On Saturday, December 12, 2020 the migrant farm workers and their families who are part of the Warwick Area Migrant Committee’s various programs gathered together to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This religious feast day is very big in Mexico, as well as, among other communities in South and Central America.
This day is celebrated as a Feast Day in the Catholic Church in the United States of America as well since the Catholic Church has consecrated the all of North America to Our Lady of Guadalupe who is also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The title of Our Lady of Guadalupe is associated with the Catholic belief that five apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary occurred just outside of Mexico City in December 1531.
The apparitions appeared to a native Aztec Mexican named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin who was a poor, but devout Catholic. Because the apparition looked like a pregnant Aztec Princess, Juan Diego did not recognize it as the Blessed Mother initially. During the first apparition though on December 9th, the Blessed Mother revealed to him who she really was and that she wanted a Church built on the spot she was standing. Though Juan Diego told the Church about his visions they did not believe him.
On the fourth apparition appearance on December 12th, Juan Diego had gone out of his way to avoid the spot where he kept seeing Our Lady of Guadalupe since he had already three times asked the Archbishop of Mexico to build the Church for the Blessed Mother and three times had been told no. His tactics to avoid her did not work though. The Lady appeared to Juan Diego again– this time telling him to gather flowers from the nearby hill where the Blessed Mother kept appearing, to put those flowers in his tilma (a type of cloak similar to a fabric poncho) and to see the Archbishop again to show him the flowers as proof of his story. Juan Diego did as told immediately and hurried off to the Archbishop. When Juan Diego opened his tilma and the Archbishop saw roses fall on the floor that were not native to Mexico. He recognized them as he had seen them elsewhere and they would not be in season for months. There was no way Juan Diego could have obtained them– as such, the Archbishop was amazed. Even further the Archbishop was more amazed when he looked up at Juan Diego and noticed that the front of Juan Diego’s tilma now bared the image of the very woman he kept telling the Church he had been seeing. At that point the Archbishop believed him and eventually a Church called Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe would be built on the hill as requested by the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Juan Diego saw Mary one last time on December 13th where she told him she wished to be known under the title of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” when asked about the vision. The Blessed Mother also miraculously cured his uncle who had been sick for the past few days at that time. Because of this final request Juan Diego made sure that going forward the visions would be called by the title requested by Mary. The Church complied with the request and centuries later the feast day would be established for North America, as well as, the larger Catholic Church.
Veneration of the image on the tilma would grown internationally and today millions are dedicated to veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe worldwide in the Catholic Church. In the years following the visions, millions of Mexicans would convert to Catholicism because of them. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has some very specific Aztec symbols in them that made the native Aztecs believe not only the vision, but that Our Lady of Guadalupe was speaking directly to their people to convert. In those believers’ minds, there was no way an outsider would be able to craft them and speak to the native Aztecs so directly in symbolism. Conversion by the native peoples of Mexico took off for this reason from that point; with more being converted to Catholicism in the two years following the vision than had been converted since the colonization of the Mexican peninsula by the Spanish during the past century. For this reason, Juan Diego would one day be named St. Juan Diego by the Catholic Church and be given the title “Apostle of Mexico”.
The tilma that Juan Diego wore is still on display at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico today. The church, which sits on the hill that Juan Diego saw the Blessed Mother on, is one of the most visited religious places in the world and attracts (during non-pandemic years) millions of visitors from all over the world. Those pilgrims include Catholics, as well as, other Christians from all over.
This most important celebration continued this year in spite of the COVID pandemic in the migrant farm worker community served by the WAMC. The families in our programs figured out a beautiful way to celebrate the Feast Day safely with small numbers of people joining in veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe at one time. A few of the families worked together to build a very traditional and beautiful altar for Our Lady of Guadalupe. This altar allowed the families to spend time with Our Lady in silent prayer and veneration, as well as, to say traditional prayers before her. The celebration was well attended by the migrant farm worker community and though it was very different because of the social distancing, as well as, capacity limits in place to keep things safe it was still a really amazing experience for all involved. It was wonderful to see a people continue their traditions and religious beliefs despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. It was also wonderful to see the love shown by each attendee to the Blessed Mother, as well as, to the others in the community.