Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Blessed Christmas

Christmas is usually a stress-filled time for families, but it is also a wondrous time for the church.  Parishioners in all four parishes outdid themselves in decorating the churches.  Our musicians prepared and led the most praise-worthy of music, a true ministry of our choirs, organists, cantors and assisting players.  Mother Nature held off on its snow storm until today, and allowed the children and families, the frail and elderly, to attend. 

Over the past decade or two, the people have spoken, and Catholic parishes have many more Masses on Christmas Eve than on Christmas Day.  The three of us priests planned the schedule for our four parishes back in October.  We guessed that folks wanted to attend at 4:00 p.m.  So we scheduled a 4:00 p.m. Mass in all four churches.  And we guessed right!  Each church was packed.  In fact, we has almost as many people participate in these four Masses (about 3,100) as our most recent October count for all 12 Sunday Masses (3,402).  Our total count for 13 Masses was about 5,725.   This means just about half of all registered parishioners attended a Christmas Mass, not counting the many visitors from near and far.

(Father Phil Farrell, our regional vicar, helped us with celebrating one of the four 4:00's, when Father Frank Erdeljac, a retired priest who lives in nearby West Pittsburg, went on the injured reserved list with back pain.)

So it was a truly blessed Christmas for our parishes.  Here are photos of each church, and the interior Christmas decorations.

Mary Mother of Hope Parish

Interior, with Fontanini creche.


Accompanying scene of magi, and a village.

Detail of an angel, and a night watchman.

St. Joseph the Worker Parish



St. Vincent de Paul Parish



A second creche set in the vestibule.


St.  Vitus Parish

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Jack Reacher vs. Travis McGee

Yesterday the new movie, "Jack Reacher," starring Tom Cruise, debuted across the country.  Shot mostly in Pittsburgh, the movie is the first attempt to put on film the character of Lee Child's ex-Army military police investigator.  Through 17 novels, Lee Child has put this character on the contemporary map of mass market fiction/mystery.

In an introduction to a re-issued paperback of the first of the 17 novels, author Lee Child gives some background to his creation of the tough guy character.  In particular, I was struck by his story of getting on a plane for a return home to England after a vacation in Yucatan, Mexico.  Looking for something to read on the plane, Child buys "The Longly Silver Rain," by John D. MacDonald.  He knew nothing about MacDonald, nor about the central character, Travis McGee.  "Silver Rain" was the 21st, and last, in a series of novels about the boat bum from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

Child describes how reading that book -- and every one of the others in the series -- affected him:  "Nobody needs me to sing MacDonald's praises, but that yard of books did more for me than provide excellent entertainment.  For some reason the McGee books spoke to me like textbooks.  I felt I could see what MacDonald was doing, and why, and how, as if I could see the skeleton beneath the skin....  I wanted to do what MacDonald had done."  Several years later, when Lee Child was fired from his job as an award-winning producer with a British TV network, he decided to change careers and write novels.  With Travis McGee in his memory, he created the character Jack Reacher.

This may be all academic to you, but to me, the MacDonald novels, and the character Travis McGee, are an important part of the background of my upbringing.  I've read all 21 of the novels -- about six or seven times.  I began reading them in high school, and every couple of years I get the urge to read them all again.  For some reason, MacDonald's style of writing, and what he tried to convey, made a great impression on me.  John D. MacDonald is mostly forgotten now, but in his day was one of the great men of "pulp fiction," along with Raymond Chandler and his iconic Philip Marlowe, and Robert B. Parker's Spenser.  Best selling novelist Carl Hiaasen has commented that MacDonald's McGee series of books are so much more than private eye mysteries.  Another great novelist, Pete Hamil, calls John D. MacDonald "one of the great American novelists."  Stephen King calls MacDonald "the great entertainer of our time, and a mesmerizing storyteller."  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once wrote, "To diggers a thousand years from now, the words of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen." 

For those who know Reacher, and don't know McGee, let me offer my own comparison of these two quintessinal American characters.

Jack Reacher (17 books by Lee Child [pseudonym of Jim Grant], 1994-present)

Travis McGee (21 books by John D. MacDonald, 1964-1986).  All the titles in the series have a color.

Description:  JR is 6'5", 250 lbs. of solid muscle.

TM is 6'4", between 212-205 lbs, sinewy, cat-quick.  He has to work to keep up his physical skills, usually by swimming.  In the last book a girl friend has him doing tai-chi "as you get older."

Family:  JR's father was American, mother was French, father served in Marine Corps.  Brother Joe was killed working for the U.S. Treasury Department in the first book, "Killing Floor." 

Little is revealed about TM's parents.  A brother Frank is referenced in the last book as having "died young."

Background:  JR was a "military brat," graduate of West Point, entered Military Police, rising to rank of Major, leaving the service after 13 years in the downsizing following the first Iraq War.  Received Silver Star, Purple Heart, and other decorations. 

TM was a college (unknown) graduate, served in U.S. Army, reached rank of Sergeant, received Purple Heart in fighting in a war (Korea?).  Played pro football at tight end for Miami Dolphins until he blew out his knee. 

Residence:  JR is a self-described "hobo," with no address.  Travels by bus with no ID or driver's licence, an expired passport, a toothbrush, and an ATM debit card.

TM lives on a 52 foot houseboat, "The Busted Flush," he won in a 36 hour poker game (he refused the offer of the owner's Brazilian mistress).  Moored at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Employment:  JR has no work experience since leaving the army.  He helps people in distress.

