This article by Diana Macalintal originally appeared in AIM Liturgy Resources, Winter, 2006.
I arrived at the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe at around 5:30 in the afternoon on a crisp December evening. Although the liturgy would not begin for another two and a half hours, people were already starting to gather.
In one corner of the church, mothers with restless toddlers formed a continuous pilgrimage to the image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. To kneel in prayer before her at this church, one entered a large almost-complete triple circle of candles emanating from Our Lady. Kneeling before her was like stepping into a warm embrace of light.
At the other end of the church, a small cluster of older women dressed in red blazers and red, white, and green sashes circled around a younger woman with a microphone. A blaze of light poured out of a video camera as the younger woman—a popular local television news reporter—interviewed the women in red. These were some of the Guadalupanas of the parish, women who took their name from Guadalupe to continue her work of caring for the poor, the hopeless, and the outcast. (Imagine if Juan Diego had the power of cable and CNN!)
To one side of the altar, several guitarists and a bass player tuned their instruments to a slightly-out-of-tune piano while an organist did last-minute rehearsing of a psalm. A flock of singers, young and old, chatted among the thirty or so chairs set up for the choir, exchanging the twists of last night’s novela (soap opera).
Watching and waiting
Individuals and small families peppered the pews throughout the church, some kneeling with a rosary in hand, others sitting quietly just saving their seats before the crowds appear. A tiny woman who looked to be at least seventy years old inched her way down the length of the main aisle toward the altar on her knees. Her wrinkled lips formed a whispered prayer as her wizened face looked determined to have her petitions answered.
Just outside the main doors, young men sat on the stone walls of the church plaza, not really talking to each other but just looking like they were waiting for something to happen. About half an hour later, it did.
By 6:00 p.m., the skies were dark over the city of San José, or as it was originally called, El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe. The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits on a busy four-lane street that edges a residential neighborhood on the poorer east side of the city. Street lights, car headlamps, and porch lights dot the darkness while the sound of traffic, street vendors, car stereos, and restaurants remind you that you are in the most populous city of northern California. Yet that night, off in the distance, you could hear a faint beat of a drum and the muffled sound of singing.
A few minutes later, I could see down the street the tall outline of a banner followed by dozens of tiny lights which swayed from side to side as the singing grew louder: “Ven con nosotros al caminar; Santa María, ven,”—“Come with us on the way; Holy Mary, come.” Car horns added to the melody as forty or so pilgrims crossed the street toward the church carrying tea lights in clear plastic cups. The procession was led by a banner with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the words, Ruega por nosotros—Pray for us—lovingly embroidered around her. Behind the banner, a young man with a bull horn led the singing while several children helped to keep rhythm on hand drums.
“Vienen con alegría, Señor, cantando”
As the group reached the front doors of the church, a person with a clipboard asked the banner carrier what church they were from. La Santissima Trinidad—Most Holy Trinity—was the reply. The clipboard person then stood at the inner doors of the church and held up a cardboard sign on which was printed the number that signaled to the animadora—the animator—that Most Holy Trinity parish had arrived. The animadora stood at a microphone near the altar and greeted the people already in the church—about 100 of them. “¡Que viva el Señor!” she cried, and they responded,“¡Que viva!” “¡Que viva la Señora de Guadalupe!” “¡Que viva!” they yelled even louder. Then she asked them all to stand and welcome the peregrinos, the pilgrims from Most Holy Trinity.
The choir began singing, and the whole church started clapping to the rhythm of the song: “Vienen con alegría, Señor, cantando”—“They come with joy, Lord, singing.” I stood in the vestibule as the crowd of people walked by me into the church—babies wrapped up tightly in the arms of young mothers; older men dressed in modern-day tilmas; youths straining to see their friends already waiting for them in the church; Most Holy Trinity’s pastor singing loudly amid the people; even several non-Latino parishioners, like myself, were swept up into the procession by the movement of the crowd and the joyful lure of music they did not understand.
The pilgrims found seats reserved for them in the church as their banner was placed in a stand along the church wall, one among many stands that would soon be filled with similar banners from parishes across the diocese. Most Holy Trinity parish is the closest to Our Lady of Guadalupe, about two and a half miles away down the same busy street. The next parish to arrive would be Saint Julie Billiart, eleven miles away. They had begun their pilgrimage on foot several hours earlier, winding their way from the streets of suburban south San José where white-collar executives lived, worked, and prayed with migrant workers and newer immigrants.
During the next hour, several more parishes arrived at the doors of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to the same church where Cesar Chavez bolstered the farm workers and parishioners built the church with their own hands. Over twenty parishes in all came that first year I attended—almost half of the parishes in our small diocese. Some parishes came on foot, others arrived by car or bus, still others did a mix of both, parking their cars several blocks away and joining the pilgrims on the street. Each one was greeted with the same joyful song until the church walls were lined with banner after banner and people standing shoulder to shoulder, filling the church to over-capacity. Most who came were Latino/a, but there were many like me who spoke little or no Spanish yet understood what was taking place that night.
At 7:00 p.m., the bishop with several other priests began their procession into the church, and the same musical greeting welcomed them. Into the arms of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Diocese of San José truly was being gathered. Then the bishop began the liturgy, not with the words of the sign of the cross as one might expect, but with, “Dios mío, ven en mi auxilio”—“My God, come to my aid.” The assembly replied, “Señor, date prisa en socorrerme”—“Lord, quickly help me.” That night, we would pray Evening Prayer, Vísperas, in honor of the Lady robed with the stars of the night who gave us the Sun that never sets. Our celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe has always been in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours, a conscious decision made several years ago to help our young diocese grow in this form of prayer.
The liturgy follows a simple Cathedral-style format of Evening Prayer with some added elements. After the Lord’s Prayer, a collection is taken up for a specific organization or cause that is chosen by the planning committee. Last year, almost $2000 was collected for Catholic Relief Services’ aid to victims of the Pakistan earthquake. The year before, money was collected to assist a San José organization that had been guided by a beloved gringo, James McEntee, who had died earlier that year. James had dedicated his life to helping diverse communities overcome conflict. One year, the collection was given to parish food banks, and another year, it supported the work of catechists throughout the diocese.
Gifts given and received
The collection is then brought forward along with a gift of roses, the sign first given by Our Lady to the indigenous peoples of Mexico to confirm her promise to give them hope and console them in their suffering. As we do this, we sing, “Desde entonces para el mexicano ser Guadalupano es algo esencial”—“Since that time [of Guadalupe], for the Mexican, to be a Guadalupano is essential.” For us who follow Christ, to bring hope and care for the suffering is essential. The bishop then blesses the roses (hundreds of long-stem red roses are donated by our local florist), and the bishop gives roses to invited guests who represent the organization or group for which the collection is taken.
Although the majority of participants in our celebration are Mexican, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Mother of all the Americas. Our liturgy testifies to this in the intercessions which is a litany calling upon the many names of Mary who gathers us all under her cloak—Madre de Mexico, Madre de Colombia, María del Salvador, María de Ecuador, María de Sud América, Estrella de Canada, Madre de Estados Unidos, etc. But Mary’s universal care is also seen in the many colors mixed in with the brown faces of the Latino/a—white, yellow, black, mestizo/a, male and female, young and old. Like San Juan Diego who represented those who sought hope amid oppression, we who live in what can often be a hope-less world are drawn by Guadalupe’s mystical signs of flower and song, surprises in the midst of darkness that remind us of God’s promise. With her as our companion on our pilgrimage, we are able to confess with faith, “My God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”
Diana Macalintal is the director of worship for the San Jose diocese and holds an MA in theology from Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.