Mexican Catholicism is extremely varied in practice. It ranges from those who support traditional folk religious practices, usually in isolated rural communities, to those who adhere to the highly intellectualized theology of liberation, and from charismatic renewal prayer groups to the conservative Opus Dei movement. Lay groups with different goals, purposes, and political orientations are well known and common in contemporary Mexico. The largest and best known include Mexican Catholic Action, Knights of Columbus, Christian Study Courses, Christian Family Movement, and a wide range of university students' and workers' organizations.
After Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521, Catholic missionaries swept into the area to convert the indigenous peoples. European efforts at evangelism were not always effective, especially when missionaries attempted to introduce the Christian faith and religious practices without alteration or adaptation to indigenous customs. However, the Aztecs did find elements of their own religion in some Catholic rituals. For example, the Aztecs were known (and feared by some other Indian communities) for their practice of human sacrifice. This ceremonial ritual of their religion made them receptive to the idea of consuming the flesh of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Furthermore, the Aztec worship of the goddess Tonantzin was transferred to the veneration of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith. Thus, a blending of Aztec customs and Catholic beliefs resulted in a distinctive Mexican religious culture. Within the first decade of Spanish rule, hundreds of thousands of native Mexicans converted to Catholicism.
A common example of the fusion of Aztec and Catholic practices is evident throughout Mexico every autumn during the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos. Observed during the Catholic feasts of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day-November 1 and 2-this traditional Mexican holiday celebrates the two-day return of deceased relatives to their loved ones remaining on Earth. Honoring the dead is a 4,000 year old tradition in Mexico. Since Catholicism has become the dominant religion in Mexico, the festivities surrounding El Dia de los Muertos have absorbed certain Christian practices including the praying of the rosary. However, the observance of this tradition is more celebratory than somber. Death is something to be feared in Mexican culture, but Mexicans receive its threat with humor. Although a typical part of the celebration involves a candlelight vigil and La Llorada ('the weeping"), El Dia de los Muertos is an opportunity to laugh at death. This mockery is evident in the amusing skeletons and specialty foods that adorn the altars to the dead. These altars are erected by family members in cemeteries and can be elaborate or simple.
The Catholic Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has its origins in December of 1531. A recently converted Indian, Juan Diego, was traveling over Tepeyac Hill-the former site of an Aztec shrine to the goddess Tonantzin-outside of Mexico City. When Juan Diego reported to the local bishop that he had seen the mother of the Christian God on Tepeyac Hill and she addressed him in his native language and asked that a shrine be built for her at the site, Church officials were skeptical. Bishop Zumarraga asked the elderly Aztec to bring a sign of the apparition. Three days later, Juan Diego returned to the bishop and released a bundle of roses from his cloak, on which a colorful image of the Virgin Mary appeared. Stunned by the image and the abundance of roses in the middle of December, the bishop ordered that a shrine be erected. Subsequent bishops embellished the shrine and in 1904 it was given the status of a basilica.
Today, two neighboring basilicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe are at the foot of Tepeyac hill. The first basilica, which was dedicated in 1709 but now is closed to services, accommodated 2,000 worshipers; the new ultramodern basilica, inaugurated in October 1976, accommodates up to 20,000 people. Juan Diego's original cloak with the mestizo Virgin image imprinted on it hangs above the altar of the new basilica.
Although other Marian apparitions have been reported throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has not recognized the validity of every reported sighting. However, numerous popes have supported the authenticity of the appearance of the Lady of Guadalupe. In 1859 her feast day, December 12, became a Mexican national holiday. Almost three centuries after Juan Diego's experience on Tepeyac Hill, a makeshift army of Mexican peasants carried an image of the Lady of Guadalupe as they prepared to fight Spanish authorities for Mexico's independence.
The Guadalupe symbol links family, politics, and religion; the colonial past and the independent present; and the Indian and the Mexican. It reflects the salient social relationships of Mexican life and embodies the emotions they generate. It is, ultimately, a way of talking about Mexico. Worship of the brown-skinned Virgin has resulted in the reconciliation of two opposing worlds, in the fusion of two religions, two traditions, and cultures. Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe remains strong even as other aspects of Mexican society have changed. Nine out of ten Mexicans continued to ask intercessions from the Virgin or a saint.
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