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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,...
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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.

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 [email protected]

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