Top Mexican Catholic cleric chooses science, suspends centuries-old pilgrimage

A general view of the Basilica of Guadalupe entrance that is temporarily closed to avoid crowds on the traditional day of celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Mexico City, Mexico

The overflowing crowds and lavish pageantry surrounding a centuries-old annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe, among the world’s biggest religious gatherings, will be another pandemic casualty this year.

The country’s top Roman Catholic leader said closing the shrine for the first time was a painful but unavoidable decision as coronavirus infections intensified in Mexico City.

Nearly 11 million devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe streamed into the Mexican capital’s basilica and its adjacent plaza last year in the days leading up to her Dec. 12 feast day, according to the city government’s count, dwarfing the annual Muslim hajj to Mecca.

Cardinal Carlos Aguiar, head of Mexico City’s Catholic faithful, told Reuters that months of health data showed the pandemic intensifying, leading to consensus between civic and church leaders.

“We all shared the same worry and agreed,” said Aguiar, who was picked to be archbishop of Mexico City by Pope Francis three years ago.

Still, groups carrying images of the Virgin of Guadalupe are regardless trekking on foot to the basilica from far corners of Mexico, either unaware of the announcement last month or making good on pre-pandemic promises to pay homage to one of the most revered feminine symbols of devotion in the Christian world.

Legend holds that the devotion began a decade after the 1521 Spanish conquest of Mexico, when Jesus’ mother Mary appeared to an Aztec man. Days later, when a disbelieving bishop asked for proof, an image of the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe appeared emblazoned in shimmering gold and blue on the man’s cloak, which currently hangs above the basilica’s altar.

“We’ve never closed the church,” said Aguiar. “It’s the first time in five centuries.”

The closure will be enforced by 1,200 police and soldiers along with a recently installed perimeter fence, and the festivities, including a highly-produced concert, will move online, along with the usual dash of glitz courtesy of Mexican broadcast partner Televisa.

Aguiar notes that pandemic restrictions dating back to March have forced the church, like many institutions, to creatively apply online tools like never before.

Asked if Mexico’s status as a developing country has presented a special challenge due to uneven internet access, the 70-year-old prelate had a ready answer.

Citing Google data from memory, he said eight of 10 Mexicans have internet access through their phones in the world’s second-biggest Catholic country after Brazil.

“What’s most surprising is that more than 70% of them have a smart phone,” he said with a laugh.

Looking ahead to the Christmas holiday, he said the pandemic should encourage a renewed focus on immediate family to avoid further spread of the coronavirus and unnecessary loss of life.

Mexico currently has the fourth-highest death toll globally at more than 110,000 fatalities, according to the government’s official tally.

“Let’s take care of each other,” he said, “so that Christmas arrives with good news.”

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