Thursday, December 12, 2013

Our Lady of Guadalupe and "the Promise"

Today, December 12, is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s favorite saint. More than five million people will visit her shrine in Mexico City this week. Thousands of these pilgrims will be from the mountains of Guerrero; many of these will be there to fulfill “una promesa” ("a promise") made to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe
What is “una promesa”? In general terms, it is simply a commitment made by a person to Our Lady of Guadalupe that if Our Lady helps this person achieve a goal or a favour, then that person will travel to the shrine in Mexico City to personally thank Our Lady and to leave an offering such as flowers or candles.

What kind of “goal” or “favour” is requested? These can vary. It could be a request for good health or a successful medical operation; it could be that a loved one get a job; it could be that the rainy season be a good one; it could be that a family member manage to “sneak into” the United States; it could be that a child manage to do okay in his or her studies at school.

In the Spanish translation of “Nican Mopohua,” the first document describing the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to a humble indigenous man, Juan Diego, in December of 1531, one reads that Mary wanted a church to be built on the hill of Tepeyac so that she could share there her “amor, compasión, auxilio y defensa” and “oír allí sus lamentos, y remediar todas sus miserias, penas y dolores”—so that she could share there her “love, compassion, assistance and defense” and “hear there their cries, and remedy all of their miseries, sorrows and sufferings." It’s no wonder that the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination in the whole world.

I’ve always found it interesting that when the new Basilica of Guadalupe was being built in Mexico City in the mid-1970s (the old basilica was sinking and was unsafe to enter), one Mexican bishop, Sergio Mendez Arceo, bishop of Cuernavaca, spoke often in his homilies about “la promesa” and how the “powers that be” that controlled Mexico’s government and Mexico’s economy at that time were taking advantage of this religious practice in order to “keep the poor people in their place.” It’s one reason why, even today, one can read a plaque at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe that states “Patrocinado por el Banco de México” (“Sponsored by the Bank of Mexico”—which was, in the mid-70s, a government-owned bank).
Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe - Mexico City
I had the good fortune to translate for Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo on several occasions (most memorably when he was visited in the 1980s by Henri Nouwen), and I remember his way of explaining this reality. Here is a summary of his thinking:
Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo (1907–1992)
If the poor believe that they are poor because God made them poor, and if they believe that it is Our Lady of Guadalupe who will be the “responsible one” for helping them achieve goals that should be the right of every human being (food, water, health care, education, dignified employment, decent housing, etc.), then the governing powers are only too happy to encourage this way of thinking, in order to continue exploiting the poor. For example, if a poor mother makes a promise to Our Lady of Guadalupe that the mother will travel to the shrine to thank Our Lady if she helps the mother’s thirteen-year-old daughter successfully complete Grade Six, then any failure on the part of the daughter to finish Grade Six would seem to rest with Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Might the daughter’s success in school depend on other factors, such as:

-       was the daughter malnourished as an infant; will her brain cells even allow her to learn?  
-       is the mother literate; can she help the daughter with her homework?
-       does the family earn enough each day to eat healthily and rest securely?
-       does the daughter have to look after smaller siblings every night in a one-room house?
-       is there electricity in the home; can the daughter even study at night?
-       is the daughter out at the street corner every night selling candy or gum or flowers, just so that the family can eat every day?
-       is the daughter discouraged in school because she is bullied or made fun of because of her poorer clothing and appearance?

Factors such as these (in the words of Bishop Sergio) undoubtedly have as much to do with the child’s success or failure in school as does the requested intervention of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And the above-mentioned factors surely are as related to the political and economic situation of Mexico as they are to the loving desire of Our Lady of Guadalupe to “hear” and “remedy” the sorrows of this poor mother.

Bishop Sergio was famous for reminding the people of God’s words to Moses in Exodus 3:10: “Go now; I am sending you [to free my people].” Pope Francis, in his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, reflects those words when he writes (187): “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and the promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.” He clarifies (201): “None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.”
Pope Francis with image of Our Lady of Guadalupe
My friends, we are getting close to Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Pope Francis reminds us (197) that “God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9).” Let us pray that each of us can have that same heart.

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