Next Monday hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and pilgrims from around the world will make their way to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the northeastern quarter of Mexico City.
In 2009 a record 6.1 million people, spread over a two-day period, visited the site at the base of the small hill, the Cerro de Tepeyac, where in 1531 a Nahuatl peasant had a vision. This year’s week of celebrations has already begun in anticipation of the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
About 480 years ago the Nahuatl people of central Mexico and indeed all indigenous first peoples of the region reeled under the devastating impact of the Spanish conquest of their lands. Warfare, the introduction of European diseases and the wholesale collapse of the traditional authority systems that had ordered their lives for generations profoundly destabilized a civilization and its rich, vibrant culture. In this time of crisis, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a poor farmer in his late 50s, heard the call of a young woman on Tepeyac Hill.
In his native Nahuatl language she told him: “I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.” (See Juan Diego in Wikipedia)
A newly converted Catholic, Juan Diego recognized the apparition as Mary, the mother of Jesus. She told him to tell the local bishop to build a shrine to her on the place where she stood. Coincidentally this was the previous site of a teocalli or “god-house” of Tonantzin, the nurturing female form of god for the Nahuatl people.
Locally church authorities, as the oft told story goes, refused to believe the humble peasant. They demanded a sign. The young woman reappearing to Juan Diego told him to pick Castilian roses miraculously blooming in winter on Tepeyac. The roses and a more surprising image of Our Lady of Guadalupe left on his tilma, a poncho-like outer garment that he collected the roses in, convinced the bishop.
Today that tilma rests high above the altar at the great basilica built there. Its pews seat over 10,000 worshippers with temporary seating possible for twice as many more on occasions like the feast day next Monday. Last March I gazed on the iconic relic from moving sidewalks which carry pilgrims by it behind and below the main altar of the basilica. It continues to inspire and spiritually sustain millions of pilgrims. Juan Diego became the first indigenous saint from the Americas when he was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Religious voices and images from the south will become more important and influential over the coming decades as the spiritual locus of Christianity shifts to the south. Today 60 per cent of the world’s Christians live in the Southern Hemisphere, a marked change from just a century ago, according to the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity when 66 per cent of Christians lived in Europe.
This trend will likely lead to an increased religious focus on the glaring economic social inequalities between the north and the south. As John L. Allen Jr. notes in his recent book The Future Church: “A basic skepticism about international trade agreements and the assertion of American corporate influence runs through both the leadership and the grassroots of southern Catholicism.”
Concrete changes in church structures and policies reflecting this may well challenge the current dominant Northern hegemonic control. They may even lead towards needed changes in global economic and political structures. South voices from the world’s churches could give witness to the hoped-for-healing of today’s broken world as Juan Diego’s vision did for his suffering people five centuries ago.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.