TM  is a self-described "salvage consultant."   He is a last resort for people who have lost things they cannot find or recover.  He pays his own expenses, but keeps 50% of what he recovers.  He only works when he needs the money or likes the people who ask his help.  He says he is living in retirement on "the installment plan."

Skills:  JR knows hand to hand combat, sharp police investigator, every known hand gun and rifle, world-class sharpshooter, observer of humankind.

TM is a world-class con man, fast talker, capable around boats, and of using his wits as much as his fists.  A smart-ass, with a sarcastic sense of humor.

Girl friend or wife:  JR has neither.

TM had many girl friends and lovers over the series, who usually only live on his houseboat with him until they get healed or are irritated by his lack of commitment.  In "The Green Ripper" he described his girl friend Gretel Howard as "common law wife," when she is gravely ill in a hospital (and subsequently dies).

Children:  JR has none.

TM {spoiler alert} has none, until in the last 15 pages of the last book in the series, "The Lonely Silver Rain," he meets up with Jean Killian, a 17 year old high school graduate from Youngstown, Ohio, who stalks McGee.  She reveals that McGee is her father, when her mother, Puss Killian, fled her husband, was saved from suicide on a Florida beach by McGee, and lived with McGee for a couple of months (in "Pale Grey for Guilt").  It's obvious that the author, John D. MacDonald, planned this ending to the series, with a almost-50 content McGee now a father of a "horse bum" whose college education for veterinary medicine he is paying for.

Friends:  JR has none, after his brother is killed in the first book.

TM's best friend is Meyer, a world-class semi-retired economist.  He also resides on a boat in Bahia Mar, the "John Maynard Keynes," until it is blown up in "Cinnamon Skin."  He then purchases the "Thorstein Veblem."  Meyer has a Ph.D., and has superb listening skills.  He only goes by "Meyer," though in "Pale Grey for Guilt" he does present a business card with the name "G. Ludweg Meyer."  He is a great side-kick to Travis McGee.  Their discussions allow author MacDonald to meditate and ruminate on all the ills and conditions of the human race, Florida, politics, the environment and women.  TM also has many acquaintances in the Bahia Mar boating scene.

Spirituality:  JR has none.  No religious notes.

TM has none.  In one book there is a description of a funeral service on a beach.  TM has no concept of life after death.  He comes to see that he is most alive when he is faced with his own death.

Style of writing:  JR is in first person.  Terse.  Short.  Fragments, No flourishes.  Sometimes verges into implausibility of the plot coincidences JR runs into.

MacDonald's style is volubule, with long, lengthy and luxurious descriptions of places, minor characters, scenes, and whatever comes to mind.  TM is also in first person.  The reader is allowed to see the world through the mind of McGee, and his many conversations with Meyer.  Also good, convoluted plotting, but never to the point that it gets away from the reader.

Other media:  JR is done in contemporary style with the just released, "Jack Reacher," starring Tom Cruise.  This movie was originally called "One Shot," after the novel it is based on. 

TM has not been treated well by Hollywood, either on the movie side or TV side.  Rod Tayler played McGee in "Darker than Amber" in 1970, and Sam Elliott played him in a made-for-television movie of "The Empty Copper Sea."  Both were deservedly flops.  In the last year or so, there have been brief stories of actor Leonardo DiCaprio's interest in bringing Travis McGee to life in a major motion picture, but nothing has been set.

Books sold:  JR is a New York Times best seller.

John D. MacDonald (sometimes writing under other pen names) had a long and prolific career writing westerns and short stories, before creating Travis McGee in 1964.  His most famous story has been translated into film twice, under the title "Cape Fear."  He never had the national fame that Lee Child has, but was revered among fans and fellow authors. 

Conclusion:  As you might gather from the above, my favorite is Travis McGee.  MacDonald created "an indelible character," in the words of Carl Hiaasen.  He is clearly a product of his time, the late 60s and into the 70s and 80s, yet he is also for the ages.  He is part rebel, part philosopher, part rugged hero, but never takes himself seriously.  Here's a paragraph from the book jacket of "The Green Ripper."

"I'm Travis McGee.  An artifact, genus boat bum, a pale-eyed, shambling, gangling knuckly man, without enough unscarred hide left to make a decent lampshade.  Watchful appraiser of the sandy-rumpled beach ladies.  Creaking knight errant, yawning at the thought of the next dragon.   They don't make grails the way they used to."

There is also an age-specific cynicism which McGee lives and breathes.  From "The Deep Blue Goodbye."

“I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.
"I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.”

MacDonald paints a wonderful sense of place, in McGee's Fort Lauder-damn-dale Florida.  Hiassen, a native Floridian himself, captures it when he says, "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn.  I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty."  MacDonald's commentary on the environment and the Everglades, in 1965(!!!), from "Bright Orange for the Shroud":

"Now, of course, having failed in every attempt to subdue the Glades by frontal attack, we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questional name of progress, the state [of Florida] in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into the drag-lined canals that give him 'waterfront' lots to sell.  As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying.  All the area north of Copeland had been logged out, and will never come back.  As the Glades dry, the big fires come with cincreasing frequency.  The ecology is changing with egret colonies dwindling, mullet getting scarece, mangrove dying of new diseases born of dryness." 

Given Lee Child's admission that Travis McGee made an impression on him before he began writing the Reacher novels, it's clear that Child wanted to go MacDonald one better.  McGee lives on a boat; Reacher has no home.  McGee has no known employment, except for occasionally making money on his salvage consultant adventures; Reacher makes no money whatsoever.  McGee lives a well-to-do life among the rich on his custom houseboat, always flying first class; Reacher is a hobo/bum.  McGee has no wife, lots of girl friends, and one best friend; Reacher has no friends whatsoever.

