I was newly ordained as an Episcopalian minister, and I had been assigned to All Saints Episcopal church as their youth director. (among other jobs). A summer mission trip had already been planned by the rector (pastor) of the church, so of course he was all too happy to let me take the lead on the trip, though he would also go. (Just as an aside for my SJV readers, this is where I would meet Fr Stephen Jones, as he was just entering the process for discernment to ministry, and he had volunteered to go on the trip as one of the chaperones.). The trip was to Cuernavaca Mexico, flying into Mexico City and taking a bus to Cuernavaca.
My youth group was huge to my experience, as my previous group in Wisconsin was around 20 strong, this trip alone would have over 50 teens. I had never had to use the “number system”, but this group required it. Every so often I would yell “count”, and they would all count in order from one to fifty-each had their own number. This made certain that all were present even when I could not see them all, like when in crowds. We boarded the plane and headed to Mexico.
When we landed, we boarded another bus and headed for Cuernavaca, but with one stop, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As I mentioned in the last article, I had no problems with Mary, and to be honest I knew very little Mariology. But I was excited as a former architect to see the churches associated with the shrine. As we unloaded and counted at the shrine, I could see this was a youth ministers nightmare. People everywhere! My first thought was to tie them all in a line like kinder-gardeners do, but for many reasons, including lack of a rope, I decided against it. So off we went, I told everyone to meet at the bus at a set time; it was going to be impossible to keep track of them through the shrine.
The first thing that hit me about the shrine were those people crawling on their knees across the plaza to the shrine. Episcopalians were known, for right or wrong, as the “frozen chosen”. We were formal in liturgy, music, and life. We might believe strongly, but to give an outward display like crawling across a public plaza was out of the question. There were many, many people selling rosaries, and their business was quite brisk. I had never bought a rosary, I had no idea how to pray one.
To my disappointment, the oldest of the shrine churches was under construction and closed. Disappointed as I was, I then bolstered my spirit with the knowledge that at least I would have nothing keeping me from shepherding my young flock. (like studying an older church that not many would be interested in) So I turned to the main, modern church and decided to wander in.
I should take a moment here to say, at this moment in time, summer 1999, I had heard of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but I had no idea of the story, or even that this “lady” was the Blessed Virgin; I was what most would call completely ignorant.
I walked in, and wandered, and to be honest I could not tell you where I went first. Eventually though, I found myself on the escalator that moves everyone beneath the Tilma. Many of my group were going up, so why not, follow as many as I could! As I ascended, I saw the Tilma, and I was absolutely entranced. I stumbled off the escalator and found a place to stand and look from a distance, and time stopped for me.
God gives us signs in many ways, it is up to us to stop and listen. To say I was busy at the moment was an understatement, I had 50 teens wondering around a busy shrine in the middle of Mexico City! I had no reason to stop. I had no knowledge of what I was looking at.
I have no idea how long I stayed there, but it was until I was bumped by a chaperone. The chaperone was weary of the crowds and wanted to start collecting the kids. I came back to reality and agreed. I knew two new things though. I needed a rosary, and I needed to learn about this Tilma. So on the way out I bought a rosary, and if it were the modern age, I would have gotten on the web and found out what this Our Lady of Guadalupe was about…but it was the dark ages, that would have to wait till I was back in the states.
What then did this have to do with my conversion to the Catholic Church 18 years later? The rosary. I have no idea where that rosary I bought in Mexico ended up, but my knowledge of the peace it brought never left me after that day. That encounter with our Blessed Mother would cause me to not only begin devotion to her, but started my learning of Mary. Questions like “why ever blessed?” “Why ever virgin”? “Why the rosary”? “Why the devotion”? Over the years, as I learned the answers to those questions, I became more and more Catholic. But what is more, I became closer with Christ. Mary brought me to her Son, and this might raise a question, I was already a pastor, was I not already close to Christ? All through life we come closer and move further in proximity to Christ. At times we can be right at His feet and not be listening to what He is trying to tell us. We can and should from time to time concentrate on coming close to Jesus, times such as retreats or times rich in prayer for us can help us in this. The interesting thing about Mary is that in devotion to her, she takes us by the hand and takes us close to her son, and this almost always brings us to the Catholic Church.
Regardless of your background or knowledge base, if you open your heart and allow the answers to your questions you might have about Mary enter in; she will bring you to her Son, and to His Church. How amazed I was when I heard other converts say that Mary brought them to Catholicism; I was far from the only one she lead home.