By Jessica Langrell (Pilgrim Leader)
Los Angeles – what a start, New York, New Yoorrrk – how incredible and fun this will be, Washington DC – how inspiring to walk amidst others united for the cause of life…but Guadalupe? This is no doubt the summit of our trip thus far and the one-day each of us eagerly anticipated more than any other site, event or cultural experience. Speaking to the group individually, for the majority of us – it was what drew us to this pilgrimage, and for others it has become their new found devotion.
Our Lady of Guadalupe in the miraculous Tilma is unique from other apparitions. As Blessed John Paul II said (having visited the shrine twice in his pontificate), “Our Lady is present throughout the world in all the shrines built for her, but she LIVES in Mexico!” Indeed this apparition is most miraculous because we are given from God himself, the only and most beautiful depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an awesome gift to mankind. This gift is the only image (apart from a man made statue in Rome) that depicts the Holy Virgin pregnant with the Child Christ, for this and countless other magnificent reasons, she is the Patroness of the Americas, and the Mother of a Civilization of Life and Love.
If this blog were perpetual in nature, only then would it in some small light attempt to convey the profound meaning and boundless insights into the miraculous Tilma and its purpose, but unfortunately words cannot fully comprehend what we saw and received in Guadalupe, or what God has done through this apparition. What this will do is provide a brief account of our special encounter…and the rest…I’d advise a little vacation Mexicano-style to Guadalupe in your next break. Though if this too is not possible, no problem signore, there is one book after much personal research into the apparitions that I have found has most successfully and adequately covered the story of the Tilma and I recommend it genuinely – “Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Civilization of Love” (Carl Anderson).
Back to our trip – before we arrived in Guadalupe, we needed to understand where the culture was at around the time of the apparitions and why, so fittingly, did the Lord God chose to bless us with this image at this time, in this place, to these people.
Our morning drew us northeast into the ancient world of Teotihuacan and its monumental archeological discoveries. Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas and most likely in the world. This pre-Aztec city contains the Pyramids of the Sun, a breathtaking 215 foot pyramid, the awesome Pyramid of the Moon, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the grand Avenue of the Dead. So renowned was this city for its spirituality to pagan gods, which had a strong emphasis on the honor of human sacrifices, women, children and relatives or friends of those in high social regard. The human sacrifices would take place on the top of these huge pyramids in which human hearts were removed from the chest of the person before being offered to the pagan gods. Once the Spanish conquerors began to arrive, more specifically under the leadership of Cortez, so too came the countercultural Catholic faith. The Franciscan friars who followed soon after Cortez in 1524 were the main directors of the faith, although not surprisingly they had moderate response and conversions, the truths and beauty of the faith and the life it had to offer was so starkly different yet so unwaveringly attractive to the Mexicans.
Among the early conversions was Juan Diego, a peasant, simple and humble man who along with his wife Maria saw the light within the witness of the friars. At 55 years of age, Juan and his wife were baptized Catholics, although Maria died within a year due to illness, Juan continued to strengthen his faith and devotion to Mass and regular catechesis. About 3 years after Juan’s conversion, the Blessed Mother under the title of ‘The Most Perfect Holy Virgin Mary,” appeared to the layman Juan at 4 different times, the final in which she bestowed upon him the image we have travelled to see.
Back to our travels to discover this story of the 480-year-old Tilma and its continued unfolding even unto today, we bypassed a small cultural center on the way to the pyramids to learn about the arts and crafts of the locals.
“Open your eyes amigos from Australia!”
it was in this brief but so wonderfully interesting and engaging encounter with the culture of the Mexicans that we learnt so much about their people. From how they produced paper, to tilmas, tools, jewelry and even the infamous local tequila! All in all, much was learnt and much enjoyed. Speaking of ‘learnt,’ one of our pilgrims Lauren learnt what its like to be proposed to! Our guide, who had taught us so much and gave us now what refer to as each other as ‘Chicos’ (boys) & ‘Chicas’ (girls) had popped the big question to one of our youngest pilgrims;
In the typical straightforward Mexican manner, he asked quite positively “Chica, will you be my wife?!” To which Lauren, mind you without hesitation and probably without any idea of the implications of what she was about to say pulled off an eloquent ascent and replied “Ariba!!” Still, we had much to learn.
