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The faith of Mexicans is profoundly moving

The kingdom of saints is real to the people of this country

By on Thursday, 9 February 2012

A shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Tijuana, Mexico Photo: CNS/David Maung

A shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Tijuana, Mexico Photo: CNS/David Maung

The saints are everywhere in Mexico. The country is dotted with shrines, the most famous of which is Guadalupe, once a village outside the capital, now swallowed up by the sprawl of the Federal District (it only seems to be us English-speakers who talk of Mexico City: here it is called “Mexico, D.F.”) But there is also the shrine of the Sacro Nino de Atocha at the small town of Plateros, which is the country’s second shrine. This shrine, which attracts huge crowds to see the tiny image of the Christ Child dressed as a pilgrim, does not even merit its own Wikipedia page in English. Here is the link to the Spanish article. You can also read about the shrine at its own bilingual website here.

Plateros is a not very attractive town in the state of Zacatecas, and thus somewhat out of the way of the usual tourist route. You only really go there to see the shrine. And seeing the shrine is quite an experience. For the first time in my life I actually had to queue to get into Church and queue for some considerable time. As at Guadalupe, quite a few pilgrims enter the Church on their knees. Next to the Church is a hall the walls of which are covered with ex votos – small primitive paintings, often on tin or even glass, which illustrate the donor´s story. I found these intensely moving. I suppose the reason for this is because each ex voto is a testament to lived faith, to an existential reality. This is not a place where theory counts for much, but rather where the precepts of the gospel have been experienced at first hand. I think we need more of this!

But the faith of Mexicans is seen in more or less every Church in the land. It is, for want of a better expression, a very devotional faith. The statues are not just decoration. You see people press their hands against the glass that shields the Suffering Christ. And you also see evidence of devotion to saints who, though not of Mexican origin, flourish here more than elsewhere. Where else do you see weekly devotions to Saint Cecilia advertised? Or people turning up to devotions to Saint Francis wearing those funny little cut down Fransiscan habits? Also of note, particularly in the Federal District, is devotion to Saint Charbel Maklouf, who is vrtually unknown in the United Kingdom. Saint Charbel was born in Lebanon in the nineteenth century and has a reputation as a miracle worker. He has recently been added to the universal calendar, and I assume his cult was brought to Mexico by Maronite immigrants. The kingdom of saints is real to the people of Mexico.

Another devotion that is practised here is the Mass of Divine Providence on the first day of the month, which is heavily attended even when this falls on a weekday. The idea of the Mass of Divine Providence is to ask God Almighty to provide for his people over the coming month. This means, not to put too fine a point on it, to make sure they get through the month with enough of the essentials of life, not least of all food. In a country like ours, where every one has enough food, and where we throw food away in shocking quantities, this is a salutary lesson of dependance on God, something that rich and poor alike should all feel.

  • Adela

    This reminds me of a story a priest told me years ago. He went to Mexico -unfortunately I can’t remember which part of it- and, as a kind of welcome, the parish priest who received him proposed celebrating Mass, even though it was not the usual Mass time. So they had the bells rung, and… people started coming in! And there were other priests confessing while he celebrated Mass.

  • Anonymous

    Protestant polemicists have often noticed that poor & badly-run countries – typically those in Latin America (this is an old question) – are often Catholic; & that by contrast Protestant countries have tended to be much better-governed & far more politically stable (the prize examples being the UK, & most of all, the USA). Belgium tended not to be noticed – OTOH, there were many others that suited the stereotype all too well. This being a Protestant question, weaknesses in Protestant countries tended to be overlooked; ignorance of other countries than one’s own is perhaps the reason why.

