Guadalupe -- and Catholicism -- are alive and well in Mexico, at least by every outward appearance.
Consider that on our last day, during a recent visit, the basilica there (in Mexico City) -- which counting standing room holds ten thousand -- was filled much of the day for Masses that occurred every hour on the hour starting at seven a.m. It is the shrine commemorating, of course, a famous apparition of Mary, who left her image.
Hundreds -- thousands -- milled or stood around the doors, unable to fit inside: this church that can seat thousands nearly too small for the folks who had driven all night from two other Mexican states (one Vera Cruz, seven hours away; the second even farther) after an annual procession from their regions (and Masses all day for each diocese in those states).
Young children peered over enclosures on the back of trucks that served as buses on the main avenues feeding the shrine.
The procession Monday was a mile or more long. A mile. A Monday.
And enthusiastic? Beating of drums. Mainly young and middle-aged folks. Bedecked in those typically colorful exuberant Mexican costumes and masks.
One of our pilgrims wept as she watched the display of mass devotion at this place that's visited by twelve to twenty million a year, making it the most popular in Christendom.
It had been twenty-five years since last we visited and we found Guadalupe more powerful than even back then.
Some tidbits about the image, which appeared, as most know, on the tilma (a cloak fashioned with cactus weave) in 1531 and yet has characteristics that modern science and art cannot explain:
Some assert that when an infrared thermometer was brought to bear, during one examination, the cloth was always at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature of the human body), and that during at least one testing, a stethoscope pressed against the weave picked up what sounded like the beat of a heart (the image of course depicts a pregnant woman). Our guide, who was reliable in other details, told us this, and we'd heard it also many years ago (it is on the internet), but have not verified it.
It is known for certain that photographers, artists, and scientists alike, whatever their belief systems, have not been able to reconcile how such a detailed and accurate image could have been painted or inflected on the rough pocked surface of the sisal and agave cactus weave, with no under-sketching (which artists need to create such an intricate portrait) and with colors that are no known oxide, mineral, artificial chemical, or vegetable product. Some say that up close, within inches, it's nearly as if the image is a fraction from the material itself. It is untrue, however, that tests with a laser proved this. The colors are similar to the electra of a beetle or the feathers of a bird than any paint. It doesn't reflect light; rather, the image collects light and diffracts it like the surface sculpturing on the wings of a butterfly.
Moreover, there are those images found under magnification in the corneas of the image -- like photographs of several people, including a bishop and Juan Diego, to whom she appeared. The corneas are curved just like a human's and refract light in the same way. These facts are irreflagable. Some claim when light cast on the eyes is altered, the pupils seem to contract or dilate.
Like the Shroud of Turin, it's only the barest surface of the weave that has been colored; regular paint would bleed through the fibers. From less than ten centimeters away, the image seems to have no color.
The colors and aspect of the image seem to change depending on how far one is from it -- as if alive. More than a way of reaching the Aztecs (with the Madonna's less-than-lily-white complexion), the somewhat dark skin becomes olive or myrtle green four or five feet from the image, precisely the description of the skin of Queen Esther of Old Testament fame.
So too is the Guadalupe attire like that in ancient Palestine.
When muriatic acid was accidentally spilled on the cloth (along the periphery; not on the image itself, during a cleaning of the silver frame), the dissolving fibers later were said to have regenerated over a period of months (leaving the cloth whole again, if stained). Actually, it is more accurate to say that the acid never dissolved the fiber as would be expected in the first place.
Our Lady survived that insult just as she survived an attempt during the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s by Masons to bomb the image (the bomb, hidden in flowers, bending a Crucifix on the altar and damaging marble but not so much as cracking the image's glass).
Surprisingly powerful are the several different spots on or at the base of stony Tepeyac Hill (now irrigated and lush) where she appeared. Near the bottom, where the third apparition occurred, is now a towering statue of Jesus as Cristo Rey. Twice we witnessed strange activity of the sun here (impossible to fully convey via photography).
At the summit up many steep steps stands a rarefied chapel, not to be missed: true graces and an overwhelming sense of peace.
This is where Saint Juan Diego gathered the roses as a sign given by the Virgin for a doubting bishop (who instantly no longer doubted), roses that Juan had gathered in his folded tilma. When he unfolded it for the bishop -- thinking the "sign" was simply in the roses blooming during winter -- the incredible image was on the cloak, bringing a typically skeptical bishop to his knees and shocking also Juan, who thought he was merely carrying the flowers, which Our Lady gave as a sign requested by the bishop.
One has to admit: it is at least as powerful a place as Lourdes and more experiential than Fatima.
The old basilica there now leans like Pisa, sinking next to the new, massive basilica. But it is still open to the devout and has one of the largest monstrances and Hosts for Adoration, truly massive and beautiful, with a feeling not describable.
Nearby is a statue that's peculiar in its similarity to one in the church of St. James (Medjugorje).
This is geologically unstable earth; in 1985, our guide said an earthquake struck with enough effect as to cause several pilgrims to fall to the ground.
Did you know that an image of Guadalupe accompanied Admiral Doria on his ship in the pivotal battle of Lepanto (during which a Muslim takeover of southern Europe was turned back)?
How many realize that at Guadalupe she appeared next to an old Aztec chapel dedicated at the base of Tepeyac to a pagan god? And that Mary supplanted that temple (big-time) with Catholicism?
Many know this. But how about the fact that the stones for that temple are now used for a Catholic church there? Catholicism conquered.
And that when the Aztecs were in control, using this "goddess" chapel, they had sacrificed not just humans as an "offering," but young humans: children and infants?
Just as the image of Guadalupe in our modern time is used as a pro-life symbol (since she appears pregnant), so did she also come, in the sixteenth century, to halt the slaying of the young. That's pretty amazing.
But at Guadalupe, many things are.