Reacher is a McGee stripped beyond basics. All you get is the action of this wandering ex-Army investigator.  And a lot of bad attitude.

Finally, both characters face moral issues.  Following the older private eyes, Travis McGee is faced with moral decisions in shades of grey.  Jack Reacher is also in this vein, one who doesn't worry about the law but only in doing what is "right."  But Travis McGee has an introspective side,  which Reacher doesn't, and is skeptical of all moral motivations, especially his own.  And Meyer is a good philosophical foil, with his insights into human nature and his economics Ph.D.  I often quote "Meyer's law," which goes something like this:  "In any moral conflict, the more difficult choice is the right choice." 

Enjoy the "Jack Reacher" movie and all 17 of the books.  But if you want to really be snagged, to be reading at 2:30 a.m. and  just can't put the book down, find a John D. MacDonald novel, any of them, and in particular any of the colors of the Travis McGee series, at your local used book store.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mutiple Parish Pastoring

It's no secret that ever since 1965 the number of active priests in the United States has been declining.  According to CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a think tank associated with Catholic Univeristy of America, the number of total priests dropped from 58,632 in 1965 to 38,964 in 2012.  The number of parishes has fluctuated, given the growth of number of Catholics in the South and Southwest, and reorganizations in the Northeast.  In 1965 there were 17,637 parishes; in 1985, 19,244; in 2005, 18,891; and in 2012, 17,644.  But the number of parishes without a resident priest pastor has grown from 549 in 1965 to 3,389.  At the same time there are a reported 459 parishes where pastoral care has been entrusted to a deacon, religious sister or brother, or other lay person. 

The Diocese of Pittsburgh responded to the decline in both priests and active parishioners, and the migration out of the steel and river towns into suburbs with the Reorganization and Revitalization Project of 1989-1994.  Over that period the existing 333 parishes were reduced to 215 (some with multiple church buildings).  Yesterday Bishop Zubik announced the merger of St. Justin and St. Mary of the Mount parishes on Mt. Washington, in the city of Pittsburgh.  The priests and councils of both parishes have been working together on this merger for two years.  When this merger takes effect on February 10, 2013, we will have 203 parishes.  One parish, St. Bartholomew, Penn Hills, is led by a religious sister under the provisions of Canon 517.2.  Approximately 37 priests are pastors of two parishes.  Father Harry Bielewicz is pastor of the three parishes in Butler.  I am pastor of the four parishes in New Castle.

The Archdiocese of Boston attempted a reorganization plan in the early 2000s, just after the devastating revelations of coverup and tollerance of clergy sexual abuse.  Newly installed archbishop Sean O'Malley conducted this in response to declining church attendance and declining numbers of priests.  Over a short period the archdiocese went from about 435 parishes to 288.  But the resulting tumult from parishioners (some justified, much not) soured the archdiocese on further attempts to close churches.

Last month the Archdiocese of Boston zagged in a different direction.  Both in response to declining numbers of active priests and people, and "to position our parishes more solidly for the task of evangelization, the work of reaching out to our brothers and sisters and drawing them more fully to Christ Jesus," Cardinal Sean OMalley promulgated "Disciples in Mission."  This pastoral plan will "identify effective ways to foster parish collaboration while maintaining the distince identity and integrity of each parish."

What does this mean?  Their 288 will be grouped into 135 "collaboratives" of two, three or four parishes.  This will allow every parish to have a priest as pastor, while working with a pastoral team that may be comprised of other priests, deacons, women religious and lay ecclesial ministers.  One advantage of this plan is that it avoids closing more church buildings and parishes.  If such closings do occur, they will come "from the ground up," recommended by the particular collaboratives.  Another advantage is that the plan explicitly wants to factor in outreach, evangelization, strategies for hospitality and welcome.  This is a forward-looking vision, and avoids the "race to the bottom" and "feelings of loss" that come with diocesan reorganizations.

The disadvantage of the plan is that it places more complex administrative responsibilities on the pastor.  While some pastors in these collaboratives may have the benefit of a business manager and active finance council, the administrative duties remain, the leadership demands grow.

Our own diocese is not standing still.  Bishop Zubik and his staff are well aware of the complaints from many of the priests who are pastoring multiple parishes.  Priests are forced to focus more time on the five Ls (lights, leaks locks, loot and lawns--not to mention the lawsuits and loonies) and less on pastoral care and administering the sacraments.  We are also aware that our current 250 active priests will drop to about 100 by 2020, only eight years from now.   Over the next year or two our diocese will probably embark on a similar path as Boston, grouping nearby parishes, encouraging collaborations of all sorts, and increasing training in hospitality, outreach and evangelization.

If you want to read the 11 page report of the Archdiocese of Boston, go to .  Another good website for information about the changing face of parish life is , a project of the Lilly Endowment and several national Catholic organizations.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent Prophesy Sermon

When I started this blog, I looked up other blogs done by clergy and clergy-types.  Most were just an excuse to post their long-winded, ideology-driven sermons.  I told myself, no sermons.

Then I started the "sermon in a bottle," to force me to post weekly (ha!), to use what I had developed in my own sermons that weekend, and to be concise.  This past weekend I offered this sermon, and so many parishioners said they thought it was good, startling me, that I thought I'd write it up.  (For the record, I almost never write out my sermons.  Some weeks I have a few scribbled notes, mostly I have an outline in my head to follow.)  So here is the sermon I have in my head, which may differ in a few words from what I spoke three times in St. Vitus Church, New Castle, on Sunday, December 16, 2012.

