Marian Theology--Phoenix Style

His Holiness Pope John Paul II is expected soon to plumb deep into his papal infallibility.

Some four million Roman Catholics--many of whom are Europeans and are inspired by recent sightings of the Blessed Virgin in places like Bosnia-Herzegovina--are lobbying John Paul to proclaim that the Virgin Mary is "Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces and Advocate for the People of God."

Hidden in the deadening medieval bureaucratese is a shocking message for mainstream Catholics: If you want to talk to God, you need to ask his mom, Mary. She will then take your concerns to her busy son, Jesus, or to God the Father.

To mainstream Roman Catholics, the very real possibility that the pope may add this Marian dogma to Church theology is of immense concern. Most Catholics have been taught for centuries that Jesus is the only "redemptor."

The Marian controversy is rattling the Catholic universe so badly that the Virgin Mary made the cover of Newsweek last week.

As a renegade Catholic of mixed European and Mexican descent, I'm wondering why the pope doesn't focus instead on pressing policy issues. Why doesn't he get rid of that goofy anti-birth-control directive in the face of severe global overpopulation? Why doesn't he allow priests to marry in order to make the priesthood more attractive to normal guys? Better yet, why doesn't he allow women into the priesthood?

I mean, the Marian issue has been settled for 500 years, hasn't it?
See, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared on four different occasions to a poor Mexican Indian named Juan Diego. In a place called Tepeyac near what is now Mexico City, she ordered him to build her a shrine, and pronto. La Virgen de Guadalupe spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, an indigenous language, and she made it clear to him that she loved the miserable, recently conquered Indians with all her heart, absolutely unconditionally, just like mom. And that's the way it's been ever since.

That's why Graciela Albillar, a Mexican Catholic who lives in Phoenix, can say unequivocally, "We love the Virgin of Guadalupe and we know she loves us.

"She is like the mother who intercedes on our behalf to God to pray for us and forgive us. God commands us. She loves us," Albillar says assuredly.

"Just like in a family, it is easier for us to go to the mother. She is softer than the father."

There is a lot of disagreement over who, exactly, the Virgin of Guadalupe is. Chicano and Mexican intellectuals say she's actually an ancient indigenous goddess, or a combination of several goddesses, masquerading as the Virgin Mary. Devout Mexican Catholics say she's not a goddess, only Jesus' mom.

But everyone agrees she is the Brown Virgin who never abandoned the poor Indian, an utterly Mexican madonna. She has a quirky personality, likes to "appear" just to remind the members of her beloved Mexican flock that she's always around just in case they need her to bend God's ear in their behalf.

This is why the Virgin of Guadalupe appears on tortillas instead of souffles. It's why, in 1993, Pedro Gonzales, a resident of the Yaqui Indian community of Guadalupe just east of Phoenix, announced his statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously grew hair. It's why thousands of people flock to the South Phoenix home of Estela Ruiz, who gets messages from the Virgin of Guadalupe on the first Saturday of every month.

But in 1989, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in her most interesting form--a stalk of a yucca plant. No one knows who first noticed that a yucca stalk was bent into a silhouette of La Lupe. The holy yucca had sprouted near a Mexican restaurant located close to the intersection of 11th Street and Van Buren, in the heart of a Mexican-immigrant ghetto.

Hundreds of Spanish-speaking worshipers visited the yucca stalk, prayed, left flowers, lighted votive candles. They knew the Virgin of Guadalupe had visited her people once again.

Then a few days later, a couple of creeps tried to ruin it all.
Eric Barbour and Peter Petrisko tore the stalk off the yucca in an effort to bring "performance art" to downtown Phoenix, they said. The jerks were arrested and slapped with misdemeanor charges, but it made no difference to the worshipers. They were heartbroken.

Later that day, Father Tony Sotelo, a priest who understood the significance of the holy yucca, lifted the branch high and led a procession of worshipers to the Immaculate Heart Catholic Church at 909 East Washington. The church, of course, is named after the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary. It was built in the early 1900s by Spanish-speaking Phoenicians who had previously been forced to attend Spanish Masses in the basement of St. Mary's Catholic Church.

Father Tony placed the yucca stalk in the church, in front of the classiest statue--the Virgin of Guadalupe--and soon people came from all over the country to pray there. Mothers even placed police booking photos of their sons at the base of the branch, so that the Virgin would go ask God to care for and forgive their hijos in jail.

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