Having never been to a major Marian shrine, I didn't quite know what to expect. Some years ago, in the summer of 2004, I made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. I went there, like other pilgrims, to ask for Her protection during a hard time in my life.There is no more important Catholic destination, or place, in the Americas. Only a few kilometers from the heart of the city, the shrine contains the image of Mary given to Juan Diego through an armful of flowers. Though Her importance to Latinos is well known, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Lady for all the Americas. It was well past time for me to pay my respects, and I needed Her.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Having never been to a major Marian shrine, I didn't quite know what to expect. Some years ago, in the summer of 2004, I made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. I went there, like other pilgrims, to ask for Her protection during a hard time in my life.
I had been to only one Marian shrine before, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal at 140 rue de Bac in Paris, where St. Catherine Laboure received three apparitions of Mary who asked her to strike the medal. It was a humble place, as I suppose is befitting, but it was sparsely attended and worn down, not what I expected from a "shrine." So when I went to Mexico City, I consciously put aside all preconceptions about what I should experience. I wanted just to let it happen.
There is no more important Catholic destination, or place, in the Americas. Only a few kilometers from the heart of the city, the shrine contains the image of Mary given to Juan Diego through an armful of flowers. Though Her importance to Latinos is well known, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Lady for all the Americas. It was well past time for me to pay my respects, and I needed Her.
Mexico City, if you've never been there, is filled with both the worst traffic and the nicest people you'll ever meet. Each day there I marveled that people could remain so kind, so generous and smiling, when it took forever to drive even short distances. And yet I would return to the city just for the pleasure of spending time among them.
The shrine, when you first approach it, appears as a cluster of old and new church buildings sitting on Tepeyac Hill, surrounded by the harum scarum sprawl of one of the largest cities in the world. Like most pilgrims, I tried to visualize the moment nearly five centuries ago when this rocky hill stood far apart from the palaces of the Aztec empire.
The words I particularly kept in mind were those Mary spoke to Juan Diego on the day he was avoiding her and seeking a priest for his dying uncle, Juan Bernardino:
"Listen, and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son. Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?"
Among the many aspects of this story, this was the one most meaningful to me: How can any of us be so consumed by life's tasks - especially those moments of the severest testing - that we forget to ask for divine help?
The shrine itself and the plaza that fronts it bear the stamp of the 70's utilitarianism in architecture. But once you enter the sanctuary that houses the sacred tilma (cloak), all those concerns are swept aside by the peace that descends upon the pilgrim. I arrived just in time to light my candles, ride the moving sidewalk under the tilma, and join the other pilgrims for Mass.
Perhaps you've experienced the sense of total comfort in an otherwise strange place. I had been advised by a bishop who loves the shrine to "ask for something big." But Mary gave me something I didn't ask for-an ease in prayer that was totally unexpected, as if something that had been clogging the lines of communication had been suddenly removed. Mary put a kind of beautiful but unheard music in the air.
After Mass I went back down behind the altar for another look at the tilma but stepped aside to observe, instead, the faces of those pilgrims gazing up at it. The radiance of piety transcends language and culture-its impact is universal. No wonder the Church has been commending Marian pilgrimages since its earliest days. I'm sorry it took me so long. Like most of the best things in life, they are recognized much later than we would like but at the moment they are most needed.
I walked up the lovely ceramic-lined steps to the top of the hill and down to the gardens on the other side, but I didn't want the solitude offered by the gardens. I went back to the plaza to look at the pilgrims' faces and become one more face among them, transported by the sense that nothing needs to be withheld from Mary's care. It wasn't solitude I had come for, that I wanted to leave behind in the crowds of Washington, DC. Rather, I had come for Mary's shadow and protection, and I preferred to stand among those who shared my prayer.
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.
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