Mexico City, Mexico
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most important and popular Marian Shrines in the Americas, second only to the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparaceda in Brazil. But it does not stand in the shadow of its rival, and is probably the most visited church in Spanish speaking countries. It is claimed that in December of 2009, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe witnessed the largest number of pilgrims ever to gather at a Catholic shrine in a single two-day period ever, with crowd estimates well into the millions. This church is so popular that a second basilica was constructed next door to the first to accommodate devotees. Together the old and new basilicas are the pride of the Catholic Church in Mexico.
Half a century after Columbus discovered the New World, Catholicism was still taking root in the Americas. Throughout the Spanish domains, from Peru to Cuba, there were as yet no great home-grown miracles. That changed in 1531, when a peasant named Juan Diego experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary in the desert outside of Mexico City. It is possible that this was the first known, or at least the earliest popularly acclaimed, such vision in the Americas.
As often happened in such visions, the appartion of Mary instructed Diego to construct a church on the spot. After the miraculous experience, the peasent rushed off to the local bishop, who inquired for proof of the event. Thankfully Mary made a second appearance, and she instructed Diego to return to the bishop with roses from a nearby rose bush. By the time he found the bishop again, the roses had transformed into a picture of the Virgin as Diego had seen her in his vision.
The picture, which was likely beyond a peasant’s ability to produce, was accepted as miraculous proof of Juan Diego’s claim. Almost immediately, pilgrims began arriving to visit the newly sanctified place. Construction of a church began shortly thereafter. This is sometimes counted as the first true Catholic basilica to be founded in the Americas. It has been the most popular Catholic pilgrimage destination, if not the most popular religious pilgrimage destination of any religion, in North America ever since.
On an interesting side note, Juan Diego has become a figure of some controversy, with considerable doubt as to whether or not he ever existed. No reliable, contemporary records of his life exist. Nevertheless he was designated as a saint in 1990. The church that he founded has since grown into an immense, two basilica complex which dominates the eastern suburbs of Mexico City. As for the icon of Mary, which is the central object of veneration, all scientific investigations to date have failed to rule out its authenticity.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe consists of two sizeable churches dominating an immense plaza in neighborhood known as Villa de Guadalupe. The original basilica was founded in 1531, and was rebuilt and expanded several times. The current structure largely dates from the early 18th century. In the 1970s, due to the ever-increasing numbers of visitors as well as concerns about the Old Basilica’s foundations, it was decided a new basilica would be constructed. However, the old building was not demolished, and after years of repairs is now once again open to the public.
The New Basilica, while lacking the architectural appeal or historical important of its predecessor, is now the religious center of the shrine. A strictly modern affair, the circular building looks like a cross between a soccer stadium and a circus tent. The interior is similarly modern, and more functional than inspirational. Nevertheless its design allows for large crowds to come and worship and venerate the 16th century icon, which is prominently displayed in the new Basilica.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is located in the Villa de Guadalupe on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City, approximately seven miles from the city center. There is excellent access to the site, largely to accommodate the millions of local residents who make their way to the shrine every year. It is open daily except Mondays from 10:00am-7:00pm. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.virgendeguadalupe.org.mx (official website)
In addition to the old and new basilicas, the shrine of Guadalupe is also home to a number of smaller churches and chapels. Most notable of these is the 16th century Indians’ Chapel which was the first church built to accommodate pilgrims. Also in Mexico City is the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest colonial-era cathedral constructed in the New World.