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Our Lady of Guadalupe's Tug on Modernity

Charlotte Allen on the Image's Lasting Significance

WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 12, 2004 (Zenit) - A centuries-old image of the Blessed Virgin still has a place in the hearts and minds of modern people -- be they Catholic or not.

So says Charlotte Allen, author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus" (Free Press) and co-author of Inkwell Weblog for the Independent Women's Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy organization dedicated to research and public education on policy issues concerning women.

She told us why Our Lady of Guadalupe's power has not waned, despite the image's treatment as a popular culture icon.

Q: Our Lady of Guadalupe has attracted increasing devotion in the United States and her shrine in Mexico City is the most popular in the world, attracting millions of visitors a year. What do you think accounts for this trend?

Allen: She is a powerful presence -- particularly to Latin Americans -- because she is an Indian virgin. That is attractive because many Mexicans and Latin Americans have Indian blood.

There is also something about her that speaks to the contemporary world; she is a New World Madonna, the harbinger of modernity. Other Marian shrines, such as Fatima and Lourdes, are popular today because they have an association with modernity -- Mary appeared there fairly recently. Shrines that draw visitors are those [that] people can associate with their own circumstances.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is an older apparition, but it appeals to contemporary people because it's an artifact. It's powerful for people who have to see to believe; you can see her right there.

The visual image of Our Lady is strong, striking and specific. Other apparitions don't have such a picture.

Q: What role does Our Lady of Guadalupe play in the culture of the Americas today?

Allen: In Los Angeles, where I am from, she is huge. One year we were in Los Angeles for her feast day and went to the new cathedral to celebrate. There was a long line of people with flowers, waiting to get inside the cathedral and kiss a big image of her.

It was on a weekday, so people were taking off work and taking their kids out of school to see her. Little boys were dressed up like Juan Diego and little girls were wearing Mexican peasant skirts. Families were doing Indian dances there as they do in the plaza at the shrine.

At any store where Mexican Americans shop, you see her image on candles and cloth paintings. She plays an enormous role in their devotional life, no matter if she is a cultural image. It takes devotion to wait in line in order to kiss an image.

Q: How has Our Lady of Guadalupe kept the Americas' Spanish-speaking Catholics tied to their faith? their culture?

Allen: Evangelical Protestants who actively proselytize have made inroads with lapsed Spanish-speaking Catholics, but Protestantism doesn't have the Virgin. I have heard that some of the denominations ministering to Spanish-speaking people have incorporated Our Lady of Guadalupe in order to attract them.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is not just Our Lady of Guadalupe; she appears as other images that are strong in Latin American culture and in other countries. All have a powerful effect on the faithful.

A certain percentage of Spanish-speaking Catholics doesn't practice their faith, but they still have her in their homes. Her presence there creates a tie to the faith. People pray to her as a miracle worker no matter what they think about the Church; they'll pray to the Virgin even when they won't pray to God. She keeps that tie strong.

Q: With her popularity and long-standing traditions, how can "La Virgen" bring lapsed Catholics of all stripes back into the Church and inspire new converts?

Allen: If she does -- and I hope she does -- it will be by her presence: Her powerful image is everywhere.

Besides that, there is something lovely about her appearing to a humble Indian; I think that would attract a lot of individuals. People who don't like the hierarchy can see that the Church is a church for those who are ordinary and poor -- Our Lady of Guadalupe speaks to those people. She is from the bottom up, not top down.

If people can see that the Blessed Virgin Mary speaks to an ordinary poor man and chooses him as her messenger, there is a powerful emotional appeal.

Q: How is popular culture relating Our Lady of Guadalupe to the "divine feminine" and "earth mother"? What is the danger of those associations?

Allen: That's a kind of game that intellectuals play. There are Latin feminist intellectuals who try to focus on Our Lady of Guadalupe as the goddess. My feeling is that it doesn't have much appeal outside of small circles; it's something that happens because it is fashionable.

It might have some effect on intellectual circles and college students, but it is so far removed from what she means in the Hispanic culture that it won't affect Hispanics -- only overeducated white people.

Feminists often have a general distaste for the Blessed Virgin Mary because she is too obedient to God. It's hard to reconcile: Feminist scholars relate Our Lady of Guadalupe to a goddess figure or the Aztec mother goddess, but they usually have antipathy toward the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Still, Our Lady of Guadalupe may have an effect on them. They may think that she is fashionably diverse being Indian in appearance. They may like her politically correct appeal. But they may find themselves saying a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that prayer might be answered.

Q: The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe now appears on just about anything -- CDs, books, car-seat covers, handbags, T-shirts and coffee mugs. Is there a chance of losing a sense of the sacred with this "profane" use of Our Lady's image?

Allen: I am not sure many of those images are meant to be profane, but they could be. They can be blasphemous or blessed -- it depends on how you regard them or use them. A lot has to do with intention. If for laughs or a joke, it could be scandalous. But Our Lady of Guadalupe's image is so powerful, it has meaning anywhere.

There is no way her image is not going to affect the person who looks at her. It could even be a point of conversion.

It's amazing that images are something that the Church has always understood. During the controversy over icons in eighth century, the Church knew it was important to defend them.

An image is a way of capturing the Incarnation -- God becoming man, in the flesh. God's image can be shown, and that image has power. Our Lady of Guadalupe is powerful because the Blessed Virgin Mary made her own image, her own incarnation.


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