After this interesting encounter, we headed off for the pyramids and Avenue of the Dead. Being led through the main arena from our guide, we were generously given just over an hour to explore these unreal pyramids which were honestly surreal to look at with a beautiful array of mountainous backdrops.
Alas, up we ascended, the first pyramid over 80 steps and onto the mammoth 300 steps of the Pyramid of the Sun. And when I say steps, I don’t in any way mean typical Aussie building steps, these were all-fours climbing steps that were not only great in number but gut wrenchingly steep.
I myself being a not-so-height-friendly one indeed struggled through each and every step, particularly on the descents. Although looking at the pyramids from the base, was simply not a worthy experience of this ancient site. And the panoramic view of Mexico City from the tops, was worth every gasp and drop of sweat.
If the climbing was not difficult enough in itself, add the sheer number of hundreds of people ascending and descending together, the thought constantly crossed my mind…”If one goes, we all go!” Parents, fret not, all survived!
Boarding the bus with awfully weak legs, superb memories and Kodak moments, we made our way to the Basilica. Being dropped off just outside the Shrine, we soon were immersed in typical Mexican street craziness. People everywhere, cars flying by regardless of pedestrians, almost a red light camera run at each stopping, taxi men yelling for possible takers, religious souvenirs offered persistently no matter how many staunch rejections made; a cultural experience first hand. This being our first encounter with the Basilica was particularly special, we had planned this to be on the Sunday, the busiest day by far of the week for visitors at the Shrine. Shoulder to shoulder yards from even entering the Shrine, it was crazy, but gosh was it fun! Holding relentlessly onto our purses and bags, we made our way amongst hundreds of others, as crowds of people have been doing to this Holy site since the apparitions less than 500 years ago!
We allocated 4 hours to this visit, but it felt like 5 minutes. With over 8 Churches in the last 500 years constructed in this Shrine on Tepeyac Hill, numerous well kept gardens and an uncountable number of statues and devotions, we slowly immersed ourselves as one of the many thousands of pilgrims soaking up the atmosphere. Heading first to the site where the first apparition and church was built, we were met by a local Legionary Priest Fr Brian who generously gave his time to be with us and share some insight into the story of Guadalupe and what it had brought to the culture. After this visit, the heavens broke loose & out came an abundant downpour of heavy ran and cold winds, apparently so foreign to the Mexican weather in January. Forcing pilgrims to seek shelter in the many churches, we visited the Church of the Well. This church was constructed over a place where fresh water began to flow the same time the final apparitions were made. After a brief visit, we then headed (or should I say bolted) over to the main Basilica to celebrant the Holy Mass under the sight of the miraculous Tilma. To our great fortune our Bishop Peter concelebrated at the Mass.
One of the many great reflections from this day, which individual pilgrims will post on this blog within the next few days, was the devout faithfulness still preserving within the Mexican people as if the apparitions had occurred on this day. Indeed they were the greatest examples to us of prayer and devotion. Expecting a more ‘touristy’ feel to the Shrine, how far, and fortunately this was from that. It was not a tourist destination; rather it was a common place of worship so reverently and devoutly part of the Mexican people. What a joy and inspiration it was to see the local families and people of all ages come in humble petition in search of the intercession of the Blessed Mother of Guadalupe so distinctively part of the people they were. A lesson for all.
After Mass, we had a brief opportunity to come close up to the Tilma. They have behind the Sanctuary a passage way for pilgrims to gain a closer look at the garment, in which also included a revolving floor. Though the vast enormity of numbers demanded such an inclusion. Though once passing by was simple not enough for most of us, having going past the Tilma several times, reluctantly time got the best of us and we again were on our pilgrim way.
As I said, it was closer to 5 minutes than it was 4 hours, and we found ourselves once again rushing to meet each other at the bus for departure. This evening following supper we had our first group discussion. Here the hearts and desires each one of the pilgrims, their reasons for coming, and hopes for their lives upon return to home were so openly and personally shared. It is one thing to experience pilgrimages as one in search of the Triune God, but another invaluable blessing to do so alongside others with the same goal. It was beautiful to hear how each of us had gotten to this place, how each had been called on this pilgrimage, but what was really intriguing and utterly exciting for all, was what God was doing, was planning on doing through the rest of the trip and has planned for each of us in our lives ahead. So let us be on our way!
United in prayer & mission for life,
On behalf of the Guadalupe Expedition Group.