Leaving aside the apparition itself, which is as supernatural a sight as anything to be seen this side of Paradise, perhaps the most striking feature about the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the fact that there appear to be only Hispanics and Latinos who actually go there. Vast numbers, to be sure, who present the most moving spectacle of faith, particularly in the intensity of the attention they pay to the Woman they regard as their Mother. Here then are her beloved children, come to pay tribute, an act of homage shorn of every blessing save that of the certainty of the hope that they are embraced by the arms of God’s own Mother. She whom the Church, in an ancient hymn dating back to the 5th century, dares to call “Paradise…for in you has bloomed the flower of immortality.”
But, seriously, where are all the gringos?
My wife and I visited Mexico some years back, making our way to the shrine that limns the heart of Hispanic faith and devotion. And having come away enriched by the experience, we continue to ask ourselves that very question. Could it be that most Catholics on this side of the border simply do not know enough about the place to persuade them to go there? And, really, what possible relevance could a 16th century Mexican shrine offer to people whose workaday existence is spent amid the privileged precincts of post-modernity? Is that perhaps the problem, that too many flesh-pots have gotten in the way, obstructing a clear and childlike vision of Our Lady? In the circumstance, will more gringos go once the facts are made known?
And what are those facts? The narrative is easily enough told, however incredible the telling. On a cold winter morning in December 1531, a poor Indian peasant by the name of Juan Diego, while en route to Mass some 15 miles away, is suddenly arrested by the sight of a dazzlingly beautiful young woman, who, announcing herself as the “perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God, through whom everything lives,” urges him to go and tell the bishop of Mexico City to raise up a house of God whence she may tell all the world of her wish to remedy the sufferings “of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who have confidence in me.”
So Juan hurries off to inform the bishop of Our Lady’s request. In due course the church is built, but not without repeated visits to the episcopal palace, where the poor fellow is rudely rebuffed by the usual chancery suspects, i.e., middle management types, whose job has always been to keep the sheep from their shepherd. Yet even they become convinced, stupefied even, when, the stunning profusion of Castilian roses having fallen from his worn cloak to the floor (they had been freshly plucked that very day from the frozen ground), the face and figure of Our Lady herself is revealed, her radiant countenance miraculously inscribed in the very tilma itself.
The one perfect image of Our Lady in existence, here is something whose integrity has survived not only the blast of a bomb (tossed by a terrorist back in 1921) or the solvent of acid accidentally spilled more recently, but the all too predictable ravages of nearly five hundred years of time and history.
It is a wonderful story. One would have to be either very cynical, or brutish, not to be moved by it. And consider the place where these events overlapped, a setting positively blood-drenched from the daily sacrifices wrought by Aztec religion, in which the hearts of hundreds of thousands of living victims were torn out in order to slake the appetite of an obscene god. It was this barbarity that the appearance of the Blessed Virgin had come to banish forever.
What happens in the aftermath of the apparitions is, quite simply, the most spectacular number of conversions in the history of the world. More than enough certainly to compensate the Church for whatever losses she sustained in the Old World as a result of a divided Christendom. If five million were lost owing to the theological upheavals then sweeping across Northern Europe, imagine the sheer impact of nine million more added as a result of wave upon wave of Aztecs clamoring for baptism. Is it any surprise, therefore, that today there are 92 million (and counting) Roman Catholics living in Mexico, making it the second largest Catholic country in the world? Or that Guadalupe has become the world’s most popular Marian shrine?
And maybe that is just the problem we gringos have with Guadalupe. We are embarrassed by her. And even more by those who rush to lay their sorrows at her feet, convinced that only her intercession can assuage what the poet Dana Gioia has called “the bitterness of the earth and ashes.” That life is a cheat, in other words, and that the perpetual injustice of the world is an affliction too awful to ask mere humans to have to bear. Yet in her complete identification with the poor and the sick, with the simple faithful whose lives are marked not by middle class comfort but by suffering and loss, she offends our bourgeois respectability. And so we recoil from the warmth of that kinship with the Mother of God that is a distinguishing feature of Latin ad Hispanic Catholicism. For those of us whose lives are glutted with gratifications, our choices more and more determined by sensate desire, faith has become an abstraction, increasingly unreal to people consumed by the goods and services they possess. And a religion thus reduced really does not need a Mother.
This is why when Pope John Paul II first went to Mexico in 1979, there to present a vision for the whole Church that would both begin and end with Mary (“Mary must be more than ever the pedagogy,” answered the bishops of Latin and South America to the pope’s appeal, “in order to proclaim the Gospel to the men of today”), we were simply not interested. Even if her life and mission were to illumine the whole landscape of truth concerning ourselves and God, we would not budge. For us gringos, ensconced in comfort zones all across the fruited plain, devotion to Mary does not compute. And until it does, and we start entreating Our Blessed Lady as children who ardently need their Mother, nothing much will happen to us; certainly we will not grow in that sanctity of which she remains the world’s most radiant and unsurpassed example.
“Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief,” she told Juan Diego then, as she tells us now. “Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”
Yes, there is. A bit of wisdom to see, as our ancestors once did, that about Mary one can never say enough (De Maria nunquam satis). And then the courage to believe it.