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What I Learned About the Blessed Mother—”La Morenita”—When I Made a Pilgrimage to Mexico City

Our Lady of Guadalupe bottle top necklace

Marisol Apostol / WinkArtisans

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 12/15/14

Is trust and dependency on Our Lady missing from your life?

In March of this year, a dear friend I hadn’t seen in many years invited me to Mexico City to speak at a small conference on Evangelii Gaudium. Now initially I was not eager to go. It meant a three-day trip during one of my busiest academic terms. In fact March was the only month in all of the year when I didn’t have to travel. Add to this the fact that I was recovering from a miscarriage and physically exhausted.

But—I asked my friend if there would be any chance to visit the Virgin of Guadalupe during the trip. Not only did he say yes, he offered to bring me to her personally—an offer I could hardly turn down (especially in light of my very rusty Spanish). So I agreed—telling myself it was to be a pilgrimage. All the annoyances and discomforts would not seem a burden—they would be welcome difficulties since a pilgrimage should be hard. And this is how it came to be that when we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe last week, it was the first time I felt that I knew her.

Now, the occasion of this Feast seems a good time to relate some things I learned on pilgrimage. Such as, the notion that it is a very good thing to make a pilgrimage, especially on Ash Wednesday when one wants a reminder that the comforts (and discomforts) of this life are not the point of it after all. Walking for miles that day through downtown Mexico City, visiting glorious Franciscan and Dominican churches of the colonial era, I also learned that it is remarkably easy to get ashes there on Ash Wednesday—much easier, in fact, than ordering from menus with rusty Spanish.

Another thing I discovered is that most Mexicans don’t speak of Our Lady of Guadalupe by some formal name. Instead they have sweet nicknames for her, such as “La Morenita” (literally “the little brown lady”), and “La Guadalupana.” This single fact alone caused me to reflect a great deal on the seeming coldness of our North American Catholicism. If we have not one common term of endearment for the Blessed Mother, do we love her very much? I suppose it is possible to argue that “Our Lady” is one we have used—or Notre Dame—but really, if you tapped an average U.S. Catholic, would you find “Our Lady” rolling off the tongue?

And this brings me to the last point: spending just a little time in Mexico taught me just how much the faith is not instinctive for us in the U.S. Compared with the Mexican people who love our Lady, our faith is more "rational," more intellectual—less childlike. Certainly this “adult” love, if you will, has its merits when cultivated. But it also has its complexities; the aim of the spiritual life is to love simply, like a child.

So here is what I really learned: with respect to Our Lady, Catholics in the United States—and I include myself in this observation—are like children with an attachment disorder: insecurely attached to our mother. But this is not surprising. We are predominantly Protestant here in our culture and faith traditions, even as Catholics. Why should we not behave as if we were motherless? At the very core of Protestant Christianity is the rejection of a single, visible Mother: Holy Mother Church. The Reformers, unwittingly or not, spawned motherless children—children conceived outside the womb of the Church.

This is why Protestant Christians have a difficulty with Mary. It is not, really, that the doctrines surrounding Mary are so hard to swallow. They are not. If we believe that God is the Sovereign King of the Universe, there is absolutely no theological reason why this Sovereign King cannot bestow whatever honors He chooses on the excellent Lady who bore His Son—even raising her to the dignity of the Mother of God. No, the reason why our separated brethren have a problem with Mary is that they have a problem with the Church. Since Mary is the model of the Church
par excellence, there is no rejecting the Church without rejecting her.

Thinking back to our Protestant culture, what would we expect to see in people without a mother? Perhaps, I should think, we would see anxiety, depression, poor health, and lack of energy. Failure to thrive. Now this is true of us as human beings—but I also mean it in reference to the spiritual life of the Church. When we look around our parishes and communities and see spiritual fatigue and impoverishment in the presence of so many blessings—the culprit is surely a disordered attachment to our Mother. Not too much, but too little attachment.

It is an interesting thought about mothers that we do not get to choose them. In a sense, they choose us. And in the frailty of human nature, some of us have great mothers, and others of us spend a lifetime attempting to reconcile what our mothers could not be for us. But this lottery of our birth has been righted already—the most excellent Mother of all has chosen us. And how much more will she tenderly pour out her affections upon those of her children who lacked for even the smallest sweetnesses of a mother’s love?

How can I be so sure she has chosen us? Consider what she said to Juan Diego:

Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest and dearest son, that the thing that disturbs you, the thing that afflicts you, is nothing. Do not let your countenance, your heart be disturbed. Do not fear this sickness of your uncle or any other sickness, nor anything that is sharp or hurtful. Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you. 

And if this is not enough for us, we have John Paul II’s solemn dedication of the Americas to the Virgin of Guadalupe on January 22, 1999:

America, which historically has been, and still is, a melting-pot of peoples, has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac, “in Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization.” Consequently, not only in Central and South America, but in North America as well, the Virgin of Guadalupe is venerated as Queen of all America. (
Ecclesia in America, No. 11)

Truly, for American Catholics, North and South, La Morenita is our mother. Why have we taken notice so late? Make this the year, then, if you have not, to make a pilgrimage to her, and learn as much as you can about her sweetness. Sit in her shrine. Weep in her arms. Ask her for all that you need and all that you want. See how her Mexican children crawl up to her on their knees sometimes, like little children. That’s what mammas are for. She will kiss what hurts and make you thrive.

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk
is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion. She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010).  She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.

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