I sometimes find it odd as an out queer Catholic that people assume that I just don’t listen to what priests have to say. While I maintain a sort of “critical fidelity” to Church teachings, I do respond pretty instinctively to requests from “Father” – at least as long as the request passes through to my “sanity-check” filter.
So about eleven years ago, when the guy in black said offhandedly, “You’re coming to Mexico City this summer!” – full stop, no comma, no real room for discussion, my instinctive response was “I’m going to Mexico City this summer.”
WAIT. WHAT?!?! WHERE?!?!??
He informed me that he’d penciled me in for a slot on a pilgrimage he was leading to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Since Mexico City was a bit of a long trip to take to just go to Mass, there’d be a week of taquerias, tourism, and ancient temples in Teotihuacán to visit. Tequila tasting was hinted at as well. (I have a college-era tequila scar. Hints about tequila did NOT add to the allure of the trip.)
In short, the trip for me would be TORTURE, especially for since my passport should be stamped with “travels poorly with others.” Was I really one of those Catholics who would go on a pilgrimage? Nah. A punk rock show? Sure. Join about 50 other people on a bus trip to … go to Mass? Not a chance.
“You’re going because you need to see her” explained Father. “Her” was Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe – Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas. Evidently she is also the Patroness of Stressed-Out Queer Catholic School Mamas who weren’t at all sure if they were doing this “parenting” thing right, whether their kid really should be in Catholic school, or whether they – or anyone – should still stick around in the Church. The Vatican may not have declared those items to be under Guadalupe’s purview, but the Pastor did, and that was clearly sufficient.
Father had an ongoing relationship with Nuestra Señora for years, dating back to his own time in ministry in Mexico City, so I had to admit that he might have a point. He may also have been exhausted from all of my angsty questions and frequent weepy arguments in his office and wanted to pass me off into her care.
In 1531, Juan Diego, an indigenous man, encountered Mary, in the form of an indigenous woman. She told him to tell the (Spanish conquistador) bishop to build her a shrine. Juan dutifully relayed the message, and the bishop, probably grumbling and thinking that the guy just wanted a shorter walk to Mass, turned down the request. “Show me,” he told Juan.
Juan went back to the woman on 12 December. I see her rolling her eyes and shaking her head. Of course the Bishop didn’t believe an indigenous man bearing a message from a woman. Fine, she must have thought. I’ll show him. She sent Juan up the hill to gather all the roses he found there and place them in his garment. “Take those to the Bishop. He’ll believe you this time,” she instructed.
So Juan trundled down the hill with a pile of roses bundled up in his shirt. He tracked down the Bishop, and when he released the garment to drop the flowers at the Bishop’s feet, a full-color image of the woman – indigenous, visibly pregnant, carried by an angel – was imprinted on the cloth. The Bishop saw and believed. A shrine was built, and Juan was given a little hut on the property in which he lived the rest of his life. (So he did get his shorter walk to Mass after all! And now he is Saint Juan Diego.)
The garment, known as the tilma, was carefully framed and hung inside the shrine. It hangs in the present-day Basilica to this day. Through revolutions, invasions, land theft, earthquakes, and the ever-present protests about anything and everything in Mexico City, she is still there. Unfaded, unblemished, inexplicably perfect, but perfect in the messiness and chaos that is life in Mexico City – and really, life everywhere.
Thus a few months later I found myself on a bus with about 50 other pilgrims. We were disgorged a few blocks from the Basilica itself, giving us the opportunity to walk the pilgrims’ route in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, along with many thousands of others each day who go to see Guadalupe.
If Mexico City is overwhelming, the Basilica is nothing less than beautiful Holy Chaos. Mass is held every hour on the hour, with liturgies presided over by visiting priests. One hour there may be truckers’ union workers from across Mexico, and the next hour will be filled with school children. There’s also an annual Clown Mass, with hundreds of clowns in full costume. Our pastor had arranged to celebrate the liturgy for our group, along with anyone else who happened to be there. Before Mass, we joined the throngs on the conveyer belt that keeps the crowds moving under the tilma. I was curious how a cloth dating back to 1531 would really hold up and why so many people cared to see it.
I wish I could say that I had some sort of mystical experience under the tilma looking up at the inexplicably perfect cloth as I rode on the little moving walkway. But the mystical experience came when my neck started hurting from looking up on my fifth or sixth or so trip on that walkway. So, instead of looking at the image, I looked around to see my fellow travelers. I saw people – so very many people, young children and elders, wealthy and impoverished, some radiating joy, and one man weeping in the arms of a stranger. So many Mexicans, but also people from all over the world. We were all there to see her, but she was there for all of us. Even for my confused and conflicted and exhausted self. I was hers too. I belonged there, just like everyone else. And that’s the moment when I knew – really knew – that I belonged here, in our messy and crowded and conflicted Church, too.
I’ve been hers since that day when I realized that all of those brothers and sisters there with me – all of us created Imago Dei, in the image and likeness of God – we’re all Church together, y’all. No bridges to build, no walls to tear down. We’re all here, and Our Lady of Guadalupe takes us all in, as we are. I rode back and forth a dozen or so more times for good measure, but each time I just watched the people.
Not all of the pilgrims to the Basilica make the climb up to Tepeyac, the hill where the apparition took place. The elevation and pollution of Mexico City itself can make breathing difficult.The stones of the stairs are hand-placed and often unsteady, so the net effect is that of climbing up a hill to an uncertain destination with unsure footing. You could probably shorten that to “just like life.”
But just like life, sometimes there’s a pretty decent reward for persistence and perseverance. After Mass, I made the trek up the hill. Guadalupe is there too, present in a replica of the tilma, but she’s also present painted on a wall, standing underneath a rainbow (see photo at left). God’s promise, right? A sign, for those who have eyes to see. I stared at that wall for a long time, willing the image to imprint in my heart. I belonged.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe now lives around my neck on a silver chain pretty much every waking hour of every day, and most days I also carry a little rosary blessed by a priest at the Basilica, too. I’ve given a few of those away to friends with whom I’ve shared a bit of her care. She’s on my stove in the kitchen, and on a soap bottle in my bathroom. I’ve encountered her in a bus station in my neighborhood, on a t-shirt in the Netherlands, and even on a skateboard hanging on the wall of my favorite pizza place in San Francisco. On my first visit to Shanghai several years ago, a side altar of the church caught my attention because it was surrounded by plants. I went to see what was inside, and there she was, a large replica of the tilma image of our very human Blessed Mother, a gift from the Government of Mexico to the people of Shanghai. I burst into tears to see her there.
I claim her as the Patron Saint for all the misfits, marginalized, and misunderstood, and I’m far from alone. There’s lots more of us than the perfect people, too. She’s ours, and we are hers. And so whenever I can, I haul myself down to Mexico City to say “hi.” It’s been a few years now and I’m overdue for a trip, but no matter, ‘cause she really is everywhere. Just look around.
As I write this, pilgrims from across Mexico are walking, caravaning, busing, flying: all headed to the Basilica for December 11th, the vigil of the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. At midnight, “Las Mañanitas Guadalupanas,”a traditional patronal hymn, will be sungat the Basilica, on TV and streaming video, all over Mexico, and yes, Catholic parishes all across the United States as well.
She’s here for us all: definitely for her people from Mexico who are on pilgrimages of their own north of the border, but also for all of us who live and work and love in uncertain and unsettled times. That’s us. That’s the LGBTQ Catholics, but really, all of us right now.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the Blessed Mother in the form of an outcast, ruega por nosotros (pray for us).
—Sarah Gregory, New Ways Ministry, December 12, 2018