EDITOR’S NOTE: El Mensajero Cat√≥lico Reporter Annette Jim√©nez and Photo Editor Mike Crupi traveled to Mexico Nov. 29 to Dec. 2 as part of a Catholic press trip.
MEXICO CITY — The presence of 22 priests on the altar of the Basilica of Guadalupe for a 9 a.m. daily Mass is one indicator of Mexicans’ deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Another is the young couple on the morning of Nov. 29 who, while cradling their baby in a blue blanket, walked on their knees on the marble floor from the entrance of the basilica to the altar, demonstrating the visceral emotional connection the people have to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Yet another sign can be found in the Masses scheduled at every hour in honor of “The Queen of Mexico.”
“These are personal manifestations of faith,” Father Laurencio Vazquez Martinez observed of people’s reasons for traveling hundreds and thousands of miles to see the original image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak.
“With the Virgin, they feel a consolation, a reprieve from their ‚Ä¶ sufferings,” Father Vazquez Martinez continued as he stood at the entrance of the basilica.
This visit to the Shrine of Guadalupe was the first stop for a group of Catholic journalists who traveled to Mexico City and Puebla from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2 for a glimpse into the experiences of pilgrims who travel to this country where more than 80 percent of the population is Catholic. The press-familiarization trip was sponsored by the Catholic Press Association and organized by Regina Tours in New York and Destination Management Services of Mexico in collaboration with the secretaries of tourism for Mexico, Mexico City and Puebla.
“It’s still so important, the religion,” said Julia Molina, the Mexico tourism board liaison.
Religion helps sustain people, Molina added, since 60 percent of the country’s population is lower income.
“What they have is faith,” she said.
People also have a personal relationship with their religion as evidenced by a little boy walking out of San Francisco Apatepec, a church located on a road between Cholula and Puebla in the state of Puebla. As he descended the steps with his mother and siblings he stopped, looked back at the church and waved, shouting, “Thanks be to God.”
Such devotion and religious fervor was expected to be on full display Dec. 12, when about 5 million people were expected to make pilgrimages to the Basilica of Guadalupe for the feast day of Guadalupe. Pilgrims often walk on their knees to the shrine or travel there on foot or by bicycle, bus or car.
Guadalupe drives domestic and international tourism, according to Carlos McKinley, secretary of tourism for Mexico City. The city averages 12 million tourists annually, with 9 million of them Mexicans. Of the 3 million foreign tourists, 50 percent come from the United States.
Due to religious patrimony and influence of the Catholic faith, McKinley said, “There are more and more religious tours because it’s more and more important.”
The story of Guadalupe in itself also reflects the pre-Hispanic and Spanish influences that are evident throughout the churches of Mexico.
The pre-Hispanic period dates from 2000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., during which time the Aztec and Mayan cultures thrived. Mexico City, which now has a population of 22 million people, was founded by the Aztecs in 1325 A.D. and was called Tenochtitlan.
The Hispanic period dates from 1521, when the Spaniards conquered Mexico, until 1821, when the Mexican people won their fight for independence. The baroque style of the colonial Spaniards is evident in countless churches decorated with gold leaf and huge murals in gilded frames.
Along the way to the Basilica of Guadalupe is the Plaza of the Three Cultures, which represents those distinct eras. It is there where the Spaniards replaced Aztec ruins with the Church of St. James Apostle in the 16th century. The condominiums built around the plaza represent the present with a tie to the country’s pre-Hispanic culture through its name, La Tlatelolco.
The plaza also marks the spot where Juan Diego, an Aztec, spoke to a bishop about the apparitions of the Virgin on the Tepeyac mountainside in 1531 and where he presented the bishop with roses that then exposed her image on Juan Diego’s tilma. That image is enclosed in glass and hangs to the present day on a wall of the basilica with moving walkways beneath.
“In Mexico, the basilica is the church,” explained Raul Gonzalez Cadena, the trip’s tour guide, adding that Catholics in Mexico call themselves Guadalupanos.
It was through Our Lady of Guadalupe that the Spaniards were able to establish the new Catholic religion among the native Mexicans, he added. And it is why in nearly every church throughout the country, one will find a chapel or an altar or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Throughout that colonial area, Spaniards also used stories about the native religions’ gods, relating them to Catholicism to convert the people. Many churches display images of the Man of Sorrows, a vivid depiction of Jesus in his suffering. In many of the churches the press group visited, a statue of Jesus lay in a coffin, or was depicted with blood running down his face and wearing a crown of thorns or carrying the cross.
At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Puebla, the capital city of the state of Puebla, his statue is covered in blood from head to feet as he lays in a maroon covering inlaid with real gold.
“At the beginning of the new religion, Jesus was represented like this,” said Gonzalez Cadena. “People would feel sorry for him, then respect him and then love him. It’s also how they spread the belief. It’s interesting to see how the new religion got into this world, what the missionaries had to do to convince people of the faith.”
Yet, he added, some people were never converted and still cling to their native religions.
Outside the Federal District in the center of Mexico City, the spirituality of the native people is palpable at the pyramids of Teotihuacan, that were built in 400 B.C. The abandoned ruins were discovered by the Aztecs in 1400 A.D., about 600 years after the city had died, according to Gonzalez Cadena.
It is one of 20,000 archaeological sites in the country, he added.
There are no records left, but the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon — now known as the Pyramid of the Water — are still intact and are explored and climbed by visitors every day.
According to legend, Teotihuacan was the “City of the Gods.” And thousands of years later, religion remains the primary guide for the Mexican way of life.