In Mexico, many holidays are celebrated the night before the actual feast day. For example, the Independence of Mexico on September 16th is celebrated on the night of the 15th. Family fiestas to commemorate Christmas are held on Christmas Eve – a lot of people stay up until dawn – and then sleep most of the 25th.
December 12th is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe – La Virgen de Guadalupe – the patron saint of the country. But it is on the night of December 11th that the most important festivities are held – Tuesday of this week.
Every year, I attend the Guadalupana celebration at San Cristobal Church in Merida. I don’t get there until about 10 pm, so my arrival coincides with large groups of antorchistas – the pilgrims who come to this church from towns all over the peninsula – they always look exhausted, but elated.
Many Catholics believe that Our Lady of Guadalupe has the power to grant favours and intercede for them. They pray to Guadalupe for miracles and they often add promises they think will strengthen their pleas. The most common promise is to participate in a relay run from their neighbourhood, town or village to the nearest Basilica of Guadalupe – in Merida this is the Church of San Cristobal – located on the corner of Calle 50 and 69. The Basilica in Mexico City is the second most-visited Catholic shrine in the world. Only the Vatican attracts more of the faithful.
Most pray when a relative is ill, for the safe birth of a child, for the success of a job application, or a salary raise. They believe that public displays of faith and thanksgiving are pleasing to Guadalupe. Theirs is an uncomplicated faith – they do not ask a lot of theological questions – they simply believe.
Because of all the parked bicycles, walking around the atrium of San Cristobal is not easy, and getting into the church itself is next to impossible, except when one Mass lets out and the next has not yet begun. But everyone crowds in nonetheless, in order to leave a flower offering at the altar. I wedge myself in too, and sometimes I wish I possessed the faith of the antorchistas. How comforting it must be to believe with all your heart that the Mother of God is looking out for you.
I ask too many questions. I don’t agree with a host of Church rulings, and I do not make it to Mass every Sunday. I appreciate other religions and sacred congregations. Unlike many of the others who will be at San Cristobal on Tuesday night, I do not feel that the Roman Catholic Church is the one church that “saves souls”. But I was raised in that Church, and the biggest part of my religious allegiance will probably remain stubbornly faithful to it.
On Tuesday night as I place my bouquet with all the 1,000s of others, I will pray that Guadalupe hears our prayers, and bestows the strength to forge a better future for Mexico. La Virgen de Guadalupe is a constant source of peace in my life. She is more than a Catholic icon, she is “the heart of Mexico.”
It is very moving to witness the affirmation of Mexicans’ devotion to her, and the basic faith that sustains them through many hardships. I believe that a country full of people with such deep basic faith is indeed blessed. And keep in mind that faith moves mountains.