Third Sunday in Advent - C.  "One mightier than I is coming."

Talking about the Christmas stories is easy, because so many Catholics know all the characters.  The young unmarried Virgin Mary.  Joseph the just.  The archangel Gabriel.  The newborn Jesus.  Shepherds and sheep.  Magi and camels and strange gifts.  And John the Baptist.  But sometimes knowing the story and the characters too well prevents us from seeing them as the evangelists intended.  We know the plot, how it turns out, and it's all warm and cuddly.

Take John the Baptist.  As a prophet, he was anything but cuddly.  He is given a God-announced birth, to a woman beyond her child-bearing years.  He lives in the desert with distinctive odd clothing and food.  He's not afraid to speak his mind, speak truth to power.  For his trouble, Herod the king throws him in jail, and Herod lops off his head.

Prophets, whether John the Baptist, or the Hebrew prophets from 700 or more years previous, were full of sandpaper, rough, speaking truth to power, a minority report easily ignored at the time, but later recalled for their truthtelling.

Being prophetic was to be political too.  They looked around at the ruling elite and customs of the people, didn't like what they saw, and said, if you want to follow God's law, things will have to change.  Here's how, whether you want to hear me or not.

Throughout the history of the Christian Church, this prophetic dimension rises and falls.  Most of the time it's not brought into the present.  But that's what I'd like to do, adapt it for today.  Let me offer three examples of the prophetic dimension today.

The first relates to the terrible, horrific events on Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.  It is beyond our  imaging that a madman would take three high-powered automatic weapons, kill his mother, and then for unknown reasons break into an elementary school and shot defenseless, innocent children and their teachers.  Yet it's not a unique event.  Such slaughters happened two months ago in Oregon.  Last year in Colorado.  A couple of years ago on the campus of Virginia Tech.  And back in 1995 there were the two American terrorists who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 Americans. 

A prophetic stance addressing these terrible, terrible acts of violence would say, we have to do something about the number and size of guns in our country.  Our country is the largest possessor, and maker, of guns in the world.  We are swimming in a world of guns and weapons, most of them legally bought and sold.

Now, before too many of you have your blood pressure hit the ceiling, and think I am going to suggest we recall the Second Amendment, I am not.  I'm not even sure that "gun control" is the proper word for the change I am suggesting.  One commentator I heard said that it would be better to talk about "gun safety."  We need to ask, who has the capacity to handle guns, and who has no business having one or many guns in his hand.

Let me offer an analogy:  alcohol.  Back in 1919 our country passed the 19th constitutional amendment, outlawing the mere possession and sale of alcohol.  The temperance movement won.  But it quickly became clear that the law created far more illegal behavior that it was intended to stop.  Within 12 years another constitutional amendment was passed recinding Prohibition.  But what happened?  States drew up laws that set sensible limits on the use of alcohol.  Alcohol -- whether wine or beer or mixed drinks -- can be enjoyed by many adults.  I enjoy an occasional drink myself.  Maybe you do too.  But not by those under the age of 21.  And not on the job.  And not when you are driving, or operating heavy equipment, or caring for children or the elderly.  A few adults know they cannot consume alcohol and restrict its use voluntarily.  Lines were drawn -- which are still violated, but nonetheless still sensible -- for the proper use of alcohol.

I suggest that we as a country need to do the same for guns.  Do those having them know how to use them safely, to keep them away from those who will do harm?  Does any ordinary citizen really need automatic weapons, which are only to be used in war?  Our country needs to have a very serious conversation about gun safety, to try to prevent more massacres like Friday's.

Second example.  Maybe becasue I am a Catholic, or because I make these connections, but I was struck by how many commentators said, not just 27 deaths, but 20 little children were killed.  We all in our gut know that killing innocent children is even worse than the domestic dispute between adults.  If that is so, then in this world of American violence, why has no one made the connection  between the killing of school children and abortion?  For 39 years the killing of children -- by definition, innocent, defenseless children -- in the womb has been legal in our country. 

Our country is unfortunately split right down the middle on this issue.  About half are adament that voluntary abortion is and should be a protected right.  And half are pro-life and anti-abortion, seeing it for the act of violence it is.  How we help to move this opinion, or to change laws, is beyond me.  But 1,000,000 deaths of children a year is too, too, too many.

The third example of prophecy takes us back to John the Baptist.  Prophets, in the Christian tradition, really didn't want to merely make political points.  The essential prophetic job, done so well by John, is to point the way to Jesus Christ our Savior.  In today's gospel passage he says, "I am not worthy of loosening the thongs of his sandals."  In another gospel he says, "I must decrease, he must increase."  John pointed his disciples to Christ. 

We are all followers of Christ, or we wouldn't be here in church for Eucharist week after week after week.  But do we really commit ourselves, every aspect of our life, to Jesus Christ?  This is the core prophetic call.  Because if we do draw closer to the teachings, the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ, and we change to become more like him, then our world changes too.  It draws closer to one of peace, justice and freedom.  Following Jesus also gives us the strength to proceed through loss, pain, and the darkness of evil.

