Friday, 19 October 2012

In 1995, when the Codex Escalada was first brought to public attention, howls of protest went up from the sceptics’ camp.  It is a parchment depicting St Juan Diego at prayer before a rendering of Our Lady’s famous image, with Nahuatl text in the Latin alphabet, stating that Cuauhtlactoatzin (the saint’s Nahuatl name) “died a worthy death…in 1548”, and that “…our dearly beloved mother Our Lady of Guadalupe” appeared to him in 1531. Signed by a well-known Franciscan missionary and “pioneering ethnologist”[1], Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c. 1499-1590), it is believed to be a sort of ‘death certificate’ of St Juan Diego. “Tests so far conducted”[2] indicate that it is correctly dated to the mid 16th century, and Fr Sahagún’s signature was judged to be authentic by acknowledged experts in the field. Apparently, it was discovered “…in a manila envelope and lodged between the pages of a 19th century devotional work on sale in a second-hand book market”, before being passed on to Fr Xavier Escalada, a Spanish Jesuit whose life-work was the study of Our Lady of Guadalupe.[3] When St Juan Diego’s canonisation took place in 2002 the Church was in a much stronger position to make the case for his historicity; all the more galling for the doubters, whose objections could be dismissed as churlishness and sour grapes:
“Within the context of the Christian tradition, it was rather like finding a picture of St. Paul's vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, drawn by St. Luke and signed by St. Peter.”[4]
   In his homily for the occasion, Blessed John Paul II took as his departure point the words from St Matthew’s Gospel:

"I thank you, Father ... that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was your gracious will" [Mt 11:25-26].

“These words of Jesus are a special invitation to us to praise and thank God for the gift of the first indigenous Saint of the American Continent. With deep joy i have come on pilgrimage to this Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Marian heart of Mexico and of America, to proclaim the holiness of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the simple, humble Indian who contemplated the sweet and serene face of Our Lady of Tepeyac, so dear to the people of Mexico. … ‘The Lord looks down from heaven, he sees all the sons of men’” (Ps 33:13), we recited with the Psalmist, once again confessing our faith in God, who makes no distinctions of race or culture. In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God. Thus he facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds and became the catalyst for the new Mexican identity, closely united to Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose Mestizo[5] face expresses her spiritual motherhood which embraces all Mexicans. This is why the witness of his life must continue to be the inspiration for the building up of the Mexican nation, encouraging brotherhood among all its children and ever helping to reconcile Mexico with its origins, values and traditions. … Mexico needs its indigenous peoples and these peoples need Mexico!”

   The musicians and dancers were still tooting and twirling merrily as we approached the Basilica, where i was able to obtain an inexpensive tea-towel sized ‘standard’ of Our Lady at one of the souvenir stalls. Sunday Mass, packed this time, was celebrated by a Cardinal (i think). Then after a tasty lunch, in the afternoon i spent a couple of hours on the internet, and noticed a news item about the recent arrest in northern Mexico of a 34 year-old former policeman called Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, known as El Diego, who had confessed to ordering the murders of 1500 people over a four year period, in his capacity as enforcer for the Juarez narcotics cartel. The news otherwise still seemed pre-occupied with the appalling massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway just over a week before, but really, the difference between him and El Diego is that of an amateur, as opposed to a professional killer.

Metropolitan Cathedral
With only four days left before the flight to Rome, i decided to base myself at the youth hostel in the centre, where quite a lot of time was spent tackling postcards. From the roof one had a great view of the Zocalo and the noble Cathedral, built in sections from 1573 to 1813; the largest of its kind in the Americas. I made my way there on Monday 1st August, dedicated to St Alphonsus Liguori, and attended Mass in a chapel with a marvelous golden screen behind the altar. As i prayed there for a friend of mine whose birthday was that day, my Guardian Angel in the guise of a middle-aged lady accosted me and brought me to the baroque Tabernaclechurch next door, with its highly impressive, intricately carved exterior wall. I was led to a very powerful, bruised and bleeding sculpture of Our Lord, crushed under the weight of the cross, where the lady lit a candle for my friend, before leaving me to continue praying.

