Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Monterrey

Monterrey was the Pittsburg of Mexico, with its gigantic steel plant Fundidora, belching out so much smoke, that we could barely see the Cerro de La Silla, the emblematic mountain, that symbolizes the city.  That was how it was when I went there for the first time over 40 years ago.

The Cerro de la Silla, Monterrey
Then the news came: Fundidora was closing down operations! Many of us thought that would mean the agonizing beginning of the end of Mexico's foremost industrial city. .
The Futuristic Cross of the
New Basilica of Guadalupe
In Monterrey as Dawn
reaches over the Cerro
de la Silla
However, the people of Monterrey are a special breed: hard working, well disciplined, highly educated. Today steel is just a minor factor in a totally updated and clean industrial Monterrey, where the new focus is on the automotive parts industry. They even turned the dirty old steel mill into a pristine state-of-the-art amusement park for children, based on the Sesame Street characters.
The Cross of the Basilica with
the modern skyline of
Monterrey in the background

For many years, Monterrey had a beautiful, quaint, but quite small Basilica. But Monterrey's population grew geometrically of the past generations, as well as its devotion for its "morenita" as she is referred to here.

This modern sculpture of
the Virgin of Guadalupe
made out of iron and steel

The façade of the
Old Basilica
The main aisle of the
single-nave Old Basilica
Everyone loved the Old Basilica. It had the charm of a bygone age. It had style. But it didn't have space.
The Old Basilica with New Basilica in the foreground
Entrance of New Basilica de Guadalupe Monterrey
The altar of the New Basilica:
roomy, high ceilings, good
ventilation and lighting.
Pope John Paul II's sculpture
in the atrium of the Basilica
The Virgin of Guadalupe is not only the Virgin of Mexico, but of all of Mexico, including Monterrey, where the Blessed Virgin is deeply venerated.
The Virgin of Guadalupe
in Monterrey

Santa Catarina Martir, on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico

If you are ever in Monterrey, Mexico's third largest City, some 150 miles south of the Texas Border, you might notice that the last municipality on the road leading out of town, going west, towards Saltillo, is Santa Catarina.

A relatively new icon in the skyline of Monterrey
is its emblematic Bridge of Unity, A Cable-stayed
 bridge crossing the Santa Caterina River
connecting downtown Monterrey with nearby
San Pedro municipality
Santa Catarina de Alejandria (Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 290-310 AD, approximately) or Santa Catarina Martir (Saint Catherine Martyr) are two names by which we identify both this church as well as this saint, and distinguish her from Santa Catalina de Siena (Saint Catherine of Siena, 1347-1380 AD). Geography is not the only factor separating these two saints, but the time period in which each one of them lived: the difference is a millennium..

When you take the road out
of Monterrey, and drive west
towards Saltillo, you pass an
intersection with the statue
of Santa Catarina Martir
with her broken wheel.
As early as the 16th century, Alberto del Canto built a shelter (una estancia)  here, for travelers coming from Monterrey to Saltillo. The Church however was not built until 1810.
On the left, is the plaque which hangs on the outside of the church, where we can certify that Santa Catarina Church was built in 1810. On the right, we see a local girl, who told me that she has been going to this church, since the time her grandmother took her as a small girl here to Mass. She say her dearest memories were when Mass was over, her grandmother would take her across the street to the park (see below), and treat her to some sugar-covered deep-fried churros.

Peaceful park with its central kiosk sets
a change of pace in now-a-days bustling
Santa Catarina.
The first thing you might notice about this Santa Caterina Martir or Santa Caterina de Alejandria in the pictures I put here in this blog, is a strange looking broken spiked wheel on her side. When Saint Catherine, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, was being coerced by Emperor Massentius to adore pagan Gods, and therefore renounce her faith in Jesus Christ, she was sentenced to death: the torture was to be on a spinning wheel with spikes, aimed at tearing off her flesh from her alive. Miraculously, the wheel broke. Then her torturer was blinded. Finally, Catherine was beheaded.

The central aisle of
Santa Catarina is very
long and narrow.
Notice the beautiful
wooden-beamed ceiling.

When I asked people in the street, why Saint Catherine had the wheel by her side, no one could give me an answer. When I was younger, it was more common to find a book in Catholic homes or in Catholic Schools about the lives of the saints. The trend in the Catholic Church since the closing of the Second Vatican Council has been to clean up the altars, eliminating an seemingly excessive amount of saints on the altars and in churches, in a trend to center the attention more on Jesus Christ. Even certain orders or congregations of priests or sisters, have adopted a Christocentric mystic, which means that they try to imitate Christ in their daily lives, and not imitate a particular saint’s behavior or pattern.
At the end of the aisle,
on the left side of the
altar is the painting of
Santa Catarina Martir.