May we hear the call of the great prophet John the Baptist today with greater urgency, and pray that this Christmas, and throughout the new year, we might grow closer to Jesus the Christ as his disciples.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe

While the rest of the world is fascinated by today's date of 12/12/12, and a few are even  ittering about the pope on Twitter, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Ever since I first heard the story of the Virgin Mary's apparition to a poor native convert, Juan Diego, in 1531, I have been fascinated and attracted to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.  Several years ago I was privileged to travel with a pilgrimage group to Mexico City and see (three times in one week!) Juan Diego's tilma in the new (1976) Basilica.  We also went into the Mexico  City suburbs  to visit the church where Juan Diego's uncle, Juan Bernadino, was miraculously cured.  I hope to visit this shrine again one day. 

In 2009 I was privileged to have our bishop name the merged historic parishes in Sharpsburg after Saint Juan Diego Parish.  In that wonderful Catholic way, parishes with Italian, German and Polish ancestries came together and embraced a newly canonized saint who was an Aztec, a native American born before Christopher Columbus decided to set off from Spain for the east.

Here's the Wikipedia article on Our Lady of Guadalupe.  It has the facts of the four apparitions to Juan Diego, as well as more recent scientific analysis of the tilma.  The more the tilma is analyzed, the more puzzling, and more miraculous, is the image of the Virgin, and the more people come to have devotion to her.

Our Lady of Guadalupe (Spanish: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe (Spanish: Virgen de Guadalupe) is a celebrated Roman Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary.
Two accounts, published in the 1640s, one in Spanish, one in Nahuatl, tell how, while walking from his village to Mexico City in the early morning of December 9, 1531 (then the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Spanish Empire),[1] the peasant Juan Diego saw on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac a vision of a girl of fifteen or sixteen years of age, surrounded by light. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the local language, she asked that a church be built at that site, in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the Lady as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found at the usually barren hilltop Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, which the Virgin arranged in his peasant tilma cloak. When Juan Diego opened the cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and in their place was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted on the fabric.[2]
The icon is now displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most visited Marian shrines.[3] The icon is Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural image, bearing the titles: the Queen of Mexico,[4] and was once proclaimed Patroness of the Philippines (but later revised) by Pope Pius XI in 1935. In 1999, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the Virgin Mary Patroness of the Americas, Empress of Latin America, and Protectress of Unborn Children[5][6][7] under this Marian title.



Detail of the face
In the earliest account of the apparition, the Nican Mopohua, written in the Nahuatl language around 1556,[8] the Virgin Mary tells Juan Bernadino, the uncle of Juan Diego, that the image left on the tilma is to be known by the name "the Perfect Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe."[9]
Yet, there is no consensus among scholars today concerning how the name "Guadalupe" was ascribed to the image.[10] The various theories can be grouped into two major camps. The first is that the Spanish misunderstood a Nahuatl name. The second is that the Spanish name "Guadalupe", like the Spanish Our Lady of Guadalupe, Extremadura, is the original name.
The first theory to promote a Nahuatl origin was that of Luis Becerra Tanco."[10] In his 1675 work Felicidad de Mexico, Becerra Tanco claimed that Juan Bernardino and Juan Diego would not have been able to understand the name Guadalupe because the "d" and "g" sounds do not exist in Nahuatl. He proposed two Nahuatl alternative names that sound similar to "Guadalupe", Tecuatlanopeuh [tekʷat͡ɬa'nopeʍ], "she whose origins were in the rocky summit", and Tecuantlaxopeuh [tekʷant͡ɬa'ʃopeʍ], "she who banishes those who devoured us."[10]
It has also been suggested that the name is a Spanish version of the Nahuatl term, Coātlaxopeuh [koaːt͡ɬa'ʃopeʍ], meaning “the one who crushes the serpent” and that it may be referring to the feathered serpent Quetzacoatl.[11]
The theory promoting the Spanish language origin of the name claims that:
  • Juan Diego and Juan Bernardino would have been familiar with the Spanish language "g" and "d" sounds since their baptismal names contain those sounds.
  • The lack of evidence of any other name for the Virgin during the almost 144 years between the apparition in 1531 and Becerra Tanco's proposal in 1675, supports the Spanish "Guadalupe" as the original.
  • Documents written by contemporary Spaniards and Franciscan Friars arguing for the name to be changed to a native name such as "Tepeaca" or "Tepeaquilla" would not make sense if there was already an original Nahuatl name, suggesting the Spanish "Guadalupe" was the original.[12]


Following the Spanish Conquest in 1519–21, a temple of the mother-goddess Tonantzin at Tepeyac outside Mexico City, was destroyed and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin built on the site. Newly converted Indians continued to come from afar to worship there. The object of their worship, however, was equivocal, as they continued to address the Virgin Mary as Tonantzin.[13]
The first record of the painting's existence was in 1556, when Archbishop Alonso de Montufar, a Dominican, preached a sermon commending popular devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, in regards to a painting in the chapel at Tepeyac, where certain miracles had lately been performed. Days later he was answered by Francisco de Bustamante, head of the Colony's Franciscans and guardians of the chapel at Tepeyac, who delivered a sermon before the Viceroy expressing his concern that the Archbishop was promoting a superstitious regard for a painting by a native artist, Marcos Cipac de Aquino:
The devotion that has been growing in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady, called of Guadalupe, in this city is greatly harmful for the natives, because it makes them believe that the image painted by Marcos the Indian is in any way miraculous.[14]
The next day Archbishop Montufar opened an inquiry. The Franciscans repeated their claim that the image encouraged idolatry and superstition, and testified that it was painted by "Marcos the Indian."[14] Appearing before the Dominicans, who favored allowing the Aztecs to venerate the Guadalupe, was the Archbishop himself. The matter ended with the Franciscans deprived of custody of the shrine[15] and the tilma mounted and displayed within a much enlarged church.[16]
The first extended account of the image and the apparition is in Imagen de la Virgen Maria, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe, a guide to the cult for Spanish-speakers published in 1648 by Miguel Sanchez, a diocesan priest of Mexico City.[17] A 36-page tract in Nahuatl language, Huei tlamahuiçoltica ("The Great Event"), was published in 1649 by Luis Lasso de la Vega, which has close affinity with Sánchez's narrative. This tract contains Nican mopohua ("Here it is recounted"), a text about the Virgin which contains the story of the apparition and the supernatural origin of the image, plus two other sections, Nican motecpana ("Here is an ordered account"), describing fourteen miracles connected with Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Nican tlantica ("Here ends"), an account of the Virgin in New Spain.[18]

