The Power of the Dark Virgin
It is fitting that Pope Francis will celebrate his first mass on Mexican soil at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is impossible to overstate the reverence and tenderness with which she is held by Mexicans, as well as her tremendous power as a national symbol.
The image of "La Virgen Morena", the dark virgin, is found everywhere in Mexico -- on the backs of crowded buses, hanging from seemingly every necklace, gaudily painted on millions of roadside shrines, and hanging in every house, rich or poor. Her presence is palpable.
It was over 500 years ago, and shortly after Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs, that she appeared to Juan Diego on the hillside of Tepeyac. On that arid, thorny, rock-strewn place, she caused roses to grow and imprinted her image on the boy's tilma, or poncho. That is the same cloth, it is said, that Pope Francis will pray before this week.
Why such a powerful symbol? The legend explains it all.
Juan Diego's life was one of poverty and toil, illness and care. He was lowly and meek, the weakest of the powerless. Yet it was to him, not the potent Spanish bishop, that Our Lady appeared. She was an envoy from the God to whom the indigenous people had just been introduced not many years before. Unlike the gods of the Aztecs, terrifying in their requirements for appeasement, this God, though demanding, offered the compassion of one who had also suffered grievously. In perfect empathy with the fearsome struggle of a poor man's daily life, He sent his own gentle Mother as comforter and protectress.
Her words to Juan Diego, grief-stricken over the impending death of someone he loved, are inscribed over the main entrance of the Basilica, and on every Mexican heart: "Do not fear that sickness...nor any anguish. Am I not here, who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection, happily within the fold of my mantle?"
There it is: the powerful sense of protection and safety. The feeling we knew so well when we were children, and the touch of our mother's hand in the gloomy night was enough to restore our hope and confidence. That is what she offers to the Mexican people, who over the centuries have been well acquainted with fear.
Pope Francis has reserved a whole evening for devotion in the Basilica. He did not want to be rushed to the next event. He will gaze, I'm sure, as millions of pilgrims have gazed before him, at the gently smiling brown face of the woman in the image, who chose the most humble of her sons as her messenger.
He will understand why Juan Diego's still-humble descendants continue to approach her image with profound confidence in her immaculate love.