Mexican Catholic History

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. [Psalms 115:4-8]

Halloween, Mother Church
and Mexican History

Halloween is almost upon us. Throughout Mexico and most of Latin America, folks are gearing up for the festivities of November 2, the Day of the Dead. Seeing this is one of the indigenous customs the Catholic Church accommodated in its efforts to gain control over the native population of the region and recalling one of the documents of Vatican II (Nostra Aetate), I thought it might be useful to examine this tradition. In olden times, Rome was not reluctant to incorporate pagan traditions and practices into her theology if to do so would facilitate convincing those pagans to bend the knee to Rome.

An example of this openness to pagan practice may be found in the RCC Easter ritual of the New Fire. The Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about the Easter Fire:

“The Easter Fire is lit on the top of mountains (Easter mountain, Osterberg) and must be kindled from new fire, drawn from wood by friction (nodfyr); this is a custom of pagan origin in vogue all over Europe, signifying the victory of spring over winter. The bishops issued severe edicts against the sacrilegious Easter fires (Conc. Germanicum, a. 742, c.v.; Council of Lestines, a. 743, n. 15), but did not succeed in abolishing them everywhere. The Church adopted the observance into the Easter ceremonies, referring it to the fiery column in the desert and to the Resurrection of Christ; the new fire on Holy Saturday is drawn from flint, symbolizing the Resurrection of the Light of the World from the tomb closed by a stone (Missale Rom.). In some places a figure was thrown into the Easter fire, symbolizing winter, but to the Christians on the Rhine, in Tyrol and Bohemia, Judas the traitor (Reinsberg-Düringfeld, Das festliche Jahr, 112 sq.)

Vatican II seems to confirm that mind set still holds sway in Rome:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.--Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965

When the Spanish adventurers led by Hernan Cortez arrived in Mexico, they encountered highly developed and well-organized indigenous cultures. That a few hundred Spaniards were able to subdue and conquer warrior societies numbering in the millions was only partially due to the superiority of European weaponry. Other important factors were the coincidence of Cortez' arrival with the prophesied return of Quetzalcoatl, a Mayan god-king, and the adaptation of Roman Catholicism to accommodate native religious customs and beliefs.

The Mayans, who retained only remnants of their former power and glory, practiced a multitheistic religion that involved baptism, sacrifice and ancestor worship. They believed that when members of the nobility died they became one with the gods so, when they worshipped their ancestors they were also worshipping their gods. To the Maya, it likely was an easy step from worshipping ancestor-gods to venerating the Catholic man-saints. In fact, they and their descendents found the practice so agreeable, they continue to do both to this day. In southern Mexico, as in Guatemala, it is not at all unusual to see prayers and gifts being offered to Indian gods in Catholic churches, sometimes coincidental with the celebration of a Mass.

The Mayans baptized children into their religion. As soon as possible after a child was born, its parents would meet with a priest to discuss the child's future and to learn the name it would bear until baptized. When there was a sufficient number of boys and girls between the ages of three and twelve, they would gather in the house of a town elder. Their parents, who would have observed various fasts and abstinences, also would be present.

The baptismal ceremony was rather complicated. The children and their fathers would stand inside a ring of rope held by four old men who represented the rain gods. After the priest had performed various purification rites, he would bless the children with incense, tobacco and holy water. Once baptized, the older girls were considered ready for marriage.

Blood sacrifice was a big thing in the Mayan religion. The nobility celebrated a ritual cycle: birth, heir designation, accession, warfare, ballgame (a symbolic athletic event), death. Blood offerings were made to seal these events. Male nobles drew blood from the penis, ear, or tongue; women drew blood from the tongue. War provided a ready source of sacrificial victims. Priests would extract blood from the ears, fingernails, and mouths of captured nobles and war leaders before they were sacrificed by being beheaded or having their hearts ripped out on a stone altar.

When Cortez and his gang landed at what is now Vera Cruz, Moctezuma II ruled the Aztec Empire, which spread from what is now Guatemala to the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. The Aztecs were a nation of fierce warriors, for only war could provide the vast numbers of sacrificial victims their bloody religion demanded, yet the few hundred Spaniards were able to subjugate them. What happened?

According to Aztec legend, Quetzalcoatl had been driven away by a rival god and had sailed across the sea, some day to return. That return was predicted for the year Ce Acatl on the Aztec Calendar, which corresponded to the year 1519. Based on this prediction, When Cortez and his troops invaded, Montezuma II believed Quetzalcoatl had returned, and did not resist. Despite a few uprisings, the Spanish consolidated their hold on Mexico. Being committed Catholics, the conquerors believed it their duty to wipe out the temples and all other traces of the Aztec religion. They destroyed Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, and built Mexico City on the ruins.

Religion was a big thing in Aztec life. They had hundreds of gods and goddesses, who were responsible for various activities and aspects of daily living. As was the case with the Maya, it was not difficult to introduce veneration of the Catholic saints into such a belief system. And just as the Mayas did, the Aztecs held on to their own gods when they adopted the pantheon of Catholic saints.

There were rituals intended to ensure good crops and then to thank the gods for the harvest. Every 52 years, the Aztecs held a great celebration called the Binding up of the Years. Prior to the celebration, the people would let their hearth fires go out and then re-light them from the new fire of the celebration and feast. This practice, of course, was comparable to the Easter Blessing of the New Fire, which the Roman church had adopted from European pagan rituals in the 8th century. Another fairly easy transition.

