Sunday, May 29, 2011
My trip to San Juan (Mi viaje a San Juan)
Visiting the church, now Basilica, of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle is somewhat of a tradition for many South Texas catholic families. My families are no exception to the draw this once simple church has to many faithful. San Juan, Texas, is the destination of many pilgrims from South Texas.
According to church literature, the legend of the virgin dates back to colonial Spain. In 1623, an acrobat travelling with his wife and children stopped in San Juan de los Lagos, a town near Guadalajara. While practicing for their act, the youngest daughter lost her balance and was killed. An Indian woman begged the parents to place the image of the Immaculate Conception in the church at San Juan de los Lagos over the young girl's body. Miraculously, she came back to life. Since then, the devotion to the Virgen de San Juan has grown throughout Mexico and the United States.
But, that devotion has not been part of the Texas catholic tradition for long. San Juan, Texas, was but a small community in the rural Rio Grande Valley when the Rev. José María Azpiazu became pastor of St. John the Baptist chapel in 1949. He was convinced that fostering a devotion to the Virgen de San Juan would benefit the people and draw the community together. A reproduction of the statue of our Lady of San Juan was brought to the chapel and, after receiving permission from Bishop Manuel Garriaga from Corpus Christi, a church was completed in 1954 to permanently house the small statue of what was now to be called Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, La Virgen de San Juan del Valle.
Almost immediately, pilgrimages to the church started. From all over South Texas and points north to San Antonio, Del Rio, Eagle Pass Uvalde, Houston, Austin and beyond, the people started to visit the shrine to venerate and worship the little statue of the miraculous virgen.
I remember first visiting the shrine with my family sometime in the mid-1950s. We had just purchased a house, and that was a big accomplishment for a Mexican American family. We were going to give thanks and leave an offering at the church so that the Virgen de San Juan del Valle would take care of us and make our house a happy one. My father and mother had brought with them a jar of the dirt the house was built on. My dad made the sign-of-the cross, said some prayer in Spanish and held my mom's hand as he placed the bottle of dirt on the floor of the chapel next to the Virgen's statute. There were other objects - crutches, photos of young graduates, flowers (mainly roses), and letters in English and Spanish. There were alter servers (helpers) keeping things orderly.
I was very young - 7 or 8 years old. I was immediately impressed by the devotion of the pilgrims. They were humble, proud and came from all walks of life. They were mainly Tejanos or Mexicanos. Some were crying. Others were in deep prayer. Some were smiling and actually in a celebratory mood. It was strange. This was the usual scene every time we visited. The people were beautiful. The faces seemed blessed, even when they were in tears. There was an aura of mutual respect and understanding that can only be achieved at a shrine such as this. It was much more than a Catholic church, and I guess that's why the National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated Our Lady of San Juan del Valle a national shrine on March 14, 1998, and the following year on June 12, 1999, Pope John Paul II designated it as a minor basilica. Now, it is truly a sacred temple and thousands of people from Texas, Mexico, the nation and the world visit it daily. And, I can honestly say that during my lifetime, I have visited the shrine more than 100 times. It's always a special occasion and very solemn and moving experience.
A usual occurrence at the church was for pilgrims to light holy candles or candles of adoration in the Virgen's honor. Today, thousands are lit daily. They are allowed to burn out in a special ventilation room that makes one wonder how many miracles happen every day.
During one visit we made to the old church, I noticed some of my townsfolk were also visiting. We said "hello" and continued along our way. We all had private reasons for being there and no one dared asked, "How are you?" or "What are you doing here?" Mrs. Morante was in deep thought. One of her sons was talking to her very insistingly. She had made a "promesa (promise)" and I heard her tell Alejandro that she was going to keep it no matter what he thought. Shortly after, I saw her on her knees at the start of the church. Others joined her. Slowly, with her son behind her, she started to move toward the altar where the Virgen de San Juan was stationed. Her hands were spread wide open in prayer. She wore a beautiful Spanish mantilla veil over her head, her face now filled with tears, as she prayed the Hail Mary in Spanish. I thought, that's a real sacrifice. She "walked" or "crawled" on her knees for nearly 50 yards. She was old, for me. She was surely 60 or older. That was hard. Every now and then her son would touch her shoulders, but never stopped her progress. He, too, was praying. By the time she got to the altar, she was dead tired and she fell forward, bowing in front of the statue. A priest came to help her, but Alejandro stopped him. It was his mother. He would help her if she needed help. Besides, she had a "promesa" to fulfill and her quest could not be interrupted. There had been some kind of miracle in her life and she came to give thanks to God and Virgen de San Juan. Walking on knees is no longer allowed in the basilica, but every now and then, an older pilgrim will attempt the sacrifice. I never have.
