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Celebrating 'Our Lady'
Rare rites let Catholics celebrate common beliefs
The Rev. Fabio Sotelo leads the St. Michael Catholic Church congregation in a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe during mass on Wednesday. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan


Gainesville city schools' teacher of the year for 2008-09, Dawn Barry, who teaches kindergartners at Centennial Arts Academy, uses Skittles candy in game that has students recognizing numbers as numerals and spelled-out words.
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe ended on Wednesday, but the implications of the rare rites performed by priests of the Archdiocese of Atlanta during the celebration may continue to effect the area's immigration controversy.

During the celebrations, the priests in Archdiocese of Atlanta performed a coronation ceremony for the first time in the over 50-year history of the Archdiocese.

The coronation rites are a display of reverence to images of the Virgin Mary, and declare that she is Queen of the Church.

The ceremony and the catechesis leading up to it are meant to increase Catholics' devotion to the Virgin Mary. The devotion that has lost its importance in the predominately Protestant United States, said the Rev. Fabio Sotelo of St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville.

St. Michael is the only Catholic Church in Gainesville. The majority of its congregation is Latino.

For Catholics, one of the most integral parts of the coronation ceremony is choosing which image of the Virgin to crown. It is only proper to crown an image of the Virgin that the faithful of the Archdiocese can come to in confidence, according to documents from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta Wilton Gregory specifically chose a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, as the proper image to crown in Wednesday's coronation ceremonies.

The rising immigrant population has caused an increase in devotion to the Virgin Mary in the Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Sotelo said.

The patron of the United States is the image of the Immaculate Conception, one of the names for the Virgin Mary. However, the Immaculate Conception is part of a European tradition, Sotelo said.

"Since the Mexicans have come to ... the United States they have brought their own religion with their own devotions," Sotelo said. "So they have brought their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it's renewing the faith of the people."

Latinos, particularly those of Mexican origin, have a strong affection for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Catholics attribute her appearances to an Aztec Catholic convert, Juan Diego, in 1531 to the conversion of many Aztecs to Christianity.

"They defend Our Lady more than Jesus," Sotelo joked. "It's a simple faith. They believe she's our protector."

"If you go to visit any house, probably in 90 percent of the houses they have a picture of Our Lady," Sotelo said.

During the Spanish colonization of what is now Mexico, Guadalupe appeared to Diego five times. She had the brown skin of a Mestiza, and called herself the "Mother of God."

Guadalupe spoke to Diego in the natives Nahuatl dialect, and asked him to tell the local bishop to build a sanctuary. However, the bishop needed proof that the visions of Guadalupe were real.

To prove to the bishop that she was an authentic apparition of the Virgin Mary, Guadalupe gave Diego roses that should not have been growing during the winter in Mexico, and told him to take them to the bishop as a sign of her authenticity.

When Diego pulled the flowers from his tilma, or cloak, to give them to the bishop, Guadalupe's image was imprinted on the tilma, according to the Catholics. The image has been reproduced many times, but the original cloak still hangs in the Mexican basilica built in Guadalupe's honor.

In the image, Guadalupe's hands are folded in prayer. One of her hands is darker and thicker than the other. Catholics believe the image symbolizes the union of the Aztecs and the Spaniards, according to the Marian Catechetical Guide on the Archdiose of Atlanta's Web site.

"When the image appeared in his tilma, everybody started getting together and many healings and conversions started happening right away," Sotelo said.

In the year following the apparitions, 10,000 people were converted to Catholicism in Mexico, Sotelo said.

Before the Latinos brought their devotion of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the United States, American Catholics behaved more like Protestants, Sotelo said.

"Many people were not talking too much about Mary in order to make the Protestants feel comfortable," Sotelo said.

Now that more Mexicans are coming to the United States, particularly in the area of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, their devotion to the Virgin Mary has more influence on the Catholic Church in the area.

The Archdiocese of Atlanta decided to crown Guadalupe, because the Archbishop felt the local parishes should embrace this surge in devotion to the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is important to Catholics. Because Jesus came to the world through Mary, Christians go to Jesus through Mary, Sotelo said.

"The immigrant community is bringing a more emphatical devotion to Mary than the local church (has)," Sotelo said.

"At this moment, Our Lady of Guadalupe is more recognized in Georgia than any other devotions like our Immaculate Conception, Immaculate Heart of Mary, or any other devotions."

Indirectly, though, the Catholic Church is targeting the immigration issue - an issue that has divided even the Catholic community - by crowning the image of Guadalupe, a figure who symbolizes unity.

"It doesn't matter where the Catholics are coming from," Sotelo said. "They are part of one body, the body of Jesus."

"We emphasize unity, and we invite the local communities to see the immigration issue from another perspective-what faith is telling them to do," Sotelo said.

"Even for the local people, it's an invitation for them to say: ‘well, are these approaches to immigration fair to everybody?'"

In Hebrew and Christian faith, communities have always been immigrating, Sotelo said. Moses led the people out of Egypt. Abraham had to go to Canaan. Mary and Joseph had to go to the desert to protect their child.

"It's rooted in our faith," Sotelo said. "Immigration is a human right. You have a right to go wherever you can find a job. If you are persecuted by any politics ... you have a right to protect yourself."

"It's a part of the heart of the Catholic teaching; every human being has the right to immigrate, emigrate."

Non-Catholic Christians have also accepted the image of Guadalupe in order to welcome the Latino population into their churches, Sotelo said.

For at least 15 years, Archbishop Gregory has recruited priests from Hispanic countries to accommodate the Latino Catholics in the United States. Today, the Catholic Church in Gainesville covers all the cultures it serves. St. Michael holds trilingual masses.

"How can you have one church that is for one church for one color and one culture ... if you have the same faith? We have one Catholic faith," Sotelo said.

"We have a common destiny, we go to the same place ... the church has to train us for heaven.

"If we believe that everybody's going to be there, we better get along here," Sotelo said.

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