Friday, 19 October 2012

Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, Zocalo
Earlier, i had chanced upon a poster which seemed to be advertising a procession, taking place on the next day, from the central Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary to the new Basilica, to mark the IXth anniversary of the canonization of St Juan Diego. In the hope of finding an affordable place to spend the night near the cathedral therefore, i took the metro again, and had a conversation with a young English speaker who let me know his opinion that i was, rather than a ‘back-packer’, a ‘work-shrugger’. Reaching ‘Zocalo’[1] after dark, encased behind glass in the metro station was an excellent reconstruction of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor[2], though i felt constrained to walk straight past because of needing to find somewhere to stay. On this score, initially there seemed to be a dearth of options, until who should i bump into, belying Mexico City’s status as one of the biggest conurbations in the world, but the same pair of Russian tourists that i’d met two days before, standing outside the splendid Metropolitan Cathedral. They knew of an excellent, chirpy nearby youth hostel, into which, since it was ideal for my purposes, i promptly checked. Sitting for a while with my diary in the café-bar, i happened upon a little devotional medal of St Charbel Makhluf[3].
The Aztecs
   In fact, being a Saturday night, the youth hostel’s ‘chirpiness’ proved to be almost too much of a good thing, with semi-musical noise blaring from a rooftop bar near my room until the small hours. Thankfully though, in beautiful sunshine next morning i made it to the cathedral by 8.00 for the start of the procession, and was soon caught up in a sense that something really extraordinary was taking place. First to arrive was a party of young girls, dressed in traditional Mexican costumes, dancing in unison and singing a beautiful hymn of some kind, possibly in an indigenous language. Then came a Mariachi[4] band, made up of three saxophones, which would echo the melody provided by two trumpets and a trombone, with a great big double bass and a mandolin/banjo type instrument, accompanied by other traditionally-dressed dancers. As we got underway there was also a troupe of Aztec 'shamans' in spectacular feathered headdresses, some carrying incense burners, and other musicians, all playing brilliant tunes which i'd never heard before, making the whole experience quite unforgettable. It was a special occasion, and i believe this goes to the heart of why Mexico '86 was such a great success. No one does special occasions like the people of Mexico.

Musicians and dancers arriving for procession from the Zocalo Cathedral to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
   Exactly nine years previously, on 31st July 2002, an estimated 4.5 million people attended the ceremony, presided over by Blessed John Paul, for the canonisation of St Juan Diego. He is a great hero to Mexico’s indigenous population, because the Blessed Virgin Mother of God chose him as the means by which to let them know that she was and is their Queen and Mother, no less than she is Queen and Mother to the Europeans. So much of history, of course, is taken up with struggles and conflicts, arising from circumstances in which one group of people is held in subjection to, or otherwise persecuted (or even put to death) by another. The Church acclaims St Juan Diego as the instrument by which the Good Lord conferred upon the indigenous peoples of Mexico full membership in the great family of Christ:

“As it was His purpose to bring a great many of His sons into glory, it was appropriate that God, for Whom everything exists and through Whom everything exists, should make perfect, through suffering, the Leader who would take them to their salvation. For the One who sanctifies, and the ones who are sanctified, are of the same stock; that is why He openly calls them brothers.” [Hebrews 2:10-11]

   But this is all a bit too convenient for some people, including many Catholics, who not only scoff at the miraculous aspects of the story, but fundamentally dispute the existence of the poor Indian convert, without whom it would lose its popular appeal. And funnily enough, looking into this one would have to concede that, at least at the time of Juan Diego’s beatification in 1990, the Church had a case to answer. Recognition of the cult[5] of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to rest almost as much on acknowledgement of its intrinsic worth[6], as on actual documentary evidence. But the great champion of the faithful indigenous people of the Americas, Blessed John Paul II (loved in Mexico incidentally as if he were a native Saint) would be vindicated - at least in the eyes of those who accept that divine providence is able to intervene in such matters.

[1] Mexico City’s central square, officially the ‘Plaza de la Constitución’, takes its popular name Zocalo from a ‘plinth’ which was intended to underpin a monument to Mexican independence, but stood unoccupied (rather like one we have in Trafalgar Square) for many years before being removed. The authorities could do a lot worse than putting a statue of St Juan Diego there now.
[2] Standing on the site now occupied by the Metropolitan Cathedral, it was a huge sort of ‘twin pyramid’ structure, built and rebuilt several times, “…dedicated to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture” [Wikipedia].The construction that the first Spaniards were met with in 1519 dated from 1487. Its inauguration is believed to have cost the lives of between 20,000 and 80,000 victims of ritual human sacrifice (largely prisoners of war). Interestingly, this practice was so ingrained into the culture, when the Spanish arrived there were said to be instances of condemned people actually being resentful of attempts to liberate them.
[3] Born 1828 in Bekaa Kafra, high in the Lebanese mountains, he made his profession as a monk in the Maronite Order in 1853; the last 23 years of his life were spent as a hermit in the chapel of SS Peter and Paul, in the care of the Monastery of St Maron. He died on Christmas Eve 1898. Partly as a result of numerous miracles reported after his death, he was canonised in 1977. Lebanese immigrants brought his cult with them to Mexico, where he has become very popular; a much frequented statue of his stands in the Metropolitan Cathedral. [Wikipedia]
[4] Originating in the western part of Mexico, the name is thought by some to be derived from the French word ‘marriage’, and to date from a period of French involvement in Mexico in the 19th century, though others dispute this theory, believing the word to have an indigenous origin.
[5] The word ‘cult’ has acquired a negative connotation in modern discourse, but not all cults are ‘bad’, at least not if one believes in God. Similarly, ‘dogma’ tends to be used pejoratively nowadays, but it simply means ‘teaching’.
[6] Not only to Catholicism itself perhaps but also to the social fabric of Mexico.

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