Juan Diego

Eighteenth-century painting of God the Father fashioning the image.
The growing fame of the image led to a parallel interest in Juan Diego. In 1666 the Church, with the aim of establishing a feast day in his name, began gathering information from people who reported having known him, and in 1723 a formal investigation into his life was ordered, and much information was gathered. In 1987, under Pope John Paul II, who took a special interest in saints and in non-European Catholics, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared him "venerable", and on May 6, 1990, he was beatified by the Pope himself during Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, being declared “protector and advocate of the indigenous peoples," with December 9 as his feast day.
At this point historians and theologians began to question the quality of the evidence regarding Juan Diego. There is no mention of him or his miraculous vision in the writings of bishop Zumárraga, into whose hands he delivered the miraculous image, nor in the record of the ecclesiastical inquiry of 1556, which omits him entirely, nor anywhere else before the mid-17th century. Doubts as to his reality were not new: in 1883 Joaquín García Icazbalceta, historian and biographer of Zumárraga, in a confidential report on the Lady of Guadalupe for Bishop Labastida, was very hesitant to support the story of the apparition and stated his conclusion that there was never such a person.[19] Neither were they welcome: as recently as 1996 the 83 year old abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, Guillermo Schulenburg, was forced to resign following an interview with the Catholic magazine Ixthus, when he said that Juan Diego was "a symbol, not a reality."[20]
In 1995, with progress towards sanctification at a stand-still, Father Xavier Escalada, a Jesuit writing an encyclopedia of the Guadalupan legend, produced a deer skin codex, (Codex Escalada), illustrating the apparition and the life and death of Juan Diego. Although the very existence of this important document had been previously unknown, it bore the date 1548, placing it within the lifetime of those who had known Juan Diego, and bore the signatures of two trustworthy 16th century scholar-priests, Antonio Valeriano and Bernardino de Sahagún, thus verifying its contents.[21] Some scholars remained unconvinced, describing the discovery of the Codex as "rather like finding a picture of St. Paul's vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, drawn by St. Luke and signed by St. Peter",[22] but Diego was declared a saint, with the name of Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, in 2002.

Technical analyses

The original Tilma of Saint Juan Diego which hangs above the altar of the Guadalupe Basilica, Mexico City. It is encased in bulletproof glass in a low-oxygen atmosphere.
Neither the fabric ("the support") nor the image (together, "the tilma") has ever been analyzed using the full range of scientific resources available to museum conservationists. Nevertheless, four technical studies were conducted between 1751–2 and 1982. Of these, the findings of three have been published. All were commissioned by the authorized custodians of the tilma in the Basilica, and in every case the investigators had direct and unobstructed access to it.
Studies conducted between 1751–2 and 1982
MC – in 1756 a prominent artist, Miguel Cabrera, published a report entitled "Maravilla Americana" containing the findings made by himself and six other painters in 1751 and 1752 from ocular and manual inspection.[23]
G – José Antonio Flores Gómez, an art restorer, discussed in a 2002 interview with the Mexican journal Proceso (magazine) certain technical issues relative to the tilma, on which he had worked in 1947 and 1973.[24]
PC – in 1979 Philip Callahan, biophysicist and USDA entomologist, specializing in Infrared imaging, took numerous infrared photographs of the front of the tilma. His findings, with photographs, were published in 1981.[25]
R – "Proceso" also published in 2002 an interview with José Sol Rosales, formerly director of the Center for the Conservation and Listing of Heritage Artifacts (Patrimonio Artístico Mueble) of the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA) in México City. This interview was interspersed with extracts from a report R had written in 1982 of the findings he had made during his inspection of the tilma that year using raking and UV light, and – at low magnification – a stereo microscope of the type used for surgery.[26]
Summary conclusions ("contra" indicates a contrary finding)
(1) Support: The material of the support is soft to the touch (almost silken: MC; something like cotton: G) but to the eye it suggested a coarse weave of palm threads called "pita" or the rough fiber called "cotense" (MC), or a hemp and linen mixture (R); the traditional understanding is that it is ixtle, an agave fiber.
(2) Ground, or Primer: R asserted (MC and PC contra) by ocular examination that the tilma was primed, though with primer "applied irregularly." R does not clarify whether his observed "irregular" application entails that majorly the entire tilma was primed, or just certain areas – such as those areas of the tilma extrinsic to the image – where PC agrees had later additions. MC, alternatively, observed that the image had soaked through to the reverse of the tilma.[27]
(3) Under-drawing: PC asserted there was no under-drawing.
(4) Brush-work: R suggested (PC contra) there was some visible brushwork on the original image, but at best in only one minute area of the image ("her eyes, including the irises, have outlines, apparently applied by a brush").
(5) Condition of the surface layer: The three most recent inspections agree (i) that significant additions have been made to the image, some of which were subsequently removed, and (ii) that the original image has been abraded and re-touched in places. Some flaking is visible (mostly along the line of the vertical seam, or at passages considered to be later additions).
(6) Varnish: The tilma has never been varnished.
(7) Binding Medium: R provisionally identified the pigments and binding medium (distemper) as consistent with 16th c. methods of painting sargas (MC, PC contra for different reasons), but the color values and luminosity are exceptional.
The technique of painting on fabric with water-soluble pigments (with or without primer or ground) is well-attested. The binding medium is generally animal glue or gum arabic (see: Distemper). Such an artifact is variously discussed in the literature as a tüchlein or sarga.[28] The tilma, considered as a type of sarga, is by no means unique, but its state of preservation is remarkable. Religious significance
The iconography of the Virgin is impeccably Catholic:[29] Miguel Sanchez, the author of the 1648 tract Imagen de la Virgen María, described her as the Woman of the Apocalypse from the New Testament's Revelation 12:1, "clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars,"[22][30] and she is also described as a representation of the Immaculate Conception.[22] Yet despite this orthodoxy the image also had a hidden layer of coded messages for the indigenous people of Mexico which goes a considerable way towards explaining her popularity.[31] Her blue-green mantle was the color reserved for the divine couple Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl;[32] her belt is interpreted as a sign of pregnancy; and a cross-shaped image symbolizing the cosmos and called nahui-ollin is inscribed beneath the image's sash.[33] She was called "mother of maguey,"[34] the source of the sacred beverage pulque,[35] "the milk of the Virgin",[36] and the rays of light surrounding her doubled as maguey spines.[34]

