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Friday, 19 October 2012

XIII Mexico: The Golden Goal

Chapel of Our Lady of Czestachowa, Poland


   Many Christians put a special emphasis on the words spoken by Our Lord as He endured His sorrowful passion, and subjected Himself to the furnace of excruciating affliction on the cross, in order to accomplish the salvific purpose contained within His Name; Jesus - God saves. In spite of His undoubted innocence, Pontius Pilate, the archetype of a cowardly, populist politician, had sought vainly to appease the baying crowd by ordering that Jesus be scourged to within an inch of His life. Unsatisfied, and not content either with a crown of thorns that pierced and dug deeply into Our Lord’s head and face, already so cruelly abused and spat upon, the people persisted in their demand for the ultimate brutality: crucifixion. At the ‘place of the skull’, Golgotha, having been compelled to carry His cross along Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, His spasm-stricken limbs were extended across the beams and, in a satanic travesty of the holy carpenter’s profession, nails were driven through His sacred hands and feet. Then the dark epicentre of torture, as the cross was raised; but death would not be His for another three hours. How far, it might be wondered, were the Roman executioners clouded in their outlook by a sense of racial supremacy, magnifying their capacity to act in such a callous way? The killing of one human being by another so often stems from a failure to recognise the fullness of the other person’s humanity. Yet while going through, severally, agonies and torments that individually one wouldn’t dream of inflicting on an animal, Our Lord was emphatic:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]

As He neared His last breath, St John tells us: 

“Seeing His Mother and the disciple whom He loved standing near her, Jesus said to His Mother, 'Woman, behold thy son.' Then to the disciple He said, 'Behold thy Mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” [John 19:26-27]

   On his visit to Our Lady’s house in Ephesus[1] on 29th November 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, one of the greatest teachers of his or any other generation, and possessed of an intellect as powerful as any human who has ever lived[2], explained:

“The Son of God thus fulfilled His mission: born of the Virgin in order to share our human condition in everything but sin, at His return to the Father He left behind in the world the sacrament of the unity of the human race: the family “brought into unity from the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”[3], at whose heart is this new bond between the Mother and the disciple. Mary’s divine motherhood and her ecclesial motherhood are thus inseparably united. […] And the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ and of the Church, is the Mother of that mystery of unity which Christ and the Church inseparably signify and build up, in the world and throughout history.”
 ***
   It was quite exciting and extraordinary, as the plane took off and climbed away from the runway at Tokyo Narita, to think that my hop across the Pacific Ocean would demand nothing more of me than to sit back and enjoy the view. A “mini-night” of half darkness was a curious and unexpected feature of the 18 hour voyage. I got some sleep, prayed my rosary, read a British newspaper, and watched one or two Hollywooden motion pictures that left no lasting impression. Crossing the International Date Line meant we landed in Mexico at 3.30pm on the same Wednesday 27th July, still dedicated to Blessed Robert Nutter; apparently only 4 hours after the Japanese departure time.

   Also commemorated on 27th July are the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, sometimes named as SS. Maximian, Malchus, Martinian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine; martyrs, it appears, from the reign of the Emperor Decius, having been walled up in a cave where they had taken refuge, and left to die. Their relics were found centuries later, possibly under Christian Emperor Theodosius II, whereupon a legend of their having only slept gained widespread currency; their ‘tomb’ became an important centre of pilgrimage. They have since passed into relative obscurity in the Christian world, but their story is recounted in the Qu’ran (Surah 18, verse 9-26), making it highly prominent in Islam. And most instructive to pilgrims of whatever faith are verses 23 and 24:

“Do not say: “I will do this tomorrow”, without saying, “if God Wills.” [Insha’Allah[4]] And, if you forget to do this, you must immediately remember your Lord and say, “May my Lord guide me to do better next time.””



