Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why the Virgin of Guadalupe Means So Much to Me

I must have been a child when I first heard of the event of December 12, 1531. Back then, we didn't see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe much. There weren't many new immigrants of any kind in those days, and our Catholic forebearers had brought their own Madonnas with them (there are so many ways that Mary has drawn close to her children in different places).

It was in college that I learned about the history, and this man named "Juan Diego" (I remember wondering -- in those long ago days -- why this guy wasn't a saint or a blessed or anything). I learned about the extraordinary conversions, the inexplicable nature of the image and preservation of the cloth, and that the shrine still existed (somewhere down there, down down down... down there, somewhere).

I don't recall being taken by it in any personal way, however. Like many Americans, my first experience of a Marian shrine was in Europe. I went on a pilgrimage to Fatima in 1987, and it was a profoundly moving experience. Then I began to realize that we had a Marian shrine of our own right on the campus of the Catholic University of America. It may have been at the National Shrine, in the midst of so many chapels dedicated to Marian traditions throughout the world, that I first became drawn to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (reproduced in a mosaic in the Guadalupe chapel there).

As a professor I became more familiar with her place in the history of the hemisphere, and I couldn't help noticing the special attention of Pope John Paul II to the Guadalupan shrine. And of course, Mexican and other Latino immigrants had arrived in abundance even in the Shenandoah Valley, and we had a convent of bilingual Mexican religious sisters in the area who dedicated themselves to working among these immigrants (while also studying at our college). They showed me Mary's maternal love in action, and they also gave us the large "official" reproduction of the image that still presides over our dining room.

It was only in January of 1999, however, that I finally made a trip to Mexico City. Even here, the point of my travel was focused on the visit of John Paul II (yet again) to promulgate the document from the previous year's "Synod of the Americas" (although the Pope was insistent and emphatic about using the term in the singular, referring to the entire Western hemisphere from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego as "America" -- this was an important feature of his perspective on the history, present, and future reality of America).

I also hoped to make a pilgrimage to the shrine and see Our Lady of Guadalupe. This was just after the birth of our second child, and I had a lot to pray for and also to be grateful for.

What I was entirely unprepared for was what happened to me when I actually found myself in front of the real image.

I had met many people in my life. I had been captivated by the radiance of extraordinary human personalities and experienced their intangible but unmistakable attraction. I had met and conversed with saints (Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and others who have not yet reached ecclesiastical honors) and had been taken by surprise at their capacity to see me personally, understand me and show compassion to me.

But nothing prepared me for what happened when I brought my distracted humanity into what is perhaps the most widely visited religious shrine on earth.

I looked at her and everything fell away: my thoughts, my intentions, my whole understanding of what I was doing there. All that time I thought that I was going to see this artifact. But suddenly I realized that I was in the presence of a person who wanted to see me.

In retrospect, I might be inclined to consider this a matter of my imagination; however, so many Guadalupe pilgrims I have spoken to understand exactly what I mean, and have had very similar experiences.

She is there. I am sure of it. I met her.

I felt an entirely unanticipated silence in my soul. I had come to talk, but now I found myself listening.

And what I heard was something completely simple: "You are very much loved."