Protestants sometimes criticized Catholics for praying “to” the saints, for “adoring” saints, and they have a very legitimate gripe with Catholics in many instances on this issue. Catholics may pray, “venerating” a saint, and asking for his “intercession”. All good comes from God, and not from the saints, but as Catholics, we believe that, although God hears all our prayers, He also permits His Saints to intercede for us, and to ask Him for favors.

Stone-carved arched main
entrance to Santa Catarina

On the other hand, I believe that Catholics should venerate saints. My mother’s birthday was on November 1st, All Saints Day, the day of the year, we Catholic venerate all our Saints, canonized or not. My mother would say: “God permitted me to be born on All Saints Day, because, although I have a particular patron saint, Saint Catherine of Siena, I likewise am a friend of all the saints, and they all are my friends.” That was the ways my mother lived. Venerating them. Imitating them. Reading about their lives. Talking to me about them.

The houses that surround the park and the church
of Santa Catarina are typical of the period
previous to the 1910 Mexican Revolution

Catholics pray two different creeds: the Nicene Creed, and the Apostles Creed, depending on the time of year. In the Apostles Creed,  Catholics affirm: .
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints
The communion of Saints is a Catholic belief that has its genesis in Saint Paul's I Corinthians 12, where he compares Christians to a single body. It also is referred to the Apocalypses, 5,8, where the Saints in heaven have a relationship with their fellow Christians on Earth.  The Communio Sanctorum or Communion of Saints, include not only Christians already in Heaven, the Triumphant, but those struggling on earth, the Militant, and the soul in the process of purification in purgatory, the Suffering.
 West side entrance to
Santa Catarina Martir.

The west side of Santa Catarina with its
bell tower gleam in the late afternoon

Santa Catarina offers you a
splendid view as you enjoy the
respite of the nearby square

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Mexico celebrates today, December 12, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patroness of Mexico, and the feast we celebrate today, on December 12th, is the most important date all year for our Catholic religious calendar here in this country.
The "pilgrim mover" or passenger conveyor belt
takes the visitors behind the altar for a short
20 second glimpse at the Juan Diego's miraculous

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited shrine in the Catholic world, with an estimated 20 million pilgrims every year, even more than Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, with an estimated 18 million pilgrims yearly.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a national symbol in Mexico, giving a sense of identity, since her appearance to the native Mexican Juan Diego, in 1531.

The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is an impressive complex. However, what many of us who visit the Basilica find enchanting and unforgettable, is the faith the humble Mexican pilgrims display as they come visit the Tepeyac Church and grounds.

 View of the main altar of the Basilica during
the celebration of Mass.
Since late yesterday afternoon, we have been hearing firecrackers and all sorts of fireworks here in Mexico City, honoring the "Morenita" (or "little dark skin girl") as the Mexicans tenderly refer to their patroness.

The Mexican native peoples maintain a deeply religious culture, on every social and economical level of society. What is the Virgin of Guadalupe for them? Although I am very devoted to the Blessed Virgin, I honestly cannot presume that I can fathom what Mexicans feel for their "Virgencita", their dear little Virgin. When I drive down the rough dark roads of Mexico, sometimes even when it starts drizzling as the last beams of light give way to night, I see the hoards of pilgrims, riding their bicycles, like bees, following the queen bee. It's absolutely beautiful. It is when I understood the saying: "Non fecit talitur." (She has never did anything like this anywhere, as she did here). The relationship between the good and humble people in Mexico and the Virgin Mary is something I believe I will never grasp in this life. All I can do is feel admiration. 
Pope John Paul II visited the Basilica of Guadalupe several times during his visits to Mexico, and he was dearly loved by Mexicans, who still pray, asking for his intercession to God the Father and to the Virgin of Guadalupe for "la paz de Mexico" ("peace in Mexico").


Estela takes a rest from our walk up the hill of
Tepeyac, the hill where the Virgin appeared to
Juan Diego.

The "new Basilica" was built in a shape similar
to a Mexican Sombrero.

Side view of the set of bronze statues
representing the natives of Mexico
seeking the help of their "Virgen".

Here is the front view of the same
set of bronze sculptures.