Cultural significance

Symbol of Mexico

Flag carried by Miguel Hidalgo and his insurgent army
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is recognized as a symbol of all Catholic Mexicans. Miguel Sánchez, the author of the first Spanish language apparition account, identified Guadalupe as Revelation's Woman of the Apocalypse, and said:
this New World has been won and conquered by the hand of the Virgin Mary ... [who had] prepared, disposed, and contrived her exquisite likeness in this her Mexican land, which was conquered for such a glorious purpose, won that there should appear so Mexican an image.[22]
Throughout the Mexican national history of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Guadalupan name and image have been unifying national symbols; the first President of Mexico (1824–29) changed his name from José Miguel Ramón Adaucto Fernández y Félix to Guadalupe Victoria in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Father Miguel Hidalgo, in the Mexican War of Independence (1810), and Emiliano Zapata, in the Mexican Revolution (1910) led their respective armed forces with Guadalupan flags emblazoned with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1999, the Church officially proclaimed her the Patroness of the Americas, the Empress of Latin America, and the Protectress of Unborn Children.[5]
In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla initiated the bid for Mexican independence with his Grito de Dolores, with the cry "Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!" When Hidalgo's mestizo-indigenous army attacked Guanajuato and Valladolid, they placed "the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which was the insignia of their enterprise, on sticks or on reeds painted different colors" and "they all wore a print of the Virgin on their hats."[37] After Hidalgo's death leadership of the revolution fell to a zambo/mestizo priest named José María Morelos, who led insurgent troops in the Mexican south. Morelos adopted the Virgin as the seal of his Congress of Chilpancingo, inscribing her feast day into the Chilpancingo constitution and declaring that Guadalupe was the power behind his victories:
New Spain puts less faith in its own efforts than in the power of God and the intercession of its Blessed Mother, who appeared within the precincts of Tepeyac as the miraculous image of Guadalupe that had come to comfort us, defend us, visibly be our protection.[37]
Simón Bolívar noticed the Guadalupan theme in these uprisings, and shortly before Morelos' execution in 1815 wrote: "the leaders of the independence struggle have put fanaticism to use by proclaiming the famous Virgin of Guadalupe as the queen of the patriots, praying to her in times of hardship and displaying her on their flags ... the veneration for this image in Mexico far exceeds the greatest reverence that the shrewdest prophet might inspire."[22] One of Morelos' officers, Félix Fernández, would later become the first president of Mexico, even changing his name to Guadalupe Victoria.[37]
In 1914, Emiliano Zapata's peasant army rose out of the south against the government of Porfirio Díaz. Though Zapata's rebel forces were primarily interested in land reform – "tierra y libertad" (land and liberty) was the slogan of the uprising – when his peasant troops penetrated Mexico City they carried Guadalupan banners.[38] More recently, the contemporary Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) named their "mobile city" in honor of the Virgin: it is called Guadalupe Tepeyac. EZLN spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos wrote a humorous letter in 1995 describing the EZLN bickering over what to do with a Guadalupe statue they had received as a gift.[39]

