By Deal W. Hudson
Having never been to a major Marian shrine, I didn’t know quite what to expect. So on my way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, I consciously put aside all preconceptions about what I should experience. I wanted just to let it happen.
Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of this shrine, only a few kilometers from the heart of the city. The image of Mary given to Juan Diego through an armful of flowers holds immense significance for Catholics around the world—especially in Hispanic regions. But Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Lady for all the Americas, and it was well past time for me to pay my respects.
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 that 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—even a task as important as tending a dying relative—that we forget to ask for divine help?
The shrine itself and the plaza that fronts it bear the stamp of Seventies 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.
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 our Holy Father has been commending Marian pilgrimages from the earliest days of his pontificate. I’m sorry it took me so long.
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 pilgrim faces and become one more face among them, transported by the sense that nothing needs to be withheld from Mary’s care.
Published in Crisis Magazine, October 1, 2004