic Adoration. Pope John Paul would be well pleased. It is just as they say: "Mary always leads us to Jesus." He concluded his first homily to the Mexican people on January 26, 1979 with this prayer: "Let us place this intention on this altar: The faithful Virgin, the Mother of Guadalupe, from whom we learn the design of God, may she help us in this commitment to Christ until the end of our lives." Amen.

Mary Hansen, a member of the Third Order Discalced Carmelites, has contributed several past articles on the Little Flower. She lives in Barrie, ON.
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Author:Hansen, Mary
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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