Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mary's Little House

What did Mary ask St. Juan Diego to tell the bishop? She said she wanted him to build her a "little house" where she could give all her love and compassion to the people. She promised to offer consolation and heal the sufferings of “the people of the land” and “all others who love her, who cry out to her, who seek her.”

Mary’s request was very concrete, very much connected to a particular place: “build my house here.” It was in this house that she wanted to make Christ manifest, and to give Him to people. She wanted people to come to this house with their sufferings and their sorrows, so that she might heal them.

This is something that many people don’t realize: Our Lady of Guadalupe is not just an image. It’s a place. It’s “Mary’s house.” It’s a special place to encounter her. That is why, when the miraculous image appeared on St. Juan Diego’s cloak, the first thing they did was build a small shrine, a “little house” for her in that place. Remember, this was her primary request. She wanted to dwell with “all the people of this land” and be there as well for “all others.”

So how did Mary’s “little house” project turn out?

There are disagreements about numbers and definitions, but with 20 million pilgrims a year, Guadalupe is arguably the most highly visited religious shrine in the world today. (No, that's not a typo; that’s 20 [twenty] million people.) Some 5-7 million will come over the course of these four days, to commemorate what they realize is the greatest event in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Streets are closed off to traffic and mass transit is rerouted as one corner of Mexico City bulges. Then, the remaining 15 million are streaming through all during the year.

Who are these people?

They are not the kind of people who make news headlines. They are mostly ordinary, humble people. Some are deeply devout. Some are superstitious. Most have significant problems in their lives. Many of them are not especially good people. Undoubtedly there are those who are not even sure why they’ve come. They are rather like the human race itself, which is appropriate, because all the members of the human race are Mary’s children. They are, however, overwhelmingly from Mexico and other Hispanic countries.

Sadly, too few of them are Anglo-Americans. For many American Catholics, “Our Lady of Guadalupe” is a kind of footnote devotion, or a matter for curiosity: “O yes, Our Lady of Guadalupe…is it true what they say that you can see the reflections of people who were in the room in her eyes?” (The answer is “yes,” in the context of numerous scientific studies that analyze digital close up images of the eyes.)

But perhaps I’m not being fair. Of course, many of us in the United States love Our Lady of Guadalupe, and we recognize her power when we honor her (fittingly) as patroness of the pro-life movement, we have her image in our homes, but we don’t tend to think of her as here. We forget that she established her house right here, “in this land,” for all of us before there were any borders, before the Rio Grande had even been discovered by Europeans.

She is here for all of “America,” North and South, Anglo, French, and Hispanic. And all other peoples too, as Blessed John Paul II knew well. He came five times to see Our Lady of Guadalupe. But it was also he who entrusted to her the new evangelization of this hemisphere, which includes the ground on which my fellow Americans stand.

American Catholics go to shrines in Europe (which is great—I’ve done this too). But we forget that she is here. A couple of hours on a plane, a subway ride, and you are standing in front of her. Why don’t we go? Catholics in the United States have yet to really discover the Virgin of Guadalupe as a place.

Thanks to digital photography, her image is available to us and can travel with us (and I have no doubt of the power of this). More and more, we set up shrines to her where we are, and this is a great blessing. Let us go in greater numbers to these places as well. Undoubtedly, we are growing close to her (because Mary gets what she wants, sooner or later, and she wants us). I am convinced that we must discover her, and take her deeply into our hearts, if we are to become a truly transforming presence in our culture here in the United States.

But I think she wants more. She wants us to become pilgrims. She wants us to come visit her in her little house on Tepeyac hill, in the center of the Americas.

Many of us, of course, cannot do it. But there are also many of us who could, if we made the effort. Millions of people make far greater efforts each year. They too have her image in their own homes, and shrines for her in the communities where they live. There is nothing, however, that can quite substitute going to the house she had built for herself.

It’s worth the effort.