[1] Near to what is now Selçuk on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, this house (now a chapel) is believed to have been the one shared by St Mary and St John, located with help from the writings of a 19th century German nun and mystic, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. It has become a shrine and pilgrimage destination for both Christians and Muslims, Mary (Maryam) being the woman mentioned more frequently than any other in the Qu’ran.
[2] He can read and understand Ancient Greek and Biblical Hebrew, as well as being fluent in six modern European languages and Latin. First and foremost, Joseph Ratzinger is a theologian, as distinct from Blessed John Paul II’s philosopher. Cardinal Archbishop Joachim Meisner of Cologne once said of him, "He has the intelligence of 12 professors and is as pious as a child on the day of his first communion." If you’re going to have a Pope, you may as well have him.
[3] St Cyprian, De Orat. Dom., 23: PL 4, 536
[4] ‘Allah’ is simply the Arabic word for God; the God of Abraham, worshipped by Muslims, Jews and Christians. This is clear not least from the use of the same word by Arab Christians, and by Christians on the island of Malta, whose language is descended from Arabic. On his visit to Turkey in 2006, Pope Benedict cited the words of Pope Gregory VII, addressing a Muslim Prince in North Africa in 1076, speaking: “…of the particular charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another…because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise Him and worship Him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world.”

The next Surah, 19, meanwhile, is named Maryam (Mary):

Relate in Al-Kitab[1] the story of Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the east.
She placed a screen to screen herself from them; then we sent to her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.
She said: I seek refuge from you to Allah most gracious: come not near if you fear Allah.
He said: "No, I am only a messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a holy Son."
She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me and I am not unchaste?"
He said: "So it will be: Your Lord says, 'That is easy for Me: and we wish to appoint Him as a sign to men and a mercy from us.' It is a matter so decreed."
So she conceived Him, and she retired with Him to a remote place.” [Surah 19:16-22]

…the same Mary, reckoned by many to have been a primary source for St Luke’s Gospel:

“And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.[…] And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God. And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.” [Luke 1:26-30, 34-38]

   Thankfully there were no great trials attending my arrival and passage through customs etc at the airport in Mexico City. Spotting two sisters of the order of Poor Clares[2] who had arrived on the same flight, i gave them each little pictures of St Francis of Assisi that i’d picked up in Fukuoka. Since my Spanish was so flimsy, i addressed myself to an English-speaking woman at an information desk, who was rather non-plussed when i asked about the best way of walking to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

   Our Lord was under no obligation to undergo the strains and humiliations of His fully human Incarnation. He could have come straight down from Heaven as a grown man, in the way He is expected to appear in His Second Coming. But He desired to be conceived of the Virgin Mary, born at Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, as a preparation for His ministry and His saving death on the cross. In other words, He chose to do things the hard way; to go the long way round; to be a Martyr, so that there is no trace of imposture when He is called Emmanuel – ‘God with us’[3]. This is the nature of His invincible solidarity with His children, the supreme mark of His perfect love for every single one of us. So pilgrimage on some level is a very human, and therefore fallible and imperfect, but nonetheless sincere, striving for a semblance of this solidarity, with the poor and with God Himself, in being ready, like them and like Him, to do things the hard way. There is no real love without sacrifice.

Mexico City
   Not that, setting foot on the New World for the first time, i was faced with a very long walk from the airport to the Basilica; 10 kilometres or so, mostly along the edge of a central ring road. I was soon struck by the preponderance of ageing VW Beetles – somewhere in the region of one in three vehicles. The weather was warm rather than hot, the sun trying to pierce a thin covering of cloud. In a little park where i stopped for a rest a statue of Charlie Chaplin invited a photograph. In due course the carriageway took me to a turning for La Calzada de los Misterios, leading to the Basilica. In Aztec times this was a causeway, washed on either side by the shallow waters of Lake Texcoco, connecting the island capital of Tenochtitlan (now the core of Mexico City) to the hill of Tepeyac on the mainland. Bernal Diaz de Castillo, one of 600 Spaniards under the command of Hernan Cortés, who entered Tenochtitlan on 8th November 1519, described the scene thus:

   "And when we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level Causeway going towards Mexico, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis, on account of the great towers and temples and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers said that all these things seemed to be a dream...There is so much to ponder in this, and i do not know how to tell it, for never was there seen, nor heard, nor even dreamt, anything like that which we then observed."




