(Vatican Radio) Veronica Scarisbrick, our correspondent covering the papal visit to Mexico looks at the long-standing devotion by the Mexican faithful to Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose shrine will be visited by Pope Francis on Saturday. She retraces the bitter persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico during a large part of the 19th century when anti-clericalism was enshrined in the nation’s constitution for many decades.
“Like many of the pilgrims I met at the Shrine of the Basilica of ‘Santa Maria de Guadalupe’ Pablo and Maria were clutching in their arms a rather large and very colourful statue of Our Lady. Surrounded by their children and grandchildren, their weather beaten faces bore the marks of simple people, the expression in their eyes was one of longtime suffering.
They told me they’d come here all the way from Puebla to ask for protection from Our Lady. It made me think of Pope Francis’ words when he recently explained in an interview how he too seeks from Our Lady of Guadalupe security and tenderness. How when he comes to this all embracing circular basilica where the miraculous image is housed to celebrate Holy Mass on Saturday 13th of February together with the Guadalupe faithful he will draw from their faith. From the popular piety of people like Pablo and Maria. He believes it has the potential for faith to be embodied in a culture and passed on to future generations.
Rather like what happened in Mexico during the years the expression of religion was banned - when the faith lived on despite the sometimes pitiless persecution. You may remember how Pope Pius XI wrote three encyclicals between 1926 and 1937. You may remember too the more popular description of the 'whisky priest' in Graham Greene's novel 'The Power and the Glory'.
An anti-clericalism, enshrined in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which gave rise to a dark complex chapter in the history of the Catholic Church in this nation. Known as the 'Cristero War' it lasted from 1926 to 1929. The battle cry of this group which stemmed from the local Catholic Action was 'Viva Cristo Rey'. It left thousands dead.
Mexican-born Dominican Father Alejandro Crosthwaite grew up long after that horrific war. It was roughly the mid-twentieth century but while violent oppression of the Catholic Church had fizzled out, draconian legal measures hadn't.
Catholic education was passed down in secret. He recounts how the nuns in his school even had to hide a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a closet for fear of being discovered, how every morning the closet would be opened, prayers would be said and then Our Lady would be placed safely back in the closet for the next day.
A situation which only changed in 1995. By that time Pope John Paul II had concluded three out of the five visits to Mexico. But the breakthrough came in 1979 when he appeared in Mexico for the first time in his white cassock, forbidden at the time in public, for religious garb was then allowed exclusively in Church. But the mould had been broken and the outcome was, believe it or not, that the Pope received a fine which the President of the time paid for him rather tellingly in public.
And now all these years later Pope Francis will reap the legacy of St John Paul II and of Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus who came here in 2012.
Just think - front pews have been reserved for the President, during Holy Mass at the Basilica of Guadalupe, unthinkable back in 1979.
But above all he'll reap the legacy of those who kept the faith in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. People like Pablo and Maria with their weather beaten faces.”