One of the really big accommodations involved the Catholic celebrations of all Souls Day and All Saints day. Though all the Latin American nations celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 2, no one does it like the Mexicans. In southern Mexico, the event is celebrated almost exactly as it was long before the arrival of the European conquerors. Catholic priests, eager to convert indigenous populations to the Roman church, seized on the native belief that the souls of the dead continued to live in another, co-existent, plane. The Indian peoples believed the souls returned every year to visit with their living relatives and so they gathered at the burial places to feast and celebrate the occasion. This practice continues today, under the guise of the Roman Catholic celebration of All Souls Day.

As November 2 approaches, bakeries, candy stores and markets begin to offer the special baked goods, candies and other specialty items that mark the Day of the Dead. In homes and workplaces, altars to the dead are created to hold images of Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe, pictures of dead relatives, and all sorts of death-related objects. On the eve of All Souls Day, many families visit local cemeteries to leave gifts of food and drink on the graves of their dead. The Catholic celebration of the Day of the Dead/All Souls Day begins with a special Mass in the local church, but soon moves to the streets. The Catholic faithful bring out their statues of Jesus, Mary and other saints and parade them through the streets, singing hymns and religious songs as they make their way to the cemetery. At the cemetery, the priest will lead another service, before joining his parishioners as they feast and celebrate on the graves of the departed. With the exception of the December 12th celebrations of the Virgin de Guadalupe, the Day of the Dead surely must be the biggest religious event in the Mexican Catholic calendar.

Rome may tell the world the RCC venerates Mary with hyperdulia, reserving latria for God alone, but I doubt that would hold true in Mexico. The Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, truly is adored by Mexican Catholics. Her image is everywhere, homes, churches, offices, stores, men's wallets and women's purses. She appears on truck bumpers and automobile windshields. Businesses and streets bear her name, as do hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. She is everywhere to be seen and always near to the hearts of Mexican faithful. Surely, the Virgin of Guadalupe is Rome's most successful adaptation to local religion and culture. But who is she? To discover the underlying significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe, it is necessary to first examine the milieu from which she sprang.

In the Tlaxcala district of Mexico City, there is an old basilica and a new shrine, both dedicated to La Virgin de Guadalupe who, according to tradition, appeared four times in that area to an Indian named Juan Diego. For Mexican Catholics and the Catholic faithful in many of the Spanish-speaking nations of the Americas, this is the holiest ground in the hemisphere. But it was not always so.

The true holy ground is a small hill behind the basilica. The Aztecs called the hill Tepeyec, and so it is known today. Tepeyec was holy ground, consecrated to Tonantzin, the earth and fertility goddess, whom they called Our Lady Mother. Atop Tepeyec, the Aztecs had built a temple to Tonantzin who, like Guadalupe, was associated with the moon. Aztec royalty visited this temple to receive divine revelation and worshippers made great pilgrimages here, just as Mexican Catholics now make annual pilgrimages to the Basilica that replaced the pagan temple.

When Cortez and his army reached Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Emperor Moctezuma II received them at Tonantzin's temple atop Tepeyec. Charged up with greed and religious fervor, the Spaniards cast down the statue of the pagan goddess and replaced it with a small statue of Mary, Our Lady of the Remedy. This did not endear the invaders to the native population.

By the year 1531, the Spaniards had spent 12 years conquering and consolidating their hold on the lands and peoples of Mexico. History records that the Spaniards were far from benevolent masters and severely abused the native peoples, who had learned that they were not gods. The Aztecs, chafing under the Spanish yoke of oppression, were not sympathetic to the Catholic religion the Spanish were forcing upon them. The natives grew restless and ready to revolt. The Spaniards searched for a way to convert great numbers to the Catholic religion and way of life.

The means to convert the Indians came in the form of four so-called miraculous apparitions of Jesus' mother to an Indian catechumen named Juan Diego. In each apparition, she identified herself with such terms as the Virgin Mary, or the Mother of God, etc. Mary informed the stunned catechumen that she wanted a temple built on the site, so that she might exhibit and give her love, compassion, etc, to the peoples of the land. She confirmed her "divinity" by curing Juan Diego's uncle of an illness, by causing Castilian roses to bloom in the dead of winter and by causing her image to appear on the cloak worn by Juan Diego. This image is of a lone dark-skinned woman treading on a snake. She is wearing a maternity sash around her waist, indicating a state of pregnancy.

She told Juan Diego's uncle, as she was healing him, that she was to be known as the Virgin of Guadalupe. At least, that is what the Spaniards claimed. It seems more likely she would have used the term *coatlaxopeuh*; coa meaning "serpent," tla standing for "the" and xopeuh meaning "to crush or stamp out." If that is the case, the apparition called herself "Mary, who crushes the serpent." Her name would be pronounced "quatlasupe," which is close to the name of the Spanish town of Guadalupe, where another supposedly miraculous event involving the Virgin reportedly occurred.

She surely did "crush the serpent." The Indians, whose religion had many gods and goddesses of all shapes and attributes, revered Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. Following Juan Diego's encounter, they accepted the God of the Spaniards and flocked to the shrine built to house the holy image. The message of the apparitions and the symbolism of the miraculous portrait of Guadalupe had great significance to the Indian population. In the next seven years, eight million Indians were converted, at least nominally, to Catholicism. The Spaniards continued to colonize Mexico and to extend the teachings of the Church in America. Without the fortuitous, and no doubt fanciful, appearance of Mary, they might have vanished from Mexico.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is important to Mexicans because she is their supernatural mother and because she represents their major political and religious aspirations. The Spanish Conquest represented not only their military defeat and the destruction of their culture, but also the defeat of the old gods and the decline of the old ritual. The apparition of Coatlaxopeuh to a common Indian might be viewed as the return of Tonantzin. The old religion is still alive!

Do I believe the fable of Juan Diego and Le Guadalupana? Not a word of it, but millions of Mexicans and other Hispanics do.

Satan is alive and well and is enshrined at Tepeyec.

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