Ever present: VW Beetle, Mexico City
[1] In Islam, Al-Kitab denotes the ‘People of the Book’, ie Christians and Jews.
[2] Followers of St Clare of Assisi, the contemporary and spiritual soul-mate of St Francis.
[3] “And she shall bring forth a Son: and thou shalt call His name JESUS. For He shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Behold a Virgin shall be with Child, and bring forth a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” [Mt 1:21-23]


According to a legend firmly believed by Cortés himself, the magnificent reception laid on for him by Emperor Moctezuma/Montezuma, was on account of the Aztec belief that he was one of their gods, Quetzalcoatl (the ‘plumed serpent’), whose return from self-imposed exile was expected just at that propitious moment. Tepeyac meanwhile was a pre-Hispanic centre of worship of Tonantzin, translated as ‘our revered mother’, referring to a goddess, or else a series of goddesses in Aztec mythology. On 9th December 1531, Our Lady is believed to have appeared here to a 57 year-old indigenous Mexican convert to Christianity, a poor widower, St Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, who lived with his uncle, Juan Bernardino. Spanish dominion was established by that time, bringing hardships and humiliations to the native people; though one should never lose sight of the fact that human sacrifice and incessant warfare were essential features of the ousted heathen civilization. It is also noted that, for all their sophistication in some ways, Aztecs had not discovered how to use the wheel. Most importantly though, from a Spanish point of view, they knew nothing of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and there is reason to believe that the Church sought to defend native people from the excesses of colonisers who looked on them merely as a resource to be exploited. The story goes that, asking Juan Diego in his own Nahuatl language to petition the local Bishop for a church to be built in her honour at Tepeyac, Our Lady called herself Tecoatlaxopeuh, rendered as ‘she who crushes the serpent’; certainly an allusion to the third chapter of Genesis[1], but also resonating perhaps with the Indian population, for whom the ‘plumed serpent’, Quetzalcoatl, seemed to be responsible for such misery. Be that as it may, the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities under Bishop Juan de Zummarraga, attentive (eventually) to Juan Diego’s entreaties, are supposed to have heard Tecoatlaxopeuh as ‘de Guadalupe’, recalling a famous Marian shrine in the Kingdom of Castile.


Rosary monument, La Calzada de los Misterios
   At intervals along La Calzada de los Misterios are tall monuments, with painted Gospel scenes, some in better repair than others, dedicated to each of the traditional 15 Mysterios of the Holy Rosary of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.[2] Roses feature prominently in the unfolding narrative of St Juan Diego’s encounter with Tecoatlaxopeuh. On the third of their meetings at Tepeyac, the Bishop having asked for a sign to prove the veracity of Juan Diego’s assertions, Our Lady told him to come back to see her on the next day. However, at home he discovered his uncle, Juan Bernadino, apparently mortally ill, obliging him to stay by his bedside for two days. When he left the house it was to fetch a priest, an errand which entailed going via Tepeyac, where Our Lady was waiting. A part of the message she addressed to him that day, 12th December 1531, is inscribed in Spanish above the entrance to the great big round circus-like 1970s Basilica which i reached at about half past seven in the evening:
Big Top-esque: the Basilica


¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu Madre?”[3]
 
A fuller version is as follows:

   “Hear and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son; let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance. Also, 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 folding of my arms? Is there anything else that you need?
   Do not fear for your uncle for he is not going to die. Be assured... he is already well.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City
   Our Lady then told him to climb to the top of the hill and, though it was December and the ground was frozen, to gather all the flowers he would find growing there. Juan Diego joyfully complied, discovering exquisite Castilian roses, unknown in Mexico, among the cacti, bare scrub and rocks. He collected them into his tilma, a kind of poncho made from coarse cactus fibre, then brought them down to Our Lady, who rearranged them before sending them with her protégé back to the Bishop. At length obtaining a third Episcopal audience, in the company of various other Spaniards St Juan Diego was barely less stupefied than they were to discover, that unfurling his tilma, not only did the gorgeous blooms fall out, but a glorious life-sized image of the Virgin was seen to be impressed on the inside.

