Why do thousands of people flock to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City? They were there in typical numbers today. We saw couples flirting in the corners, we saw men and women of all ages walking across the stone courtyard (big enough to hold several football fields) and into the new Basilica on their knees. From the painfully slow progress some of them were making it would seem they had come some distance, they are reported to come this way for miles.
Why do they walk up the beautiful stone stairway to the top of Tepeyac hill, overlooking the city from a 500 ft. vantage point, and crowd into the small chapel there to say a rosary or see the life-sized pictures behind glass on the wall? The pictures all over the campus tell the same story, the story of a poor and insignificant Indian man, Juan Diego 10 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico (1531), and how to him the Virgin Mary appeared on this spot and sent him on an impossible errand. She sent him to ask the Bishop for a church on that location. But what 16th century Spanish bishop was going to listen to a recently-conquered Indian's request? The Catholic church of the time was hand-in-glove with the sword that had conquered these people. They were one more way that the pagans were being subjugated and brought under the rule of Spain and the Catholic faith. What did they know?
To cut a beatiful story short, she appears to him four times and the last time she gives him an armload of cut roses to give to the Bishop. He wraps them in his "tilma" or shawl, and when he pours them out at the bishop's feet the image we know is emblazoned on his shawl. The sight triggers a reversal in the bishop and the rest is history. Well, almost.
The tilma ended up enshrined in the Basilica. We were able to get a picture of it from 50 yards away, not nearly close enough to satisfy a cynical heart or even a critical eye. Masses are said there on the hour every hour every Sunday. There are a hundred ways you can give your time, talent or treasure. (For the first time I saw a girl serving as an acolyte in a Catholic church in the old Basilica next door!) The church is packed every time. But people hardly hear the sermon. They mumble the responses like automatons. That is not why the people come.
The machinery that the Church has built up around this place sometimes helps and sometimes steps in the way of what people are really after. They are after the Mother of God with brown skin. They seek the divine in accessible clothing. When she calls Juan Diego "my little one," and says she is his mother every Mexican with Indian blood hears her words as spoken to them. By extension everyone with a mix of Spanish and Indian blood across the width and breadth of Latin America hears her words. This is their mother's home, and Juan Diego, the poor and insignificant Indian man, conquered and pushed brutally to the bottom of the heap like so many of them, he is their brother and their inspiration. For anyone who does not see the world from the top of the mountain, for anyone whose history is not pure, whose tradition is a mixture of heroism and failure, that is, "mestizo," this story speaks of hope, the great hope of the reversals of which Jesus spoke when He said, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last."
For me Juan Diego is the real hero of this story.
Why the Catholic church took until 1990 to beatify him baffles me, and why our own Episcopal church has not scooped up this voice from underfoot and raised him up with the great saints of the ages, I do not know.