Mexico City: Spiritual sanctuary

On this balmy morning, big-bellied men slumber against gently swaying palm trees, and armed guards snack on churros outside the religious heart of Mexico.

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 1 Apr 2014, 13:25 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 10:11 BST

Situated within Mexico City's northern limits Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the principal site for worshippers of the country's beloved patron saint.

The basilica's sombre grey exterior gives no indication of the expanse within. I join the masses that gush inside, eager to see the revered Marian shrine. To grasp Mexican culture, it's essential to appreciate the devotion to this blue-mantled virgin. She draws around 20 million to the basilica annually, surpassing the Vatican as the most-visited Catholic site in the world.

A distance beneath the image, two moving walkways transport droves in opposite directions before the silver-and-gold-framed portrait. The virgin benevolently looks down from her perch as her followers gaze upward in awe and prayer, careful not to disturb worshippers at the altar above.

This image occupies the site where in 1531, a decade after the brutal Spanish conquest, apparitions of the virgin appeared to Juan Diego, a poor Mexican. To prove the visions' authenticity, Juan brought roses in unseasonable bloom to an unbelieving bishop. Upon revealing the flowers, an image of the Virgin was emblazoned on his tilma (cactus-fibre cloak).

After a last glance at this nearly 500-year-old image, responsible for uniting pre-Hispanic Aztec beliefs with Roman Catholicism, I tiptoe up to the cavernous basilica. Mass is in procession and thousands of Guadalupanos are in rapt devotion, anticipating communion with offerings of candles and roses.

With scant room to stand, I leave the baroque basilica, heading out onto the wide Plaza de las Americas. Flanking the square is an older Spanish colonial-style basilica. When the already-sinking old church was too fragile to handle its visitors, the audacious new basilica, designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, opened its doors in 1976.

In the smoggy blue morning, white butterflies flit across the square. My guide tells me they appear around the Day of the Dead each year and are said to be the spirits of dead warriors. Mingling with these lingering ghosts, I watch pilgrims carry estandartes (religious banners) of the Virgin, while girls in fluffy white dresses giggle proudly on their baptism day. From a distance, an imposing statue of Pope John Paul II, who canonised Juan Diego in 2002, keeps a watchful eye on the activity.

Disregarding the hubbub of the plaza, a bedraggled woman shuffles toward the basilica on battered knees, pausing every few minutes to rub the pain away and pray. Upon reaching the church, she reverentially makes her way up the steps and into the throng of humanity inside.

In anticipation of salvation, many of the devout travel hundreds of yards on their knees while others make long, arduous pilgrimages. A group from Zempoala, in the northern mountains of the state of Puebla, tell me they've walked over 125 miles to reach the holy site, having left their little village five days ago.

It's now my time to leave and as I head away from the square, I notice an outdoor shrine heaped with roses and flickering candles. These gifts for Guadalupe are accumulating so quickly that a church attendant tosses handfuls in a bin, making room for the hoards of offerings yet to come.

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