   And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” [Revelation 12:1]



[1] “And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” [Genesis 3:14-15]
[2] Comprising five Joyful, five Sorrowful and five Glorious mysteries in the life of Jesus and His Mother. ‘A compendium of the Gospel’ in the words of Blessed John Paul II, who added five Luminous mysteries in 2002. ‘Rosary’ is from the Latin word rosarium, meaning ‘rose garden’ or ‘garland of roses’.
[3] “Am I not here who am your Mother?”
She is known affectionately as ‘La Morenita’, the ‘little brown lady’, as her skin colouring is that of a local Indian, rather than a Spaniard. The gold-rimmed turquoise of her mantle and pale pink of her robe bespeak royalty in the Aztec society of that time, and with its golden light radiating behind her, she as it were eclipses the sun – in very simple terms, the local religion was a kind of glorified sun worship. But in contrast to the indigenous deities, depicted in statury with deranged, straight-ahead stares, Our Lady is looking down in an attitude of great gentleness and modesty, and holding her hands together in prayer, showing that she herself is not to be worshipped, but only the One who sent her. Among the other important details is a black sash around her waist, to signify that she is with Child; unofficially she is the Patroness of all unborn children, besides being Patroness of the Americas.

   With the promulgation of the Bull Sublimis Deus on June 9th 1537, Pope Paul III decreed that;

“We…consider that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic faith, but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. …the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; they may and should freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property…nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and of no effect.”
 
   It is not within the scope of this account to make a detailed defence of the record of 16th century Spanish colonisers of the New World, except to say that many commonly held Anglo-Saxon assumptions (along with hackneyed clichés about the Inquisition) can be traced back to the 1580s, when England and Spain were at war. One need only think of the gratuitous demonisation, for instance, of the Serbs in the Yugoslav Wars, to be reminded that public opinion can be thoroughly manipulated in the interest of achieving a military objective. Even so, it’s clear that not all Spaniards, even among the clergy, kept either to the spirit or the letter of Pope Paul’s words, and moreover it also appears that previous and subsequent Papal pronouncements were more ambiguous on the question of indigenous freedoms, and therefore open to willful misinterpretation. Nevertheless, with this Bull the Papacy set down in clear terms its position that the Indians were human beings. In this respect one can make an interesting comparison with the status of Indians in the (Protestant) USA, where not until 1879, in Omaha, was it ruled for the first time that “an Indian is a ‘person’ within the meaning of the laws of the United States.”[1]

   In recognising and insisting upon the inalienable human dignity of unborn children, the Catholic Church is similarly a long way ahead of its time. You can’t deny someone their status as a human being, simply because they aren’t old enough. This question possibly has a greater urgency for people born after the liberalization of abortion laws in western countries in the 1960s and 70s, because they themselves, but for the grace of God, could have been engulfed in the abortion holocaust[2]. Your mother terminated her pregnancy in the best way possible: she gave birth to you. Civilised countries should be in the business of trying to protect everyone’s right to have a birthday. Given the cultural and historical context of the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, discussion around her inevitably turns to the subject of the practice of human sacrifice. And when people have stopped talking about abortion, they sometimes address the subject of Aztec religious customs.



[1] Successfully argued by Ponca Native American chief Standing Bear and his wife Susette Primeau.
[2] To those who maintain that legality doesn’t lead to an increase, in the first year after liberalization, there were around 4000 abortions in the UK. The figure now stands at around 200,000 per year – a 50 fold increase. In total, over 7 million defenceless unborn children have perished in the UK since 1967.

The image, housed behind bullet-proof glass on the high wall behind the altar, has survived myriad vicissitudes of Mexican history over the last 500 years, and notably a bomb intended to destroy it in November 1921, that not only left it unscathed but wonderfully caused no serious injury to the priests and people celebrating Mass when it went off. I knelt down and prayed for 20 minutes or so before learning, to my delight, that there would be a Mass at 8pm; memorable not least for the presence of a giant butterfly, flitting to and fro above the mostly empty pews. Afterwards i set off in search of a pilgrims’ hostel i’d been told about, to find it closed, so i checked into an inexpensive hotel; clean and comfortable, but laid out exactly like the prisons you see in American films – a rectangular atrium on two floors, with a gangway running around the rooms on the upper level. My patchy sleep seemed to be down to a combination of cheesy popcorn for supper and jet-lag, but i later twigged, when the pattern was repeated, that the city’s altitude must have had something to do with it.[1]

