Friday, February 20, 2015

Their Lady, And Ours

Harvesting holy water
As our flight from Mexico City to LAX was about to take off, two women sitting next to me crossed themselves. Visiting Cuernavaca’s Roman Catholic cathedral a few days before, I had seen a mother and two children filling containers from the baptismal font and putting them in a shopping bag. I don’t know if they planned to sell it or put it to some sacramental use. Either way, tap water wouldn’t do. They wanted the holy article and plenty of it.

During our two-week pilgrimage, we Diocese of Los Angeles laypeople and clergy, led by Bishop Mary Douglas Glasspool, observed many more overt expressions of piety than we’re used to seeing in the U.S. Nearly 100 million Mexicans, 83% of the population, are Roman Catholic. Curious about how many were practicing as opposed to nominal Catholics, we asked one of our Spanish language teachers to tell us who actually goes to church on Ash Wednesday. “Todos,” she said with a smile. “And even more go on Pascua (Easter Sunday).”

Some of us attended a Saturday morning mass with at least 3,000 souls in Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the world’s third most visited sacred site. I found myself in a clutch of communicants near the altar. I passed la paz del Señor with a dozen men, women, and children. After the consecration, as a parade of priests and deacons plunged into the crowd, I hesitated, unsure of the protocol. I felt hands against my back, turning me and gently pushing me toward a priest standing nearby.

As far as I could see, everyone was served. Later, I lit candles for my ailing mother and for Kathy, who cared for her while I was away. I have never been more moved in church. Surely God’s spirit was there, if anywhere.

And yet 20 minutes before, our guide for the morning, Francisco Guerrero, one of the founders of the newspaper La Jornada and a nephew of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Octavio Paz, had said that just being there made him feel depressed. Francisco is an expert on the indigenous people of Mesoamerica -- Aztecs, Mayans, and myriad others who thrived before Spain’s conquest in 1521. After briefing us as we stood on the plaza outside the basilica, he sent us to explore by ourselves. He refused to set foot inside. He said he could never forgive the church for exploiting the Mexican people, from the 16th century until now, when, he told us, the basilica alone takes in $1 million each day.

Our Lady at home
At the heart of such passions and debates about the church’s role in Mexican society is the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Official doctrine holds that a maiden appeared to peasant Juan Diego in 1531, a decade after the Spanish conquest. Speaking in the Aztec tongue of Nahuatl, she sent him to pick flowers on a hilltop where a temple to the goddess Tonantzin had stood until the Spanish destroyed it. There he found not indigenous Mexican flowers but Castilian roses. He arranged these in his coat, or tilma. Appearing before the Catholic archbishop, Juan found that the image of a woman with brown skin had been burned into his tilma’s fabric – a Virgin Mary custom-made for the new world. Our Lady’s basilica stands near the hilltop where Juan is said to have found the Spanish roses. His tilma is displayed in a climate-controlled enclosure high above the altar where the mass we attended was celebrated.

Did it really happen? Or did the Spaniards concoct the story to legitimize its conquest and sweep away the vestiges of indigenous religion? We heard these points of view and others from scholars such as Francisco as well as clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Cuernavaca, our host. Whatever the story’s origins, when Mexicans threw off Spanish rule in the 19th century, Our Lady inspired them. Today she is a symbol of national identity for the faithful and nonbelievers alike in a country whose public institutions are often obdurately corrupt. Francisco’s uncle, Octavio Paz, famously said, “[T]he Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.“

Yet many Mexican Protestants believe they should offer worshipers an alternative to myths and magical thinking, especially when they have been used exploitatively. Some Anglican priests won’t display Our Lady in their churches even when their congregants want them to. A few we met during our visit were surprised to learn that some U.S. Episcopal churches with Anglo-Catholic leanings and Spanish-speaking congregations make a point to honor her. In the U.S., such gestures are the essence of our inclusive Anglican identity. Our Mexican colleagues tend to stress the exclusivity of Anglican identity. Such differences in perspective are in themselves emblematic of the richness of the tradition that those north and south of the border love in equal measure.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.