Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The People's Virgin

From Mexico City to Manchester, Seattle to New York, LA to Little Rock -- and everywhere in between -- American Catholicism's biggest night is at hand....

* * *

In advance of tomorrow's Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it's been reported that the influx of pilgrims to the Mexico City sanctuary -- Christianity's most-visited shrine -- has zoomed to a record seven million...

Seven million, that is, within the last four days.

The state of affairs in modern US Catholicism is such that, indeed, the church is alive... just while its Anglo contingent is sleeping.

That's usually the case in a figurative sense. On this night, however, it becomes a reality more powerful with each passing year.

Sure, upwards of a million will gather atop Tepeyac in the cold to mark the 476th anniversary of the miraculous appearance of roses in winter and the image of the Madonna on the cloak of Juan Diego. But across the States, from the major cities to the rural outposts where the children of "La Morenita" have come, often with nothing but the desire to work and the hope of a better life, churches will be packed.

And joyous.

And prayerful.

And vibrant.

And few, if any, will leave before the last note of the recessional hymn.

The Guadalupe observance finds its heart in las maƱanitas, tonight's hours-long vigil of prayers, dance, music and testimonies to the Virgin, culminating in a pre-dawn Mass. The event takes its name from the Mexican song equivalent to "Happy Birthday," tomorrow being the "birthday" of the national patroness whose cult is possibly only equaled by Poland's "Black Madonna" of Czestochowa in terms of serving as the symbol, the heart and soul, of an entire people.

Last year in New York, the reported 20,000 who flocked to the city's central venue for the "little morning" reportedly brought 14th Street to a halt and stayed til 5am. But on this night, in a historic first, maƱanitas will be held in St Patrick's Cathedral, the symbolic seat of the US church.

Elsewhere tonight, Dallas' Catedral Santuario de Guadalupe invariably draws upwards of 50,000, a 9,000-seat arena is the only place large enough to hold the faithful in Allentown, and a Chicagoland shrine will rock 'til 6am with fireworks, torch processions and a re-enactment of the apparitions before a nightlong crowd that, last year, numbered in excess of 130,000. (While its climax comes tonight, the latter festival began at noon today and will run straight through til midnight Thursday, 36 hours all told.)

And, church, those are just a few among many... each a powerful glimpse that, in our own time and place, faith lives; each a window into its most important, beautiful, alluring and contagious qualities; each a reminder of the joy of universality, the gift of communion... and the many, many things it can teach and reawaken in us.

That is, if we don't sleep through it.