Josip Broz Tito
Much of that day and the next were spent on the internet, writing the last ‘official’ entry for the blog among other things. I’d been unsure what to call it until, during Mass in the cathedral on Tuesday i had the phrase ‘La Mano de Dios’, almost the full extent of my Spanish, in my mind – just as the priest came out with these very words! In the afternoon i took a photo of a statue of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, long-time president of Yugoslavia and founding father of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’,[6]on the way to the National Museum of Anthroplogy, a must for any visit to Mexico, for the visitor to get some idea of the immense scale, as well as the simultaneous sophistication and barbarity, of Aztec civilization. Many of the statues (usually of indigenous deities), codices and implements are bizarre or frankly chilling, but highly impressive all the same – i know of no European museum with a comparable array of pre- or early Renaissance objects. Some items, such as a large, beautifully sculpted snake’s head, used as an altar for the brutal rituals of human sacrifice, were familiar to me from an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London some years before; other highlights are a magnificent feathered headdress, said to have been worn by Moctezuma himself, and the meticulously detailed ‘Aztec Sun Stone’ calendar. Overwhelmingly however i was left with the impression of a culture obsessed with death; skulls and gory depictions of war and mutilation abounded. Not knowing anything else[7], they had apparently cleaved to these weird, macabre counterfeit gods, most of them thirsty for human blood, with almost as much enthusiasm as, for example, European and Middle Eastern peoples had embraced their faith in the God who is the Creator and lover of life. An interesting section at the end focused on the migrations of the first humans into the Americas, from Siberia to Alaska; thus explaining the distinctly ‘Asiatic’ appearance of Mexico’s indigenous population, and of course many other American peoples. Not least interesting here was an excellent scale model of a company of pre-historic hunters, in the act of subjugating a woolly mammoth.

Amid the wealth of fascinating places associated with Mexico’s pre- and post-Columbian history, the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan is prominent in the capital region, but various things (like postcards) made it impossible for me to get there in the time available. Instead though, on Thursday 4thAugust (dedicated to the Curé of Ars, St John Marie Vianney), my last full day in Mexico, after Mass in the Basilica i stumbled across a little museum dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe - less headline-generating than a pyramid perhaps, but no less enchanting. It contains dozens of paintings, engravings and sculptures by artists from every echelon of society, and spanning at least four centuries, testifying to Mexico’s enduring devotion to the Tepeyac Madonna. Back in the new Basilica, kneeling before the image seered onto the fabric of St Juan Diego’s tilma, called by Blessed John Paul II the Star of the New Evangelisation, i said the following prayer, by way of farewell and in thanksgiving to the Blessed Mother with Child for whom i had undertaken my quest:

La Virgen de Guadalupe with St Juan Diego, Tabernacle Church, Zocalo, Mexico City

“Look at the star, call upon Mary … With her for guide, you shall not go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart … if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favour, you shall reach the goal.” —St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

[1] Wikipedia
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] D.A. Brading in his 1999 book ‘Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe. Image and Tradition Across Five Centuries’.
[5] Mestizo is now more a cultural than anthropological term, to describe people of mixed European and Indian heritage.
[6] “…founded in Belgrade in 1961, and largely the brainchild of Yugoslavia's president, Josip Broz Tito; Indonesia's first president, Sukarno; Egypt's second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser; Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah; and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. All five leaders were prominent advocates of a middle course for states in the Developing World between the Westernand Eastern blocs in the Cold War. The phrase itself was first used to represent the doctrine by Indian diplomat and statesman V.K. Krishna Menon in 1953, at the United Nations.”[Wikipedia]
[7] Would that modern Europeans could plead such ignorance.

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