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Winter Books

The powerful influence of ‘the Guadalupe event’ endures

By D.A. Brading
Cambridge University Press, 368 pages, $35


British historian David Brading offers an exquisite new approach to the tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a masterpiece resembling Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries. While controversy has surrounded the historicity of Juan Diego and Guadalupe in the past decade, Brading offers a thesis that invites us to move beyond “probable fact” to the meaning of the Guadalupe event in the course of Mexican history.

Guadalupe represents more than a historical episode, and the expression of Mexican identity she embodies requires a study that furthers the reflection on the meaning she has represented to the Mexican people throughout the centuries. The scandal surrounding the former abbot of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which contributed poorly to the understanding of what Guadalupe means to her people, reduced faith and identity to mere scientific fact. Science ought to be but a single angle of interpretation to the cult that has always meant much more than “corroborated evidence for the supernatural.” Brading offers a way to move beyond the debate centered on declarations and counter declarations of the veracity of scientific fact, by contemplating the significance of Guadalupe from the heart of Mexican faith and history.

This book is not an easy read, not exactly the pastoral manual on all things related to Guadalupe either. The uninitiated reader will not find the answers to all his or her Guadalupe questions easily. Both the theological and historical language used is largely for experts; nevertheless, if one manages to plow through the hermeneutics and the references to Byzantine iconography of the initial chapters, one will find the second half of the book most illuminating, particularly the post independence treatment of Guadalupe, which has not been as thoroughly studied as the colonial period.

Mexican Phoenix is an exploration of the evolution of the Mexican psyche -- its need to affirm its identity and uniqueness, its search for symbols and authenticity. The key is found in the collection of works that Brading has used to support his claims, panegyric sermons and other treatises used in different periods of Mexican history to “exalt the singular Providence which distinguished their country,” especially those published in the 18th century at the height of Mexican patriotism on the threshold of independence.

Despite the numerous books and theories on the Guadalupe apparitions and all the arguments that have fueled the debate over this event for centuries, Brading’s new opus offers an elegant and comprehensive integration of the elements that have comprised this debate, both because of its historical thoroughness and its theological insight. Few historians have succeeded in unraveling the theological implications of the Guadalupe event with such skill. The transformation and process of the cult speak not only of the course of Mexican history but also of the evolution of its religiosity, in a way few other symbols can.

Perhaps Brading’s most important contribution to contemporary Guadalupe scholarship is the historical and theological contextualization of the event. Myth, iconography and Catholic theology and history are all interwoven into an expert interpretation of the cultural convergence that took place in Guadalupe. Only a historian with his encyclopedic knowledge of the theological and historical context of the tradition could have ventured such an ambitious integration. Few scholars have been able to place the Guadalupe cult in the perspective of the religious turmoil of the Counter-Reformation Catholic church. Moreover, he places texts in time and place referring to their use and acceptance, more than to the mere fact of their date of publication. Brading’s hermeneutics of both the theological and historical texts (including images) lays the new rules for future study of Guadalupe. Henceforward any serious debate, either historical or theological, will have to refer to the context Brading lays out in his book.

After addressing the enigmatic silence of 16th-century sources for the Guadalupe event, Brading invites his readers to consider instead its theological dimensions. He recognizes that despite historicity, the image “possesses a charm and presence that exerts a power over the faithful” difficult to ignore. Any visit to the Basilica or any church consecrated in her name, or even the image in many a Catholic parish throughout the Hispanic world, will testify to that fact. The final chapters then, ask the more important questions, pertaining to the theology and spirituality of Guadalupe, which in a final analysis are the only explanation to the cultural resilience of the tradition.

Brading has turned theologian and surprises his readers with a concluding interpretation that moves the debate definitely beyond history: “It is surely more theologically appropriate to presume that the Holy Spirit worked through a human agent, which is to say, through an Indian artist, possibly the painter.” Drawing on contemporary theology, particularly Vatican II documents such as the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” he draws the argument over Guadalupe full circle. Like most religious events, there is more than just fact involved and a fuller understanding requires the tools of interpretation offered only in scholarship outside history.

The author brings us to the present. Guadalupe continues to exert a powerful influence on Mexican identity both within and outside Mexico, but is it possible that even as we debate the evolution of the tradition new dimensions are being added to it? New questions need to be raised in the face of globalization. The displacement of Mexican or even Hispanic identity from a religious axis to a more secular one needs to be addressed.

What does it mean that national soccer games attract as many, and perhaps more fans, than Dec. 12th celebrations? Have we found a modern replacement for the exaltation of national pride? Is it time for our faith to translate itself yet another time, redefining the Guadalupe tradition for today’s world? How is Guadalupe being brought into the life of new generations of Mexicans and Hispanics?

The tradition was certainly built on theological interpretation. Now it must look to present-day theologians to offer the interpretation that recharges Guadalupe with the meaning today’s global reality demands.

Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word Teresa Maya, a specialist in Mexican colonial church history, is principal of a congregation school in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, and a professor at the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001