Diocesan Youth Pilgrimage Review – 21st September 2006

¡Que Viva México!

An account of the Diocesan Youth Pilgrimage, 2006, by the Most Revd Geoffrey Jarrett, Bishop of Lismore.

The experiences of the Mexican Pilgrimage will certainly live for a long time in the memories of the 21 young people from our parish high schools who spent two weeks in the heartland of Mexico in early July. “Going to Mexicoshowed us just how universal the Catholic Faith is, and how strong. It was the most amazing experience!” said Clare Brennan (Sawtell). Todd Magnay ( Byron Bay) agreed: “If your spirituality needs a top up, Mexico is the place to go.”

The plan for the Mexican visit arose out of the 2002 pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. A side-trip to Mexico City to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe had been a great highlight, and the idea of a later full pilgrimage to the country took shape. With its 90% Catholic population, Mexico is a modern country in which can be seen an integration of Christianity with the national culture, its character shaped dramatically on the anvil of historical events over nearly 500 years in which the Catholic faith has been as formative as the fire in the steel.

The Catholic Faith came to Mexico in the wake of the Spanish Conquest under Hernán Cortés in 1519. The Spaniards encountered with amazement the highly developed Aztec civilization, admirable but flawed by a religion of cruel and insatiable human sacrifice. Evangelization made slow progress until in 1531, on the hill of Tepeyac on the outskirts of the present Mexico City, the Blessed Virgin appeared as an Indian to an Indian, St Juan Diego. The veracity of the apparition was confirmed by the miracle of the roses and the astounding imprint of the Virgin’s image upon the peasant’s cloak.

This beautiful image is as miraculous and as fascinating as any in Christian history. Today it is placed above the altar in the great modern basilica which draws tens of millions of visitors each year from all over Mexico and the world. The tender words of Our Lady, seen in large letters over the main entrance of the basilica, echo down to the present: “Am I not here, who am your Mother?” As we heard many times, people say that to be Mexican means also to be “Guadalupan”; her image is to be seen at every turn, not just in churches and homes, but in workplaces, buses and in the streets. Devotion to our Lady of Guadalupe has become world-wide, spreading from the Americas to Asia and Europe, and increasingly throughout Australia, where she is particularly known among us as the patroness and protector of the unborn.

The Virgin of Guadalupe indeed became the Mother of the new Mexican nation formed from the two older cultures. When the time came in 1810 to make their bid for independence, the people began their march under her banner, led by a parish priest since acclaimed as a national hero, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Mary’s abiding presence sustained the people when Christ and the Church were attacked following the 1910 Revolution. Presidents heavily influenced by masonic and marxist ideologies implemented laws which appropriated church property and subjected the clergy to state control. The situation became so critical between 1926-29 that in parts of Mexico the Catholic laity formed militia and took up arms against the federal government in defence of the Church’s freedom. The conflict, known as the Cristero rebellion, cost thousands of lives and brought about many martyrdoms. Twenty-five of these priests and laity were canonised by Pope John Paul in 2000, and another 13 were beatified last November in Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco in western Mexico where a great number of the martyrdoms had taken place.

Our pilgrimage began in Guadalajara, and on the first Sunday I celebrated Mass in the shrine of Our Lady of Zapopan. Mass in Spanish was a new experience for our group, as were the packed crowds and the pilgrims shuffling on their knees up the centre aisle during Mass bringing offerings to the altar. On the previous day we had been received by auxiliary Bishop José Trinidad González Rodíguez and members of the youth apostolate of the Archdiocese, who treated us to a fine Mexican dinner complete with a mariarchi band. We were also acting as ambassadors for World Youth Day 2008, and here as later in our travels we offered young Mexicans coming to Australia our North Coast hospitality during the ‘Days in the Diocese’ before meeting the Pope in Sydney.

