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Sole child.

What better patron for our children at risk than the Holy Child of Atocha?

ONCE AGAIN IT'S CHRISTMASTIME, WHEN JESUS comes as a child. It's a time of relief, really, when the awesome Christ the King gives way to an approachable, inarticulate infant. The "little Lord Jesus" we laud in carols taps our sentimental side, invoking images of pink cooing helplessness, lullabies, the shepherds playing peek-a-boo, and the first-century version of Pampers.

In the days before the sibylline pronouncements of child development experts, children were regarded as sweet, innocent simpletons blissfully untainted by the adult world.

We now know better. The pitiless 1990s reveal a very different picture of children: wielding assault weapons, debauched by drugs, sexually promiscuous, abusing and abused. In turn, our times demand a divine child that families can turn to as a champion, not an icon of sentimentality. Fortunately, Catholic tradition provides one: the Holy Child of Atocha.

In predominantly Hispanic south Texas, where I live, images of the El Santo Nino de Atocha--the Holy Child of Atocha--abound. Seated on a chair, he wears a long gown with wide lace collar and cuffs. A cockleshell and walking staff symbolize his pilgrim status. The Holy Child holds a basket of bread and a water gourd. He wears buckled sandals (often real leather) and a dashing floppy hat with a feather.

Devotion to El Nino de Atocha flourished in Spain under the Moorish occupation. In Atocha, a suburb of Madrid, imprisoned Christians were fed by family members, their captors provided no food. One heartless caliph, however forbade anyone over the age of 12 to bring food to captives. What would happen to those without small children?

The women of Atocha prayed to Our Lady of Atocha in the church, beseeching the aid of the child in her arms. Soon after, strange rumors filled the town. Every night, an unknown young boy brought prisoners an inexhaustible supply of bread and water. Brave and clever, he slipped past the nodding guards or wheedled them into allowing him access. When the grateful women knelt to thank Our Lady of Atocha, they saw with astonishment that her child's sandals were worn out. If replaced, the new sandals too wore out.

When Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Moors from Spain in 1492, Catholics asked Santo Nino de Atocha to help those in jail or laboring in the mines. When the Spaniards conquered the New World, this devotion found a new home in the Mexican city of Fresnillo and later spread as far north as New Mexico.

During World War II, the New Mexico National Guard were among the first American troops in combat. They endured the terrible ordeal of Corregidor, the Philippine island guarding the entrance to Manila Bay. Faced with the treacherous warren of underground tunnels and defenses manned by the Japanese, the New Mexico Catholics recalled the patron of those trapped and imprisoned. Many vowed that if they survived the war, they would make a pilgrimage from Santa Fe to the Nino de Atocha shrine at Chimayo, New Mexico.

After the war, 2,000 pilgrims and their families kept that vow. Battle-scarred veterans of Corregidor, the Bataan death march, and the Japanese prison camps trudged from Santa Fe to Chimayo--some barefoot--to thank the Holy Child for bringing them home safely.

What better patron for our children at risk than the Holy Child of Atocha? What better comforter than Our Lady of Atocha, who worries like any mother about her child? Surely at our petitions, El Nino de Atocha will bring the Bread of Life and the Living Water. Nuestra Senora grants our petitions and permits Jesus to go to the rescue.

As a veteran of Moors and mines, Corregidor and Bataan, today's prisons, kiddie porn, guns, sex, drugs, and death hold no terrors for this Holy Child. Surely at our petitions, E1 Nino de Atocha will bring the Bread of Life and the Living Water to our children on the streets. Surely at our prayers, he'll bring lost children safely home.

Again, it's Christmastime, when bad Muzak and rapid-fire commercials assault our hearing and secularism and sin stifle the voice of the Spirit. But listen! Through the stormy night, can't you hear an undaunted child singing of hope?

By, PAMELA J. EDWARDS, author of Catechizing with Liturgical Symbols (Resource Publications, 1997).
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Title Annotation:Holy Child of Atocha
Author:EDWARDS, PAMELA J.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Words:720
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