Gratitude, honor and a spirit of joyful motherly love pervaded the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe vigil Mass Thursday, Dec. 11, at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.
Nearly 1,000 Latino people from parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia processed on foot or came by car, train and bus to honor their beloved Mother, the patroness of the Americas. They serenaded her with Las Mañanitas, traditional songs of endearment, at her side altar in the cathedral before Archbishop Charles Chaput celebrated Mass a little after 9 p.m.
“They walk in the cold every year regardless of the weather. They don’t care; they love Our Lady,” marveled Joann Roa, director of the archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics. “Some people give up almost two days of work without pay to honor her because she’s been there for them.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the name given to Mary when she appeared in 1531 to the poor Mexican peasant, St. Juan Diego, whom she requested ask the bishop for a church built in what is now Mexico City. After a few failed attempts, St. Juan finally convinced the bishop with Mary’s miraculous sign of roses in winter and an image of Our Lady as she had appeared to St. Juan emblazoned on his cloak.
His tilma, which is miraculously preserved in the Mexico City shrine, depicts Mary radiant as she blocks the sun and stands on the moon, pregnant with Jesus, the one true God. She appears as a mestiza, a woman of mixed blood, a virgin and mother. She is a sign of truth, unity and life for all people.
It is to this strong and generous mother that the Hispanics of the Philadelphia region are so attracted.
Even families with babies bore the cold as they witnessed with banners and strollers to passersby on Spring Garden Street – the route of North Philadelphia’s St. Joan of Arc Parish, which began its walk at 5:30 p.m.
They were joined by parishioners from Visitation B.V.M and St. Michael’s in North Philadelphia, St. Francis de Sales Parish in West Philadelphia and St. Thomas Aquinas and Annunciation B.V.M. parishes in South Philadelphia.
By 8 p.m. the grand old cathedral was in full fiesta mode as the faithful – many of whom walked more than two hours to get there – sang, danced, waved flags, whistled and cried, “Viva Virgen Maria!” to honor the Mother of Life, a woman Mexicans call “Lupita” and whose miraculous appearance continues to change the world.
Mariachi bands wooed Our Lady as families carried flower-embellished statutes and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe to her altar, which was decorated with streaming sheer green, pink and white fabric, lights and countless colorful roses.
A dancer stomped her feet and twirled her skirt in “Son de la Negra” style to the guitars, drums, accordion and tuba, and parents brought their little ones to look with wonder-filled eyes at the diverse collect of precious Marian artifacts.
Roa said Our Lady of Guadalupe offers everyone four things: “Her love, compassion, help and protection.”
“She comes to bring life and love to many who perhaps have lost that focus in their lives or have forgotten what that means. In essence, she brings Christ,” Roa said.
Archbishop Chaput highlighted Mary’s maternity in his homily when he emphasized her role as a patroness of life and justice. He cited Pope Francis’ Dec. 11 General Audience speech in Rome.
“When the image of the Virgin appeared on the tilma of Juan Diego, it was the prophecy of an embrace: Mary’s embrace of all the peoples of the vast expanses of America,” the pope said.
Archbishop Chaput personalized the pope’s message.
“It is my great hope that newly arrived people in our archdiocese would be the source of great energy in our community to protect innocent human beings, to work together to promote justice in immigration and to have confidence because the Holy Father says Mary the Mother of Jesus embraces us,” the archbishop said. “We can have confidence because the Mother of God is also our mother. Our Mother is Mary.”
In the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Juan Diego took an alternate route to avoid meeting Our Lady so he could visit his dying uncle. Mary gently told her son to let go of all anxiety. “Am I not here who am your mother?” she asked softly. “Is there anything else you need?”
Diego’s uncle was cured at that moment.
“St. Juan Diego gives us hope that we can all do great things if we just come to her,” Roa said. “Mary unites us all together. If we give our lives to her, she will do so many wonderful things for us.”
St. Joseph Sister Linda Lukiewski of St. Joan of Arc Parish also praised the faith of St. Juan.
“He didn’t not want to do what Mary asked, but he cared about his uncle.” Sister Lukiewski said. A Polish American, Lukiewski was drawn to work with Hispanic people because of what she called their “relational outlook.”
“They have heart,” she added.
Dalia O’Gorman, director of Casa Monarca Mexican Community Center in South Philadelphia, remembers family processions as a girl in Mexico where her mother reminded her to thank Our Lady of Guadalupe when her sisters were born.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe is a connection with my country, my roots and my faith,” she said. “The tradition is passed on from generation to generation.”
Charlie Fernandez played guitar for Our Lady with his band Los Amigos del Jefe as he walked with St. Joan of Arc parishioners. “In my country every Mexican celebrates the Virgen Maria,” he said. “We make music special for her and say thanks for everything in life. She’s like my second mother.”
For Elsa Majerick of Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia’s Juniata Park section, Mary is her mom — and lawyer.
“She’s in the presence of God fighting for me,” Majerick said. “I say please take my petitions and give them to your son. Come on, lawyer!”
Majerick credits Our Lady of Guadalupe with the protection of her son “under her mantle” while he served in the military in Afghanistan.
Cousins Jennifer and Deissy Cinto carried the banner for St. Joan of Arc Parish. “I look up to her,” said 13-year-old Jennifer,
“We believe in her,” agreed Deissy, 14. “When I turn 15 I will go to church, give her roses and thank her for giving me life and being there for me and my family.”
At the end of Mass, Archbishop Chaput blew two familial kisses to the congregation when he was thanked for the celebration. Then the songs continued as a gentle ripple of people waving roses accompanied the passing flower-adorned image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.