Mass in the Basilica, with Our Lady's image visible at centre.
   Next day, Thursday 28th July, after a lie-in i made my way to the Basilica in time for a much better attended noon Mass, at which apparently a Bishop was being installed – around thirty Bishops and Archbishops concelebrated. That all was not sweetness and light in Mexico at that time, however, was illustrated by the discordant motif on a black ‘hoodie’ worn by a teenager standing in front of me in the line for Communion. It showed a playing card, with the words Alcatraz and San Francisco running up and down the sides, framing a likeness of Al Capone in trademark shades and smoking a cigar, baseball bat in one hand and machine gun in the other. Miniature pigeons were among the novel fowl of Mexico City’s streets as i then made my way through thundery showers (it was the rainy season) to the relatively sleepy plaza on which stands the 18th century baroque Church of San Domingo, built on the site of the 16th century headquarters of the Inquisition. On the street nearby i struck up a conversation with two Russian tourists, telling them a bit about my passage through their homeland, though i learnt that they were both emigres to the United States. The guest house where i spent the night, named after a renowned Brazilian metropolis, was decidedly insalubrious, feeling as if it might have enjoyed its best days when that country’s footballers were competing in the 1986 World Cup, or even in the tournament which Mexico hosted in 1970.

JPII
   On Friday 29th July, after Mass in the Church of San Domingo i came back to the neighbourhood of the Basilica, and passed an hour or two in an internet café. A part of the evening was then spent in prayer before the image of Our Lady, after which i emerged onto the esplanade at a place with an exceptionally good modern statue of Blessed John Paul II.

   On Saturday 30th July, dedicated to St Peter Chrysologus, after another night ‘in the cells’, as it were, at the same hotel where i’d spent the first night, my primary objective as usual was to attend Mass, celebrated in Italian for a group of pellegrini in the charming old 16th century Basilica, in which the image was housed until the 1970s. But my secondary aim was to track down the Estadio Azteca (designed incidentally by the same fellow responsible for the new Basilica), scene of England’s legendary clash with Argentina at the quarter final stage of the 1986 World Cup. Calling into a busy diner for lunch, when an itinerant troubadour finished singing and came to my table for his tip, he indicated the whereabouts of this fabled venue on my map, and was amused that an Englishman should want to be reminded of ‘La Mano de Dios’[2]. Famously, Diego Maradona’s sleight of hand foxed both the referee and the linesman when he punched the ball over Peter Shilton for Argentina’s first goal. He also scored a dazzling second before claiming, in perhaps the most hotly disputed remark ever uttered in a post-match press conference, that the first was:

"A little bit the head of Maradona and a little bit the hand of God."


Emmanuel dexterity: The Hand of God
It was early evening when i reached the arena, and learnt that i could either come back on Monday and stump up rather a lot for an organised guided tour, or else pay the equivalent of $10 for an unofficial peak there and then. Opting for the latter, a groundsman led me through a tunnel to the tiered seats of the interior. It was completely empty of course, but somehow one could conjure up the carnival atmosphere of the 1986 Copa del Mundo, when the world was first introduced to the ‘Mexican Wave’. Especially though i tried to imagine the atmosphere for the England-Argentina game, all the more cauldron-like, since the Falklands conflict of 1982 was relatively fresh in the memory. Maradona and his team-mates knew that anything less than victory would be intolerable to their countrymen. My guide pointed out the penalty box where the enterprising young Argentine demonstrated so memorably his ability to handle the situation.  