In the high country north of Guadalajara we visited Tepatitlán, standing at the tree on which St Tranquilino Ubiarco was hanged in his mass vestments and visiting the museum of the Cristero war in the town. That day’s Mass was celebrated in the little village of Santa Ana de Guadalupe, where another martyr, St Toribio Romo, was baptised and on the same altar on which he had celebrated his First Mass in 1923. Five years later at the age of 28 he was summarily executed by federal soldiers; his relics rest beneath the altar and his blood-stained clothes are encased in view on either side.

Mexico’s third most popular sanctuary of Our Lady, sought out by Pope John Paul II on his 1990 visit, is in the cathedral city of San Juan de los Lagos. Soon after the evangelisation of this part of Mexico, miracles came to be associated with a statue of the Virgin given to the newly-converted Indians by the Franciscan friars. After Mass we were able to go up the stairs at the back of the altar and see many of the votive offerings brought over the years by pilgrims thanking Mary for favours granted – little folk paintings depicting healing of the sick, finding lost cattle, the birth of a child, rescue from drowning in a flood, and so on. The immediacy of this confidence in Mary’s intercession was brought home to us by Gustavo, our pilgrimage leader, who told us the story of his visit to Our Lady of Zapopan in desperation after doctors could do no more for his eldest daughter after she had ingested some industrial cleaning fluid in his garage. No effect now remains, as we could see when we met Gustavo’s family on the morning we left Guadalajara.

Our route took us on to Guanajuato, an old colonial town famous for its rich silver mines (and Mummy Museum!); to the town of Dolores where Father Hidalgo launched the fight for independence from Spain, and to the most beautiful and unspoiled town of San Miguel de Allende. Another famous colonial city, Querétaro, has one of the world’s largest aqueducts conveying water on high stone arches over 8km, and is the place of execution of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian in 1867.

Finally approaching Mexico City, passing hundreds of walking pilgrims to Guadalupe on the way, a day was spent climbing the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán. A vast site, it had been a huge city in the second century AD, only to be deserted and its temples rediscovered by the Aztecs a thousand years later.

On our last Sunday in Mexico we were amongst the thousands at the 10am Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, welcomed as a group by the Rector of the Shrine, Monseñor Diego Monroy. We had ample time for prayer and to explore the sites of the apparitions of Our Lady – this holy place is not to be hurried – though we were able to finish the day floating along the canals of Xochimilco among hundreds of colourful punts full of families, food and mariachis.

One of the main objects of our pilgrimage was realised on 12 July when we visited the Jesuit Church of the Holy Family in Mexico City. Here rest the remains of the best known of the Mexican Martyrs, Blessed Miguel Pro. He and his brother were unjustly and without trial accused of conspiracy in an assassination attempt on the corrupt future president; Father Pro was executed on 23 November 1927. To ensure publicity the government had photographs taken. Father Pro is shown with arms outstretched in the form of a cross, with crucifix and rosary in his hands. After forgiving the soldiers as they raised their rifles, he shouted in a loud voice the last words of all of the Cristero martyrs, ¡Viva Cristo Rey! – Long live Christ the King! After Mass at the shrine of his relics the time of quiet prayer was one of the special moments of the pilgrimage.

The final days enabled us to see more of the glories of Mexican baroque architecture in Puebla and Taxco, and climb a third pyramid at Cholula, now topped by a church, with the snow-capped and smoking volcano of Popocatépetl dominating the scene.

Peter Watts, Assistant Principal at St Francis Xavier School at Woolgoolga and one of the adults accompanying the students, summed up everyone’s thoughts: “The Mexico Pilgrimage was an inspiration. The deep faith and love of the Church of the Mexican people is a light shining to all. The history, culture but most of all, the people of Mexico, were amazing. I want to go back!” So said Luke Barnes (Kingscliff): “It was the most amazing spiritual and religious time of my life. I’d do it all again at the drop of a hat.”

Grace and peace be with you, and my blessing in Christ.

Yours devotedly,
+ Geoffrey Jarrett
Bishop of Lismore.