The Basilica of Guadalupe, in northern Mexico City, is the world’s third-most-visited religious pilgrimage destination. It is here that the Aztecs worshipped at a pre-Colombian temple atop Tepeyac Hill. It is here that indigenous monk Juan Diego saw several visions of the Virgin Mary. And it is here that a series of churches exist today in honor of the Virgin’s first appearance.
Today is Feast Day, a spiritual celebration of the Virgin’s first appearance in Mexico, and a day when thousands – millions – arrive in reverence. Each December 12th, the street leading up to the basilica is closed to vehicular traffic and overtaken by pilgrims, many crawling the last several hundred meters on their knees. Mass is conducted around-the-clock, volunteers feed the homeless at a food station behind the basilica, and Aztec drummers keep the rhythm in the adjacent plaza while others dance in a haze of incense. The energy is infectious at any time of year, but doubly so on Feast Day and during the days leading up to it.
I have made it to the basilica on three separate occasions. The first time was in 2002, when I joined a hostel tour to the Pyramids of Teotihuacán. The visit was rushed, so I returned two days later by metro for a better look. My third visit was on December 12, 2012 (12/12/12 as it happens). I was a new resident of Mexico City at that time, and was still in “tourist mode.” The basilica receives a steady stream of visitors all year long, but I had no idea what kind of spectacle (nor crowds) to expect on Feast Day itself.
The nearest metro station to the basilica is “La Villa-Basilica.” The metro was as crowded as ever, but, wouldn’t you know it, seemingly every passenger disembarked at La Villa-Basilica. “Holy Mary Mother of God,” I muttered to myself. Or maybe it was “Holy shit.” Either way, I took a deep breath and joined the masses.
Police barricades had blocked the main road to the basilica from traffic. I alighted from the station and immediately saw this guy in the picture below. He was just one of many showing his devotion. The crowds grew thicker as I ascended the steps to Carlos Slim Plaza, which fronts the cathedral and can hold several thousand worshippers.
The original basilica, El Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey, was directly in front of me. The building consisted of three parts: a large catholic church on the left (the original, centuries-old basilica), a smaller chapel dedicated to indigenous pilgrims on the right, and a museum of retablos (painted tablets) in the back. To the right of this building is the small, circular, one-room Pocito chapel, dedicated to a spring of holy water that flows through these grounds. Atop Tepeyac Hill (now Cerro de Guadalupe) behind it all, a small, always-crowded chapel marks the spot where Juan Diego first saw the Virgin. It is a busy spot, with a cemetery, restaurant, gift shop, and terrace, the latter of which offers impressive city views, especially at sunset.
Two sets of stairs lead down from the hill to the main buildings. One set walks past original Aztec stonework, all that remains of the pre-Hispanic temple to Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The other passes a small waterfall, manmade but convincing. Kiosks along each landing sell refreshments and religious trinkets.
Each of these aforementioned buildings are worth a peek inside, but the star attraction is the modern basilica, built in the 1970’s to replace the original basilica, which is literally sinking from the soft ground atop which it was built. The newer basilica, an enormous, circular eyesore that is the size of a fútbol pitch, houses 10,000 worshippers and the all-important tilma, or cloak, of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. The cloak is visible from anywhere in the building and, in a somewhat cheesy touch, can be seen from below via a moving walkway.
A Bit of History
The official story that makes the basilica the most-visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world is as follows: On December 9, 1531, indigenous local Juan Diego was tending the land around Tepeyac Hill when he saw the first of four apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who identified herself as “Mother of the very true deity,” and asked him to build a church in her honor. She returned each of the next three nights as well – all of this at the same time as when Juan Diego’s uncle had fallen ill, giving the monk conflicted feelings about which takes priority – family obligation or religious duty.
Juan had already consulted with the Catholic Archdiocese about what he had seen, and the church did not believe him. His fourth encounter with the apparition was on December 12th. The Virgin instructed him to gather roses and plant them atop Tepeyac Hill. Although distracted, possibly with concern for his uncle, he obeyed. When he arrived to the top of the hill, the Virgin told him that his uncle would get better. As he set down the roses gathered inside his cloak, he discovered the Virgin’s likeness emblazoned on his cloak. The next morning, Juan’s uncle had made a complete recovery. With time, other miraculous healings were attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Catholic Church eventually authenticated the miracle and, in 2002, canonized Juan Diego himself. Today, he is remembered as the first indigenous Roman Catholic saint from Mexico.
Today, the Virgin of Guadalupe is considering the symbol of Catholic Mexicans and Empress of the Americas. Her portrait, as emblazoned on the cloak inside the basilica, hangs in Catholic churches throughout Latin America. The museum of retablos behind the old basilica has hundreds of tablets painted by ordinary people, non-artists who thank the Virgin for whatever help she gave in healing the wounds of them or their families. Often, the tablets are simple watercolor paintings of someone in a hospital bed with his/her leg in a cast. Other times, the paintings are more elaborate, or more graphic. I have long believed in the miracle of science over the miracle of faith, but who am I to question the beliefs of so many pilgrims?
The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as it appears on Juan Diego’s cloak, has survived five centuries, ammonia spills, and a terrorist bombing, something of a miracle in itself.