[1] At 2240 metres, Mexico City’s altitude dwarfs Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles, at just 1344 metres. The thinness of the air resulting from this elevation is often cited as a factor that enabled Bob Beamon to set a world record in the long jump at the 1968 Olympic Games which stood for 22 years.
[2] ‘The hand of God’
Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, Zocalo
Earlier, i had chanced upon a poster which seemed to be advertising a procession, taking place on the next day, from the central Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary to the new Basilica, to mark the IXth anniversary of the canonization of St Juan Diego. In the hope of finding an affordable place to spend the night near the cathedral therefore, i took the metro again, and had a conversation with a young English speaker who let me know his opinion that i was, rather than a ‘back-packer’, a ‘work-shrugger’. Reaching ‘Zocalo’[1] after dark, encased behind glass in the metro station was an excellent reconstruction of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor[2], though i felt constrained to walk straight past because of needing to find somewhere to stay. On this score, initially there seemed to be a dearth of options, until who should i bump into, belying Mexico City’s status as one of the biggest conurbations in the world, but the same pair of Russian tourists that i’d met two days before, standing outside the splendid Metropolitan Cathedral. They knew of an excellent, chirpy nearby youth hostel, into which, since it was ideal for my purposes, i promptly checked. Sitting for a while with my diary in the café-bar, i happened upon a little devotional medal of St Charbel Makhluf[3].
The Aztecs
   In fact, being a Saturday night, the youth hostel’s ‘chirpiness’ proved to be almost too much of a good thing, with semi-musical noise blaring from a rooftop bar near my room until the small hours. Thankfully though, in beautiful sunshine next morning i made it to the cathedral by 8.00 for the start of the procession, and was soon caught up in a sense that something really extraordinary was taking place. First to arrive was a party of young girls, dressed in traditional Mexican costumes, dancing in unison and singing a beautiful hymn of some kind, possibly in an indigenous language. Then came a Mariachi[4] band, made up of three saxophones, which would echo the melody provided by two trumpets and a trombone, with a great big double bass and a mandolin/banjo type instrument, accompanied by other traditionally-dressed dancers. As we got underway there was also a troupe of Aztec 'shamans' in spectacular feathered headdresses, some carrying incense burners, and other musicians, all playing brilliant tunes which i'd never heard before, making the whole experience quite unforgettable. It was a special occasion, and i believe this goes to the heart of why Mexico '86 was such a great success. No one does special occasions like the people of Mexico.

Musicians and dancers arriving for procession from the Zocalo Cathedral to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
   Exactly nine years previously, on 31st July 2002, an estimated 4.5 million people attended the ceremony, presided over by Blessed John Paul, for the canonisation of St Juan Diego. He is a great hero to Mexico’s indigenous population, because the Blessed Virgin Mother of God chose him as the means by which to let them know that she was and is their Queen and Mother, no less than she is Queen and Mother to the Europeans. So much of history, of course, is taken up with struggles and conflicts, arising from circumstances in which one group of people is held in subjection to, or otherwise persecuted (or even put to death) by another. The Church acclaims St Juan Diego as the instrument by which the Good Lord conferred upon the indigenous peoples of Mexico full membership in the great family of Christ:

“As it was His purpose to bring a great many of His sons into glory, it was appropriate that God, for Whom everything exists and through Whom everything exists, should make perfect, through suffering, the Leader who would take them to their salvation. For the One who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock; that is why He openly calls them brothers.” [Hebrews 2:10-11]

   But this is all a bit too convenient for some people, including many Catholics, who not only scoff at the miraculous aspects of the story, but fundamentally dispute the existence of the poor Indian convert, without whom it would lose its popular appeal. And funnily enough, looking into this one would have to concede that, at least at the time of Juan Diego’s beatification in 1990, the Church had a case to answer. Recognition of the cult[5] of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to rest almost as much on acknowledgement of its intrinsic worth[6], as on actual documentary evidence. But the great champion of the faithful indigenous people of the Americas, Blessed John Paul II (loved in Mexico incidentally as if he were a native Saint) would be vindicated - at least in the eyes of those who accept that divine providence is able to intervene in such matters.



[1] Mexico City’s central square, officially the ‘Plaza de la Constitución’, takes its popular name Zocalo from a ‘plinth’ which was intended to underpin a monument to Mexican independence, but stood unoccupied (rather like one we have in Trafalgar Square) for many years before being removed. The authorities could do a lot worse than putting a statue of St Juan Diego there now.
[2] Standing on the site now occupied by the Metropolitan Cathedral, it was a huge sort of ‘twin pyramid’ structure, built and rebuilt several times, “…dedicated to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture” [Wikipedia].The construction that the first Spaniards were met with in 1519 dated from 1487. Its inauguration is believed to have cost the lives of between 20,000 and 80,000 victims of ritual human sacrifice (largely prisoners of war). Interestingly, this practice was so ingrained into the culture, when the Spanish arrived there were said to be instances of condemned people actually being resentful of attempts to liberate them.
[3] Born 1828 in Bekaa Kafra, high in the Lebanese mountains, he made his profession as a monk in the Maronite Order in 1853; the last 23 years of his life were spent as a hermit in the chapel of SS Peter and Paul, in the care of the Monastery of St Maron. He died on Christmas Eve 1898. Partly as a result of numerous miracles reported after his death, he was canonised in 1977. Lebanese immigrants brought his cult with them to Mexico, where he has become very popular; a much frequented statue of his stands in the Metropolitan Cathedral. [Wikipedia]
[4] Originating in the western part of Mexico, the name is thought by some to be derived from the French word ‘marriage’, and to date from a period of French involvement in Mexico in the 19th century, though others dispute this theory, believing the word to have an indigenous origin.
[5] The word ‘cult’ has acquired a negative connotation in modern discourse, but not all cults are ‘bad’, at least not if one believes in God. Similarly, ‘dogma’ tends to be used pejoratively nowadays, but it simply means ‘teaching’.
[6] Not only to Catholicism itself perhaps but also to the social fabric of Mexico.

