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MEXICO CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Catholic bishops throughout Latin America are adjusting expressions of popular fidelity according to demands by national governments to adhere to coronavirus sanitary measures.
For the first time in history, for example, Mexico's bishops are calling on the faithful to conduct a virtual pilgrimage on Dec. 12 rather than participating in the traditional celebration in which hundreds of thousands of people walk to the church in Mexico City in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In a statement, the archdiocese of Mexico City announced that "it will transmit on its social networks a unique and unprecedented pilgrimage to which all devout Guadalupe pilgrims are invited to participate from their homes."
Many Mexicans go to the shrine to comply with promises from this Catholic-approved apparition or in gratitude for celestial graces received through it. According to a centuries-old tradition, in 1531 the Mother of God appeared to Juan Diego, a humble Aztec peasant for whom she miraculously imprinted her image on his cloak. Just 10 years afterward, Spanish conquistadores overthrew the Aztec empire and its human sacrifices.
In December 2019, more than 9.8 million pilgrims went to pay homage at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine in Mexico City, making it the second-most visited religious site in the world after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This topped a record of 7.28 million set in 2017. A succession of churches since the 16th century have enshrined the simple cloak worn by Juan Diego that miraculously bears the image of the Virgin.
In years past, pilgrims from all over Mexico and Latin America and from other parts of the world have paid their respects to "La Morenita" — the nickname given to the Virgin who appeared to the visionary Juan Diego as a typical young Aztec woman. The image of the Virgin is repeated in homes, T-shirts, keychains, churches and even tattoos with a fervor and devotion seldom found elsewhere. While the Virgin is the patroness of Mexico and the rest of the Americas, the pro-life movement in Latin America has adopted her as its symbol because in the famous image of her that is revered in Mexico City, she appears as a young pregnant woman.
"On this virtual pilgrimage," stated archdiocesan authorities, "the bishops will be the bearers of the longings and hopes, the prayers and the cries of a people stalked by uncertainty. They will be pilgrims of faith who will also walk as pastors representing the people of God."
This year, the basilica will be closed Dec. 10–13 to avoid the gathering of crowds both inside and outside.
Mexico has seen 105,000 and 1.1 million cases attributed to COVID-19.
Basilica rector Fr. Salvador Martínez called on the faithful to mark the feast "at the parish level, in the neighborhood, the family, while observing what local and health authorities in each region have determined to prevent contagion." Martinez suggested in October that pilgrims should arrive in November or January "to avoid the danger of contagion or being barred from the church because of the authorities."
The archdiocese published a YouTube video in which the assembled bishops of Mexico City — including its archbishop, Cdl. Norberto Rivera Carrera — appeared wearing masks and invited Christians to participate in the virtual pilgrimage.
At first, the archdiocese had rejected calls to close the basilica owing to concerns over COVID-19 contagion. It then switched course, however, after facing criticism in the wake of a spike in COVID-19 cases in Mexico City, where hospitals are trying to cope with a rising influx of patients.
This year, after changing their minds, the Mexican prelates will walk alone and celebrate on Dec. 12 a traditional Mass in a closed space.
"We know that for this year's festivities the passage of pilgrims will not be possible," they said, "because in a gesture of love, solidarity and responsibility, in the face of an accelerated growth of infections and deaths from COVID-19, the basilica will close its doors."
Much farther south in Paraguay, the landlocked South American republic of 7.2 million bounded by Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, pilgrims are likewise facing restrictions imposed by Church hierarchs and government health authorities. Every year, as many as 3 million Paraguayans visit the Basilica of Caacupé, often on foot or oxcart, in the town of the same name on the outskirts of capital city Asunción. The church houses an image of Our Lady of Miracles and is considered the spiritual capital of the Catholic country.
Paraguayan health official Dr. Eduardo Jara confirmed last week that the annual pilgrimage will be curtailed, saying that only 1,000 persons during each of three stages per day will be allowed to visit the esplanade in front of the basilica. Pilgrims must stand six feet away from each other as they reverence the Virgin. The esplanade will be divided into quadrants by health authorities into which no more than 50 people will be allowed to be present during the Mass Dec. 8 — the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Doctor Jara said police and health authorities will be in control of the pilgrimage:
We understand that this is the country's principal Marian activity that normally attracts 2–3 million people. We want to have the tools to restrict the gathering of people that usually happens. Persons under the age of 12 or over 60 are not allowed on the pilgrimage. Vulnerable persons, such as pregnant women and those presenting with cancer or morbid obesity and others, will also be prohibited.
Bishop Ricardo Valenzuela of Caacupé asked his flock to avoid the shrine.
"We ask the faithful to stay home ... that in their homes, each should become a Caacupé, not merely in the parish or a church but in their homes to celebrate it there," directed the bishop.
Bishop Valenzuela met in November with Paraguay's Minister of Interior Euclides Acevedo to coordinate security and show support for the city mayor, according to newspaper La Nacion. Recognizing that on Dec. 7–8 the city would normally receive more than 1.5 million pilgrims, Valenzuela said, "to tell these people, well 'Please don't come,' is very difficult."
Valenzuela is broadcasting the slogan "All of Paraguay is Caacupé," in which he called on Catholics to have a special place in their homes for an image of the Virgin where they should light a candle and place a photograph of someone they are praying for while they go on a pilgrimage of the heart and mind. Warning that health authorities could impose stricter sanctions, the bishop called on the faithful to obey. According to presidential decree 4330, health restrictions were imposed on Caacupé Nov. 14 and will continue until Dec. 16.
Police will be watching for children and the elderly who are barred from the celebration. The bishop said that while the police will at first "gently suggest" that they go home, stronger measures may apply.
Valenzuela related, "The Virgin of Caacupé is much more tolerant and understanding than we are, and she will understand that no sacrifice is necessary. The best offering to the Virgin now is to respect the decree and people's health. It is not necessary to go if we don't need to; in the end, God is everywhere."
After being kept in quarantine himself for several weeks earlier this year, Valenzuela released a Nov. 8 statement saying that the doors of the Caacupé basilica will be closed this year.
"I am asking everyone to understand that due to the pandemic and the need to prevent the spread of the disease, this is the best decision," he added. "We cannot allow our shrine to become a focus for contagion for the whole country. This decision is for the common good of public health."