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MEXICO: The Virgen of Guadalupe

On Sundays I listen to mass at the Cathedral of San Fernando in San Antonio, partly to take a bath of mexicanidad. I certainly got one today, these being the feast days of the Virgin de Guadalupe. The rector, Father David García, is clearly a bright person. He told the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, explaining how the story of her apparition to the Indian peasant Juan Diego had filled the vacuum left by the collapse of their own culture. He carefully avoided discussing the truth of the story. The last priest in charge of her shrine at Tepeyac said it was a legend, and he was thereupon removed to avoid trouble with the her devotees. Since it is indeed a legend, the Pope cannot canonize her, since well established saints like St. George had been decanonized because their historical existence is doubtful. However, Pope John Paul II did proclaim her the Patroness of the Americas, which pleased the Mexicans, although other Americans seem unimpressed. Present at the service were a number of Guadalupanas, women devoted to spreading her cult in Mexico and the US.

The Old Testament reading was the passage from Isaiah, foretelling the coming of Christ. The Virgin of Guadalupe played a similar role in Mexico, announcing the arrival of Christianity in the New World. The most interesting part of the service was the performance in the chancel of a play telling the story of the apparition of the Virgin to Juan Diego. She was played by a Tex.Mex girl, he by a young man dressed as a poor Indian. He had to go twice to the skeptical Bishop of Mexico to persuade him to build the shrine of Tepeyac. There was no mention of the fact that the spot was the center of an Indian cult, which the Church adopted by syncretism. The kindly bishop was not convinced until the Virgin gave Juam Diego some roses (out of season) to present to the bishop in a scarf. The bishop was astonished, and even more so when Juan Diego unfolded his scarf, which now featured a beautiful and equally miraculous image of the Virgin (now revered at Tepeyac). It was a dramatic moment. The congregation applauded.

The play had a special interest since it was an old mystery play (auto sacramental), the first one I had ever seen. Probably the play is enacted in many Mexican churches. In Europe, miracle plays disappeared, although really the play at Oberammergau is really one, and presumably some are still played in some parts of Spain. These plays were an instrument by which the Church taught doctrine to illiterate people. In Guatemala another old custom was observed: the burning of the Devil before the coming of Christ. The spectacle impressed the assembled crowd, but I was uneasy because, in the day's New Testament reading, Christ compares those who do not perform good deeds with trees which do not produce fruit and are cut down and used as firewood. Was this partly the origin of the bonfires, when those condemned by the Inquisition were burned?

In any case, the Tepeyac story inspires wholesome thoughts. It would be a pity if the congregation were disillusioned by being told that it was a myth. It would make them very angry and sad. My own position is that myths may contain profound truths, in line with our discussion about the human need for mystery. Perhaps the youths of the U.S. could profit from it. Ron Powers has written Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore. He grew up in the peaceful, crime-free town of Hannibal, Missouri, and was horrified to learn that twice in one week youths had committed murder there. His book tells how he returned there to investigate. Bored youths cruise around town with nothing to do. A favorite pastime is to "door" someone, i.e. to drive past him and then to knock him over by opening the door. One of the people killed in this way was a middle-áged jogger. Youth crimes have risen in America. The Economist (12/8-14/01) has an article on the alarming increase in teenage suicide in the US and another on the plot of high school youths in New Bedford, Mass. to kill as many teachers and students as they could and then to blow up the school. It looks as those kids could profit from having their heads filled with the mystery tales told in Mexican churches.

Ronald Hilton - 12/9/01