In 1995, when the Codex Escalada was first brought to public attention, howls of protest went up from the sceptics’ camp.  It is a parchment depicting St Juan Diego at prayer before a rendering of Our Lady’s famous image, with Nahuatl text in the Latin alphabet, stating that Cuauhtlactoatzin (the saint’s Nahuatl name) “died a worthy death…in 1548”, and that “…our dearly beloved mother Our Lady of Guadalupe” appeared to him in 1531. Signed by a well-known Franciscan missionary and “pioneering ethnologist”[1], Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c. 1499-1590), it is believed to be a sort of ‘death certificate’ of St Juan Diego. “Tests so far conducted”[2] indicate that it is correctly dated to the mid 16th century, and Fr Sahagún’s signature was judged to be authentic by acknowledged experts in the field. Apparently, it was discovered “…in a manila envelope and lodged between the pages of a 19th century devotional work on sale in a second-hand book market”, before being passed on to Fr Xavier Escalada, a Spanish Jesuit whose life-work was the study of Our Lady of Guadalupe.[3] When St Juan Diego’s canonisation took place in 2002 the Church was in a much stronger position to make the case for his historicity; all the more galling for the doubters, whose objections could be dismissed as churlishness and sour grapes:
“Within the context of the Christian tradition, it was rather like finding a picture of St. Paul's vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, drawn by St. Luke and signed by St. Peter.”[4]
   In his homily for the occasion, Blessed John Paul II took as his departure point the words from St Matthew’s Gospel:

"I thank you, Father ... that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was your gracious will" [Mt 11:25-26].

“These words of Jesus are a special invitation to us to praise and thank God for the gift of the first indigenous Saint of the American Continent. With deep joy i have come on pilgrimage to this Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Marian heart of Mexico and of America, to proclaim the holiness of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the simple, humble Indian who contemplated the sweet and serene face of Our Lady of Tepeyac, so dear to the people of Mexico. … ‘The Lord looks down from heaven, he sees all the sons of men’” (Ps 33:13), we recited with the Psalmist, once again confessing our faith in God, who makes no distinctions of race or culture. In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God. Thus he facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds and became the catalyst for the new Mexican identity, closely united to Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose Mestizo[5] face expresses her spiritual motherhood which embraces all Mexicans. This is why the witness of his life must continue to be the inspiration for the building up of the Mexican nation, encouraging brotherhood among all its children and ever helping to reconcile Mexico with its origins, values and traditions. … Mexico needs its indigenous peoples and these peoples need Mexico!”


   The musicians and dancers were still tooting and twirling merrily as we approached the Basilica, where i was able to obtain an inexpensive tea-towel sized ‘standard’ of Our Lady at one of the souvenir stalls. Sunday Mass, packed this time, was celebrated by a Cardinal (i think). Then after a tasty lunch, in the afternoon i spent a couple of hours on the internet, and noticed a news item about the recent arrest in northern Mexico of a 34 year-old former policeman called Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, known as El Diego, who had confessed to ordering the murders of 1500 people over a four year period, in his capacity as enforcer for the Juarez narcotics cartel. The news otherwise still seemed pre-occupied with the appalling massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway just over a week before, but really, the difference between him and El Diego is that of an amateur, as opposed to a professional killer.