Mestizo culture

The original relic piece taken from the Tilma of Guadalupe. Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
"The Aztecs ... had an elaborate, coherent symbolic system for making sense of their lives. When this was destroyed by the Spaniards, something new was needed to fill the void and make sense of New Spain ... the image of Guadalupe served that purpose."[40]
Hernán Cortés, the Conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521, was a native of Extremadura, home to Our Lady of Guadalupe. By the 16th century the Extremadura Guadalupe, a statue of the Virgin said to be carved by Saint Luke the Evangelist, was already a national icon. It was found at the beginning of the 14th century when the Virgin appeared to a humble shepherd and ordered him to dig at the site of the apparition. The recovered Virgin then miraculously helped to expel the Moors from Spain, and her small shrine evolved into the great Guadalupe monastery. One of the more remarkable attributes of the Guadalupe of Extremadura is that she is dark, like the Americans, and thus she became the perfect icon for the missionaries who followed Cortés to convert the natives to Christianity.[16]
According to the traditional account, the name of Guadalupe was chosen by the Virgin herself when she appeared on the hill outside Mexico City in 1531, ten years after the Conquest.[41] According to secular history, in 1555 Bishop Alonso de Montúfar commissioned a Virgin of Guadalupe from a native artist, who gave her the dark skin which his own people shared with the famous Extremadura Virgin.[16] Whatever the connection between the Mexican and her older Spanish namesake, the fused iconography of the Virgin and the indigenous Nahua goddess Tonantzin provided a way for 16th-century Spaniards to gain converts among the indigenous population, while simultaneously allowing 16th century Mexicans to continue the practice of their native religion.[42]
Guadalupe continues to be a mixture of the cultures which blended to form Mexico, both racially and religiously,[43] "the first mestiza",[44] or "the first Mexican".[45] "bringing together people of distinct cultural heritages, while at the same time affirming their distinctness."[46] As Jacques Lafaye wrote in Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe, "as the Christians built their first churches with the rubble and the columns of the ancient pagan temples, so they often borrowed pagan customs for their own cult purposes."[47] The author Judy King asserts that Guadalupe is a "common denominator" uniting Mexicans. Writing that Mexico is composed of a vast patchwork of differences – linguistic, ethnic, and class-based – King says "The Virgin of Guadalupe is the rubber band that binds this disparate nation into a whole."[45] The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said that "you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe."[48] Nobel Literature laureate Octavio Paz wrote in 1974 that "the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery".[49]

Roman Catholic Church

Beliefs and Miracles

Roman Catholic sources claim many miraculous and supernatural properties for the image such as that the tilma has maintained its structural integrity over nearly 500 years, while replicas normally last only about 15 years before suffering degradation;[50] that it repaired itself with no external help after a 1791 ammonia spill that did considerable damage, and that on 14 November 1921 a bomb damaged the altar, but left the icon unharmed.[51]
That in 1929 and 1951 photographers found a figure reflected in the Virgin's eyes; upon inspection they said that the reflection was tripled in what is called the Purkinje effect, commonly found in human eyes.[52] An ophthalmologist, Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann, later enlarged an image of the Virgin's eyes by 2500x and claimed to have found not only the aforementioned single figure, but images of all the witnesses present when the tilma was first revealed before Zumárraga in 1531, plus a small family group of mother, father, and a group of children, in the center of the Virgin's eyes, fourteen people in all.[53]
Numerous Catholic websites repeat an unsourced claim[54] that in 1936 biochemist Richard Kuhn analyzed a sample of the fabric and announced that the pigments used were from no known source, whether animal, mineral or vegetable.[53] Dr. Philip Serna Callahan, who photographed the icon under infrared light, declared from his photographs that portions of the face, hands, robe, and mantle had been painted in one step, with no sketches or corrections and no visible brush strokes.[55]

Pontifical Pronouncements

With the Papal Brief Non Est Equidem of May 25, 1754, Pope Benedict XIV declared Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of what was then called New Spain, corresponding to Spanish Central and Northern America, and approved liturgical texts for the Holy Mass and the Breviary in her honor. Pope Leo XIII granted new texts in 1891 and authorized coronation of the image in 1895. Pope Pius X proclaimed her patron of Latin America in 1910. Pope Pius XII declared the Virgin of Guadalupe "Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas" in 1945, and "Patroness of the Americas" in 1946. Pope John XXIII invoked her as "Mother of the Americas" in 1961, referring to her as Mother and Teacher of the Faith of All American populations, and in 1966 Pope Paul VI sent a Golden Rose to the shrine.[56]
In July 16, 1935, Pope Pius XI declared Our Lady of Guadalupe to be the Heavenly Patroness of the Philippines and was signed and attested by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII).[5][57][58] This was revised in September 12, 1942, when Guadalupe became the secondary "Patroness of the Philippines" when Pope Pius XII installed the Immaculate Conception as the Principal Patroness of the Filipino people through the Papal Bull Impositi Nobis, though her feast day is still widely celebrated in the archipelago. Today, the Blessed Virgin Mary under this title of Our Lady of Guadalupe is especially invoked by the Catholic bishops and laypeople who oppose the legalization of abortion and the passage of the Philippine Reproductive Health Bill.
Pope John Paul II visited the shrine in the course of his first journey outside Italy as Pope from January 26–31, 1979, and again when he beatified Juan Diego there on May 6, 1990. In 1992 he dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe a chapel within St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. At the request of the Special Assembly for the Americas of the Synod of Bishops, he named Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of the Americas on January 22, 1999 (with the result that her liturgical celebration had, throughout the Americas, the rank of solemnity), and visited the shrine again on the following day.
On July 31, 2002, the Pope canonized Juan Diego before a crowd of 12 million, and later that year included in the General Calendar of the Roman Rite, as optional memorials, the liturgical celebrations of Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (December 9) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12).[56]

Devotions and Veneration

The shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination in the world. Over the Friday and Saturday of December 11 to 12, 2009, a record number of 6.1 million pilgrims visited the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the apparition.[59]
The Virgin of Guadalupe is considered the Patroness of Mexico and the Continental Americas; she is also venerated by Native Americans, on the account of the devotion calling for the conversion of the Americas. Replicas of the tilma can be found in thousands of churches throughout the world, and numerous parishes bear her name.
Due to a claim that her black girdle indicates pregnancy on the image, the Blessed Virgin Mary, under this title is popularly invoked as Patroness of the Unborn and a common image for the Pro-Life movement.

[Image courtesy of Monastery Icons]