On another visit, I saw a young Mexican family walk in hurriedly to the Hall of Miracles where families and individuals are allowed to pray, make offerings, leave messages or just meditate as long as they want. The couple was in their 30s. Their children all teen-agers. The eldest was being dragged by the hand by the mother. She spoke to her in Spanish and all I understood was "Tienes que pedir perdón(you must ask for forgiveness). In the Hall of Miracles there are several saints and statues the devoted can implore and pray for help to as they meditate. By now the young girl was sobbing slightly. She was deep in prayer next to us. She had beautiful jet black her that went down to her waist. She had a strand of her hair over her mouth and eyes. Her mom was standing next to her with her hand over her right shoulder. The father stood proudly behind them, as if protecting from eavesdroppers or something unexpected. He held his "petate (palm)" hat in his hands, in front of him. He had his head down. Again, it seemed as if he was anticipating something. Just then, a gust of wind made its way through the Hall of Miracles. Everyone noticed and got a cold chill. The wind blasted by us, interrupting our meditation and made its way toward the young family. The gust blew the hat out of the father's hands and lifted the girls jet black hair straight into an adoration candle. It caught fire and quickly made its way toward the teen-agers face. The mother, who had her hand on the girl's right shoulder, immediately took her mantilla and doused out the flames. By now, the young woman was in tears and all the family was crying. People started to leave as the young family gathered round their daughter. A young boy asked, "¿Que paso? (What happened)." The mother answered tenderly, "No te mortifiques. La virgen nos esta hablando. Todo esta bien. (Don't worry. The Virgin is talking to us. All is fine). Everything may have been fine, but we left them to their prayers. I think all of us got a message that day.
I believe the shrine is truly miraculous. Why would people keep coming if it were not a holy and marvelous place? After all, in 1970 the entire original shrine was destroyed when a small plane crashed into the roof, causing the church to explode in flames. No one was killed, although there were more than 150 people there in mid-morning. The altar was engulfed in flames, but two courageous priests rescued the statue of our Lady of San Juan del Valle that now rests in the basilica and which is adored daily. Miracle? Perhaps, but I'm sure there is a message there, too. The message, I'm sure, was the virgin telling her faithful to build her a bigger, better shrine to accomodate the thousands of pilgrims who wanted to come and implore her help. Now it is done. Now they come, and so do I.
Every day they come, the lost and hopeless, those in need of prayer and miracles, the sick, the lonely, the happy and the blessed. They come from near, and they come from far; many having traveled hundreds of miles to feast their eyes, and their souls, at the famous Shrine that stands near the community of San Juan, in the Rio Grande Valley. Today, the Shrine features full-scale outdoor Stations of the Cross and one of the world's largest mosaics. It's truly a holy experience to see them. Sometimes one just has to see them. You don't have to pray, just watch and listen. Your mind will do the rest.
My last visit to San Juan was this past Saturday, May 28. Again, the faces of the faithful touched me. They were humble, proud and came from all walks of life. They were mainly Tejanos or Mexicanos. Some were crying. Others were in deep prayer. Some were smiling and actually in a celebratory mood. The people were beautiful. The faces seemed blessed, even when they were in tears. There was an aura of mutual respect and understanding that can only be achieved at a shrine such as this. This is truly a sacred place and, as I said earlier, much more than a church.
On this day, I had personal issues that made me want to ask for help for me and those whom I love. In the past,the Virgen has always been kind. I have survived many ordeals in my life, thanks, I feel,through her intercession. In spite of many "bad" things happening to me, I have been blessed. Now, as I reflect on my prayers at the Hall of Miracles and ponder my reverence as I lit the holy adoration candles in front of the giant mosaic where her small statue is stored, I wonder if I can be helped yet again. Perhaps this request is not to the Virgen's liking? Perhaps I'm out of miracles? Perhaps I have already been blessed in abundance and it's my turn to suffer? I still believe in her intersession, and so I ask for help and forgiveness. That's what I believe in and I remain faithful.
On that Saturday, I attended mass and was pleasantly surprised. I heard a Mariachi Mass in English. For a man used to hearing Mariachi sing in Spanish, it was "interesting." It particularly resonated with the younger Mexican Americans in the church who are now starting to speak more English than Spanish at home. Is that a miracle or just evolution? The priest officiating the mass was black. He implored us to pray and read the bible. He asked to pray so that drugs and violence would disappear from the lives of the people in the Valley.
He implored us to follow the words of the gospel that day and to go home and read John Chapter 14. I did. It reads, in part:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. If you love Me, you will keep My commandments."
And, so, I pray and ask forgiveness and ask for hope and understanding. While I feel I have let my religious standards down, I ask the Virgen de San Juan del Valle to help me find the strength to survive, to love again, to be forgiven and to again be close to my family, culture and values. I know I will get help. I await the miracle.