    Catholicism just does not seem very good for a country, or not half as good, as Protestantism with its work-ethic, lack of priest-craft, and love of freedom. Catholicism ties people to the clergy, has no work-ethic, fosters an unhealthy spirit of dependence, and is no lover of freedom. It is absolutist & corporatist, and is fatally liable to produce tyrannies & dictators. Protestantism has no clericalism and no clerical caste – unlike RCism. Would a spiritually healthy country have produced drugs ? But that is Colombia’s main claim to fame.  Mexico has its mountains of corpses. Surely that cannot be called healthy. Things like these are evidence of the real effects of how a country is ruled – & what is the good of Catholicism to a country, if it does not lead to greater respect for the individual, a more just society, more honesty and less corruption ? There is a real & very serious problem here. Saying that drug lords and corrupt police & the like are not Catholics, or are not typical Catholics, is not an answer but an evasion. A good tree does not produce Dead Sea Fruit.

    There may be less force in this than 50 years ago – but there is not no case at all to answer. So how is this to be answered ? If Quebec & Ireland & Italy are not priest-ridden as they were, that is very largely because of secularism and scandal – much less because of anything more healthy.

    I would love to know the answer to this one. All the more, given the New Evangelisation.

  • theroadmaster

    Let me see, Mr Parasum,  The most prosperous state in the industrial power house that is Germany is Catholic Bavaria.  When one looks at the prosperity index for countries across the worldd,, such Catholic countries as Austria, Luxembourg, France(largely secular but Catholic by tradition) and latterly Ireland(despite the recent economic downturn) figure near the very top. Admittedly they are below such nations as the Netherlands, Norway or Iceland which  were heavily influenced by the Reformation and adopted protestantism.  But these countries now are very largely atheistic in outlook and protestantism seems a very dim and distant memory.
    You try and make a case for countries with a history of protestantsm being more ethical in their general approach to life in economics and other spheres than their Catholic counterparts. You emphasize the drug wars in South American countries and the widespread corruption in political and law enforcement circles.  These are indeed serious problems that have held back social progress on that continent but countries like Chile, Uruguay and Brazil have in more recent times started to buck those trends and have shown very commendable progress in their respective campaigns to clean up corrupt practices on all levels of government and police.  
    They are also showing impressive figures in terms of economic growth and industrial output.

    If we examine the so -called ethical record of countries with a protestant background in a little more depth, we can see serious disparities between the received wisdom and certain unpalatable realities.  The US which was historically received it’s foundations from English puritan settlers during the 17th century, has experienced virulent  bouts of racist and religious intolerance during long periods over the 19th and 20th centuries through such nativist organizations as the Klu Klux Klan. Brazil by contrast has managed to integrate the multi-ethnic and racial components in it’s society rather more placidly and has achieved an impressive social harmony and consensus as a result of that.  Ditto for other nations in South America.

     The unjust nature of the penal system in the strongly calvinist southern states is clearly evident when it  puts to death a disproportionate number of black and hispanic poor prisoners as opposed to whites. The scandalous level of annual  abortions since the Roe v Roe law was passed in 1973.  Some estimates put the number of aborted human lives since then as being around 40-50 million.  Countries like Holland or Sweden with supposedly egalitarian reputations, have their own sombre shadows.  Holland regrettably is one of the few countries in the world to pass pro-euthanasia legislation and at one time was contemplating extending it’s provisions to children.  Sweden up until the 1970′s sterilized mothers that it thought unfit to bear children as part of a program to establish a racially pure society that any dedicated eugenicist would applaud.  So throwing stones in glass-houses usually rebound to the detriment of the thrower.

  • James H

    I think we can draw an ethnic distinction, as well. We can see that countries settled by the Goths, Franks, Lombards, etc. have a Teutonic obedience ethic: strong coporate loyalty, even when the authority is wrong (remember Napoleon, Cromwell and Hitler), very good in a fight, well-organised though tending to beaurocracy, good at inventing things; all these are characteristics which make for a successful country. Among Latins, the family is much more important, such that a political leader has to appeal to the loyalty of families rather than individuals, and although they are successful in their own right, the fault-lines within an ethnic group are more visible, making tax-evasion and corruption somewhat more likely.

    That’s my thought. The secularism of the more successful countries is a product, not a cause of their success. And, their plummeting birth-rates will remove them from history in this century, unfortunately.