Metropolitan Cathedral
With only four days left before the flight to Rome, i decided to base myself at the youth hostel in the centre, where quite a lot of time was spent tackling postcards. From the roof one had a great view of the Zocalo and the noble Cathedral, built in sections from 1573 to 1813; the largest of its kind in the Americas. I made my way there on Monday 1st August, dedicated to St Alphonsus Liguori, and attended Mass in a chapel with a marvelous golden screen behind the altar. As i prayed there for a friend of mine whose birthday was that day, my Guardian Angel in the guise of a middle-aged lady accosted me and brought me to the baroque Tabernaclechurch next door, with its highly impressive, intricately carved exterior wall. I was led to a very powerful, bruised and bleeding sculpture of Our Lord, crushed under the weight of the cross, where the lady lit a candle for my friend, before leaving me to continue praying.

Josip Broz Tito
Much of that day and the next were spent on the internet, writing the last ‘official’ entry for the blog among other things. I’d been unsure what to call it until, during Mass in the cathedral on Tuesday i had the phrase ‘La Mano de Dios’, almost the full extent of my Spanish, in my mind – just as the priest came out with these very words! In the afternoon i took a photo of a statue of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, long-time president of Yugoslavia and founding father of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’,[6]on the way to the National Museum of Anthroplogy, a must for any visit to Mexico, for the visitor to get some idea of the immense scale, as well as the simultaneous sophistication and barbarity, of Aztec civilization. Many of the statues (usually of indigenous deities), codices and implements are bizarre or frankly chilling, but highly impressive all the same – i know of no European museum with a comparable array of pre- or early Renaissance objects. Some items, such as a large, beautifully sculpted snake’s head, used as an altar for the brutal rituals of human sacrifice, were familiar to me from an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London some years before; other highlights are a magnificent feathered headdress, said to have been worn by Moctezuma himself, and the meticulously detailed ‘Aztec Sun Stone’ calendar. Overwhelmingly however i was left with the impression of a culture obsessed with death; skulls and gory depictions of war and mutilation abounded. Not knowing anything else[7], they had apparently cleaved to these weird, macabre counterfeit gods, most of them thirsty for human blood, with almost as much enthusiasm as, for example, European and Middle Eastern peoples had embraced their faith in the God who is the Creator and lover of life. An interesting section at the end focused on the migrations of the first humans into the Americas, from Siberia to Alaska; thus explaining the distinctly ‘Asiatic’ appearance of Mexico’s indigenous population, and of course many other American peoples. Not least interesting here was an excellent scale model of a company of pre-historic hunters, in the act of subjugating a woolly mammoth.
Mexico

Amid the wealth of fascinating places associated with Mexico’s pre- and post-Columbian history, the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan is prominent in the capital region, but various things (like postcards) made it impossible for me to get there in the time available. Instead though, on Thursday 4thAugust (dedicated to the Curé of Ars, St John Marie Vianney), my last full day in Mexico, after Mass in the Basilica i stumbled across a little museum dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe - less headline-generating than a pyramid perhaps, but no less enchanting. It contains dozens of paintings, engravings and sculptures by artists from every echelon of society, and spanning at least four centuries, testifying to Mexico’s enduring devotion to the Tepeyac Madonna. Back in the new Basilica, kneeling before the image seered onto the fabric of St Juan Diego’s tilma, called by Blessed John Paul II the Star of the New Evangelisation, i said the following prayer, by way of farewell and in thanksgiving to the Blessed Mother with Child for whom i had undertaken my quest:

La Virgen de Guadalupe with St Juan Diego, Tabernacle Church, Zocalo, Mexico City



“Look at the star, call upon Mary … With her for guide, you shall not go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart … if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favour, you shall reach the goal.” —St. Bernard of Clairvaux.





[1] Wikipedia
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] D.A. Brading in his 1999 book ‘Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe. Image and Tradition Across Five Centuries’.
[5] Mestizo is now more a cultural than anthropological term, to describe people of mixed European and Indian heritage.
[6] “…founded in Belgrade in 1961, and largely the brainchild of Yugoslavia's president, Josip Broz Tito; Indonesia's first president, Sukarno; Egypt's second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser; Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah; and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. All five leaders were prominent advocates of a middle course for states in the Developing World between the Westernand Eastern blocs in the Cold War. The phrase itself was first used to represent the doctrine by Indian diplomat and statesman V.K. Krishna Menon in 1953, at the United Nations.”[Wikipedia]
[7] Would that modern Europeans could plead such ignorance.