CONWAY — Celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a festival indeed!
The church calendar designates Dec. 12 as the official feast day, but parishioners at St. James in Conway and Church of the Resurrection Mission in Loris began celebrating in earnest the day before.
Father Rick LaBrecque, pastor at both congregations, blessed a fire that was used to light a torch in Loris. Runners carried the torch in relays some 30 miles to Conway.
A holy hour and confessions awaited the runners that evening at St. James. Next came a joyous procession at 10 p.m. through the parish’s rural neighborhood. Mass was said at midnight, followed by refreshments, music, and dancing. The parish gymnasium was said to be packed to the rafters, and festivities continued until 4 a.m.
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is very important to Hispanic Catholics because it celebrates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego, a humble Aztec Indian recently canonized by Pope John Paul II, on a cold, barren mountain outside Mexico City in December of 1531. The Mary he encountered was pregnant, had dark skin, and spoke to him in his own language. Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored as the Patroness of the Americas and protector of the unborn.
Many Hispanic families begin preparing for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe by saying the rosary in their homes every day for 45 days before Dec. 12.
The gymnasium at St. James was set up specially for the joyous occasion. The altar was surrounded by hundreds of roses, because Mary directed Juan Diego to gather roses in his cloak as proof to his bishop that he had truly seen her. When Juan Diego opened his cloak full of roses for the skeptical bishop, Mary’s image was on the inside. This cactus-fiber cloak now hangs in the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Guada-lupe in Mexico City.
A bilingual Mass was said the evening of Dec. 12 by Paulist Father Bruce Niele. Father Niele, who describes himself as a missionary and evangelist, was on his third visit to St. James to celebrate the feast day and present workshops on evangelism and culture in English and Spanish.
Father Niele spoke of Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Mother of America. Father Niele said, “One of the reasons I love being Catholic and American is that we’re all different, but we’re all one. We have one Father in heaven, an older brother, Jesus Christ, and one mother, Mary.”
Many other Christians do not understand why Catholics are devoted to Mary. Father Niele explained our devotion by saying, “I’m a Catholic born-again Christian …. I believe you can’t get by without a relationship to Jesus Christ …. Devotion to Mary doesn’t take away from that; devotion to Mary increases it .…”
He said her pregnancy shows us that “we can be pregnant with Jesus in the Holy Spirit.”
Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, besides increasing our devotion to Jesus, increases our devotion to our faith.
He said, “Mary shows us Jesus isn’t just in heaven; He has a body. We have bodies, and so does God — it’s called the church.”
Three major world religions —Catholic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam — all show devotion to Mary. She is the only woman mentioned in the Koran, and there are more than 30 direct and indirect references to her. Father Niele stressed that no politician will ever bring peace to the Middle East — but Mary can. “Never has anyone who fled to her protection been unaided. May she bring about world peace and solidarity.”
After Mass concluded, altar servers distributed roses, and the parish’s ballet folklorico, “Son la Playa,” performed. The dance troop is under the direction of Karina C. Rivera, who taught dance in her native Mexico before coming to this country four years ago.
Barbara Rivera, director of religious education at St. James, said of the festivities for Our Lady of Guadalupe, “I think this is the most beautiful bicultural festival … it puts us closer together.”