A whole family from Monterrey, friends of
us, on their pilgrimage to the Basilica

Estela, my wife, is deeply
devoted to La Virgen de Guadalupe

The gardens of the sanctuary of the Basilica

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Piero della Francesca and the Legend of the True Cross

Let us try to set the score straight from the beginning of this article: the name of this series is the Legend of the True Cross. This is not the same as to say the True Legend of the Holy Cross.
Adam sends Seth to plead
with the Angel Guardian of
Paradise for the Oil of

Not even Piero della Francesca tried to convince us of the literal truth of the Legend of the Cross. Legends don't have to be true, at least in a literal sense: it is not part of their essence. Legends exists however to teach us something.

The descendants Of Adam
plant the bark of the tree of
the Knowledge of Good and Evil
in the Mouth of Adam 

Santa Claus is a legend, and he doesn't exist, but he did. He was San Nicola di Bari. We believe in Santa Claus one way as children, waiting patiently for him to come down the chimney, and another way as grownups, giving to the young, the innocent, and hopefully also to the needy, as San Nicola did.
The Queen of Sheba feels a
terrible premonition about the
wood of the bridge at the Pool
of Siloe.

If we are alert, we can learn a great deal about people and ourselves from legends, not only when we are children, but as adults. But as our Jesuit professor would shout out at us in Latin from his lectern back in the days when we studied philosophy at the Universita Gregoriana of Rome, when he realized that our analysis of a question was too shallow: "Profundius!", we sometimes need someone to prod us, encouraging us to: "go deeper!"

The Queen of Sheba confesses her prophecy that
the wood of the bridge of Siloe will someday
be the cause that would divide the people of
King Solomon 

Catholic devotion is like a gigantic supermarket. Take what serves you and put it in your cart. You don't have to always fill your cart with so many things you don't even know what you want them for. You don't have to react in a compulsory manner. Take what suits you, and helps you grow in your spiritual life. However, the same cannot be said of the 10 commandments. With the commandments, each one is compulsory. Perfect score is the only score.

The wood that came from the tree
of the Garden of Eden is taken
from the Bridge of Silon and
hidden away for centuries

Many times when I speak or write about people's beliefs in other times, the reaction is: "How could those people be so ignorant!" True. Unfortunately, the same people that say that today may be equally or even more ignorant in other matters. Hopfully having scared away the cynics with this introduction, lets get down to the business of the day, and take a look at the work of Piero de la Francesca.

 Constantine dreams that he
will conquer Rome under
the sign of  the Cross

Piero della Francesca did not invent the Leggenda: he merely recorded it for us, in a beautiful, graphic and easy-to-understand format. But, what was the Leggenda?

Constantine defeats Massentius
with the sign of the Cross

The series of the Leggenda evolves over five time periods. The First period begins with Adam, the first man according to the Book of Genesis.   On his death bed, Adam still forlorns his beloved Paradise lost, and sends Seth beck to the gates of Eden, to beg the Angel, guardian of the entrance,  for the Oil of Mercy. In the composition Piero della Francesca creates,  Seth and Adam are in the foreground,  Adam siiting on the ground,  resting against a  tree, as we see the Angel and the Gates of Paradise in the background,  and an enormous tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong. The angel denies Adam the oil, but gives Seth a fragment of the bark of the tree, telling Seth to put it in Adam's mouth,  when he dies. The second picture shows us Seth, with his red cloak,  standing beside the corpse of Adam,  as they place the tree bark in his mouth.  From Adam's mouth, a new and holy tree will grow.

The True Cross is discovered
along with the Crosses of
the two thieves.
But which is the True Cross?

The second episode of the Leggenda took place thousands of years later,  when the sacred tree gendered in the mouth of Adam no longer exists,  but its noble wood is employed as part of a bridge constructed over the Pool of Siloe.  When the Queen of Sheba comes to visit Israel,  she is cast into a prophetical spell when she comes into contact with the wood,

Helen, mother of Constatine
discovers the True Cross

During her encounter with King Solomon,  the Queen of Sheba confesses to him her prophetic trance, warning Solomon that the wood of the bridge will be the cause of disunity among the Jews. In consequence, Solomon has the enchanted planks of the bridge taken away, and hidden.

Heraclius' army conquers
the Persians

The third period of the Legend is not recorded by Piero de la Francesca, and that is that the wood hidden under Solomon orders reappears and is used in making the Cross of Jesus Christ.

