FORT WAYNE – Bishop Kevin Rhoades was not surprised that St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was packed to capacity Sunday afternoon to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe.
He was not surprised that despite the cold, wet weather, 200 of those at the Mass processed from St. Patrick’s to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, singing songs and chanting the Rosary.
He was not surprised that at the head of the procession was an intricately carved statue of Mary and St. Juan Diego, whom Mary appeared to in 1531.
But Rhoades had no idea the wooden statue – carried on a litter by four men, with a fifth holding an umbrella over it – was a gift to celebrate the eighth anniversary of his ordination as a bishop.
It was a surprise, Rhoades said later. I had no idea.
As a priest in Pennsylvania, Rhoades served several Hispanic parishes, so he knows well the devotion Hispanic Catholics have for Mary. Saturday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when Catholics celebrate their belief that Mary was conceived without sin so that she could be a pure vessel to carry the Son of God. Sunday was the Feast Day of Juan Diego; Wednesday is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. All of which combined to make Sunday’s events heavy with meaning and emotion. She’s like a mother figure for us, said Maria Nevarez. It means a lot.
All Catholics revere Mary, but the devotion of Hispanic Catholics – especially Mexican Catholics – is passionate. The vision Juan Diego had, of a Mary with Aztec features and speaking his language, made the Christianity of the Spanish occupiers suddenly real, and her words still resonate nearly 500 years later: All those who sincerely ask my help in their work and in their sorrows will know my mother’s heart in this place, she said. Here I will see their tears; I will console them and they will be at peace.
Sunday, dancers in elaborate headdresses decorated with peacock feathers performed Aztec dances on the steps of the cathedral as a statue of Mary looked down on them and the sound of drums echoed off downtown buildings.
Rhoades said Mary’s message was especially meaningful to people who were poor and oppressed. It’s part of their identity, he said. She lives in their hearts. It’s more than a devotion, it’s a living Gospel, really. Mary reveals to us the love of God.
It’s a devotion Irma Briseno knows well, and about eight years ago she found she could express it through Aztec dance. Now that her son, Uziel is 22 months old, she hopes to begin dancing again soon.
When I dance, my tears are . Well, my eyes get wet, Briseno said. I feel that emotion inside me.