You need to know that my own path to Mary has been complicated.
I soured on the Catholic Church a long time ago. My first-grade teacher at St. Joseph's Catholic School in Prescott was a tight-assed nun named Sister Mary Bernadette, who drummed into me the horrifying idea that my mother, a non-Catholic, was destined to go to hell.

"Imagine the pain of burning forever," she would tell me.
Then she'd add that since I was a baptized Catholic, I was headed for heaven if I repented for my sins.

Of course, now I see Sister Mary Bernadette was a Nun With Issues, but at the time I was terrified of being eternally separated from my mother. I even wet my pants during our rosary sessions.

In Sister Mary Bernadette's twisted universe, the Virgin Mary was nothing more than an obedient housewife and mother.

So I must have learned from my grandmother about the magic of the Virgin of Guadalupe. My grandmother died when I was 7 years old, but I remember accompanying her to Mass in the church near her house in a small town in Sonora, Mexico. The church interior was lined with likenesses of bloody martyred saints, but my grandmother ignored them and lighted candles only before a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Even that experience couldn't sell me on Catholicism. I dropped out of the church after a lukewarm First Holy Communion. I still went to the mandatory Masses, of course, but I felt only boredom and discomfort from the kneeling.

My mother later became a Catholic, but I never went back.
Not officially, at least.
I find as I get older, though, Mexican things Catholic pull at me.

I might as well say it. I have a two-foot-high ceramic Virgin of Guadalupe in my living room. I bought it last year at a swap meet to protect my daughter's house in Georgia, but my daughter says it's too big to ship. So I set up La Virgen de Guadalupe in my living room. To me, she's come to embody the female element of God, a notion that offends my devout Catholic friends.

See, the male Catholic leaders who set church dogma all want God to be a Guy. Mary, even among Marians, doesn't have God status.

I find that somewhat irritating.

In honor of the Marian hubbub in Rome, I decided to visit the Immaculate Heart Church last week to see the holy yucca--to me the most interesting symbol of the Virgin Mary's recent sojourns to Phoenix.

Since I last visited five years ago, the shrine has doubled in size. The holy yucca stalk stands very tall in a pot with a leafy base, which makes it look as though the "performance artists" did not sever the stalk from the plant. But just in case some other fool tries to steal the holy yucca, the church installed surveillance cameras in critical areas.

Next to the yucca, against a backdrop of dried roses, La Virgen de Guadalupe statue grins sweetly down on a kneeling plaster figure of Juan Diego, whose cape is brimming with roses.

Juan Diego, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the holy yucca bush seem larger than life because they are wedged into a mountain of volcanic rocks and surrounded by desert cactuses. Their feet are adorned with hundreds of flowers dropped off by the faithful. And jailhouse mug shots have been replaced with dozens of photographs of family members who need the Virgin Mary to intercede on their behalf. A nearby basket holds photos of the hundreds who have already been prayed for.

Some people claim the yucca stalk has gotten them off drugs, or has restored their faith, or has given them the clarity to know what they are going to do next in life. After all, the yucca stalk is a clear sign that the Virgin of Guadalupe is present, ready to plead the case of her people to God.

At the shrine, a Mexican woman stood for several minutes with her hand over her heart. Her little girl ran up and down the aisles, but the mother paid no attention. She was talking to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

She knew who to go to when she had to get God's attention.
In Phoenix, at least, you don't need Pope John Paul II to figure that one out.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at tgreene@newtimes.com

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