May it suffice to quote the lyrics of the hymn in Gregorian Chant that we intone during Holy Week: "Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit" ("Behold the wood of the Cross, from which hangs the salvation of the World") to grasp the importance that the wood of the Cross of Christ has in the tradition of the Catholic Faith.

Heraclius generals with the defeated Persian King Chosroe
628, A.D.

The fourth part of the Legend occurs almost 3 centuries later, when the mother of the Emperor of Rome, Constantine, prepares to take Rome. Constantine's army was marching south down the central plains of Italy, preparing them for a battle close outside Rome, at a bridge over the Tevere River. The bridge's name is Ponte Milvio, and is only some 10 miles north of Rome. His opponent, Massentius, had a larger army. The night before the battle, Constantine had a dream: he was in battle when a Cross appeared in the sky, and he heard a heavenly voice: "In hoc Signo, vinces" ("in this sign, you will conquer!"). The sign was the Cross.
"IHS" is the abbreviation of "In Hoc Signo"
When we see the symbol of the Jesuits, "IHS", in their chapels and houses of formation, there arises at times a discussion on whether it refers to "In hoc signo" of Constantine, or "Iesus Hominorum Salvatoris" (the name "Jesus" was spelt "Iusus" in Latin, as Latin doesn't have the letter "J".
The gift of the Book of Piero della Francesca to
 the Old Library of the Museo del Virreinato
(Patrick Kavanagh and Maria Angeles Osorio)
You might recall that last year, in the ancient library of the Museum of the Virreinato, we bestowed a copy of the book Piero della Francesca e la Leggenda della Vera Croce, in representation of the authorities of the Cultural Institute of Arezzo.

Heraclius delivers the True Cross back to Jerusalem

Before dawn, the following morning, Constantine gathers his generals together and tells them of his dream. Constantine was not a Christian, but many of his soldiers were. When Constantine told his troops about the Cross, they felt sure that they would win. And after Massentius slipped and fell off the bridge at a critical point of the battle, his troops panicked, retreating in disorder, while Constantine's soldiers fell on them, slaughtering them. Constantine became the sole master of Rome. One year later, in 313 AD, Constantine moved his center of operations up north, to Milano, he published his Edict, the Edict of Milan, giving all members of his empire, freedom of worship.
Here on the front bronze doors of Il Duomo di Milano
we can read the text of the Edict of Milan, offering
Freedom of Religious Cult to all men.
Constantine's mother, a woman of humble extraction, was a devoted Christian: Elena was he name, and Catholics call her Santa Elena or Saint Helen. Among her many talents and passions, Elena became the founder of Archeology, or at least of Holy Archeology, devoting her fortune and energy, searching out artifacts from the life of Christ. This included her search for the lost Cross of Christ.

The fifth and last part of the saga of the Leggenda takes us another 3 centuries later, when the Eastern Roman Empire, under Heraclius, fight Chosroe, the Persian King who has stolen the Cross of Christ, and desecrated it.
After giving so much well-deserved praise to Piero della Francesca's protégé, Luca Signorelli, in recent articles in this blog, I realized that this article is totally devoid of any comments on Piero della Francesca as a painter. I would think that his art in itself is his most elegant eulogy. However there are few aspects of his art, which we are obliged to underline and show how revolutionary Piero della Francesca was in the context of the historical moment of art when he was painting. Painting was for the most part, at his time, ars sacra, works of art depicting divine mysteries, saints, prophets, and the Divinity in reflection, meditation, and in brief, scenes mostly without a great deal of movement.
The outlandish headdress is
surely Piero della Francesca's
way of poking a little fun out
of the ridiculous style of his
Piero della Francesca's painting is all about movement, action, high-impact and dramatic events. An other point I would like is that Piero della Francesca portrays himself, as a lover of horses, the first great equestrian artist. Finally, it seems to me that where in so many painters we find a artist who bends their brush to heap praise on their patrons, it seems that Piero della Francesca ridicules his patrons, in their softest point: their vanity and the fashion of the day. Although Piero paints scenes thousands of years before his time, he dons his personalities in the garb of the quattocentro of Arezzo.  
The concept of the True Cross is not exclusive of Arezzo. Carlos V of Germany and I of Spain awarded Hernan Cortes and his royal conquistadores of the defunct Aztec empire a relic of the True Cross, which is still preserved in the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the Church of the True Holy Cross, La Iglesia de la Santa Veracruz.

Here in the Chapel of Our Lady
of Guadalupe in the Church of the
Santa Vera Cruz, in downtown
Mexico City we can visit a shrine
 with an authentic relic of the
Cross of Christ