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The sacred shrines of Mexico



Linda Nyquist answers my questions about the tour of "the sacred shrines of Mexico":

"Fr. Hausmann did not accompany the trip after all - it was accompanied by Fr. Bill Finn, who has since died. Bill didn't actually know that much about these shrines, so it was up to me to answer the questions. I have always been very interested in Mexican colonial history, especially the Inquisition, and had made lots of maps, etc. The book by Cohen, The Martyr, is my bible Professor Cohen has done the best job imaginable of documenting the story of the Carvajal family in colonial Mexico. The elder Carvajal was a governor of Nuevo Leon, but he made the mistake of bringing his nephew, Luis the Younger, to Mexico, and his secret, and not-so-secret judaizing got much of the family brought in front of the Inquisition authorities and subsequently burned at the stake. "The Martyr" is probably the best book I have ever read! It should be made into a movie.

Personally, I don't believe any of the apparition stories, but I keep that to myself so as not to offend others. The basilicas and churches are beautiful, and yes, we did meet many pilgrims on the trips. We stayed at first-class hotels for a very good reason, and that was to keep food-borne illness to a minimum. As it was, we had two people hospitalized on that particular trip. The average age of participant on this kind of trip is usually about 65-70.

You have asked if Catholics are embarrassed about the palace of the Inquisition in Mexico City. I don't think so. For years it was the medical school and now is the medical museum. There was some talk about making it into an Inquisition Museum. I personally suspect that the church squashed this idea, and it has not been done. The main part, which faces Santo Domingo, is still used for receptions and is a lovely building. It was rather damaged in the 1985 earthquake. The back part, where the secret cells were located, houses some small businesses and is in a state of bad repair. Some years ago (about 15-20) a taxi driver who had a stall in that part of the building took me all through it. I was beyond thrilled to think of the history that had taken place there. There were never underground cells as there are in Lima, Peru. In fact, Lima does have an Inquisition Museum. The soil conditions in Mexico City do not permit basements. I even got to see the infamous Patio de las Naranjas. I hope that some day the entire building will be restored, and that this important period of Mexican History will be made more public, even its dark side.

The Catholic tourists on this kind of trip of course believe the legends and it was not up to me, or the priest leading the group to suggest that we did or did not. Believers always choose to see penitents on their knees crawling to churches as a beautiful expression of faith and tend to dismiss the grinding poverty that surround it as secondary and, frankly, unimportant. They are usually kind dismissive of liberation theology even if it is mentioned. `[Liberation theology is a different story; it is a question of "higher criticism"; I am sure that many American Catholics feel as Linda does.RH].

You also asked if we had services in the old Basilica of Guadalupe. No, it has been closed (condemned, if you will) for many, many years, as the building is quite unsafe. Engineers are working to shore it up to prevent it from sinking further. It is a most magnificent building and I miss being able to see it. Sometimes the front doors are open so you can peek in, but no one is allowed to enter.

I would like to make a comment about the role of the Virgin Mary in Mexico. I have long felt that there is a unique kind of Marianism practiced there,in that believers don't have a clear understanding that each of these "Marys" is an aspect of the one Blessed Mother, not an individual. People really do seem to believe that each of these Marys is a distinct person and therefore have a dedication to a particular Virgin in a particular place. The Protestants have quite a time with this, and when conversions are made they are quite anti-Catholic in their attitudes. Even though I am hardly a faithful Catholic in my life now (I do still consider myself a nominal Catholic), I am concerned about the role of Protestant missionaries from outside Mexico and the kind of religions they are fomenting, particularly in the countryside. They are establishing particularly anti-Catholic attitudes. Their churches that are not at all ecumenical, and their attitude creates incredible dissent within families.

On the subject of the Virgin Mary, the Pope is considering making Mary a co-redemptrist with Jesus. Some Catholics might find this appealing; the Protestants will have a field day! We might want to have another tour of the Sacred Shrines of Mexico! It really was quite a nice experience and we learned a lot of history.

Bibliographical note: Cohen, Martin A., The Martyr: the story of a secret Jew and the Mexican Inquisition in the sixteenth century (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973). Although out of print, it has just been reprinted in paperback by the University of New Mexico Press. Really, it is absolutely the BEST book I have every read. Cohen deserves a prize. I was a student of Professor Richard E. Greenleaf at the University of the Americas in the sixties; he has also written extensively about the Inquisition in Mexico. It is a fascinating epoch, indeed. Greenleaf has written The Mexican Inquisition of the Sixteenth Century (1969) as well as other works.

My comment: Quite apart from the activities of American missionaries in Mexico, there is a movement away from the Catholic Church among Mexicans. They see Protestants as hard-working and prosperous. Among Mexican Americans, many are converting to Islam; I do not know if this is happening in Mexico. Both movements involve a rejection of the miracle stories which the Catholic Church promotes. Indeed, medical progress has been held back by the belief in miraculous protection and cures, usually associated with the Virgin Mary. This is an important reason for the terrible health conditions in Mexico, which Linda rightly deplores. The cult of the Virgin has several problems. I personally revere her as the symbol of motherhood, but the cult of doll-like images of her is childish paganism. Moreover, it becomes polytheism when each image is viewed as a separate deity. There are two shrines to the Virgin on different sides of the boundary between Guatemala and Honduras. I tried in vain to make people on both sides of the boundary realize that it was the same Mary. They insisted that they were two different people. This is partly the result of the efforts by Latin American governments to establish a national shrine. Mexico goes furthest, viewing the Virgen de Guadalupe as the Patroness of the Americas. No none but the Mexicans pay much attention to this.

As for the Spanish Jews and the Carvajal family, after 1492 Spanish Jews did one of two things. They converted to Catholicism and put on great shows of their devotion, while secretly carrying out their Jewish rites. The other solution was to flee to North Africa or to the Protestant Lowlands, where they became an important force. Some fled to the Americas, settling in places far from the centers of Spanish power. In Mexico this would be Monterrey. After the Carvajal affair, many fled to what is now New Mexico. I know a New Mexican Hispanic family which is very Catholic but has a Jewish name. I am sure they no longer practice their Jewish rites. It is the presence of such people in New Mexico which explains the interest of the University of New Mexico Press in reprinting Cohen's book.

Ronald Hilton - 1/16/02


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