Catholics gather to venerate ‘The Holy Black Christ of Esquipulas’

The procession from Smith Hall to Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral was solemn, with many participants shedding tears.
The procession from Smith Hall to Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral was solemn, with many participants shedding tears.

Hundreds of Catholics, many of them natives of Guatemala, gathered at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral Sept. 13 to venerate a beloved image.

The 8-foot crucifix is a replica of the original that is dear to the people of Guatemala as well as Central America and Mexico. El Santo Cristo Negro de Esquipulas — The Holy Black Christ of Esquipulas— has been a popular devotion in some Latin American countries for more than 400 years.

Dressed in native attire and bearing the crucifix with white-gloved hands, those assembled processed from Smith Hall to the cathedral for a Mass that befittingly celebrated the Exaltation of the Cross. Many of the faithful had tears in their eyes as they walked in silence, the strains of somber music and passing traffic the only audible sounds.

Fr. William Castañeda, who traveled from Guatemala for the occasion, celebrated the Mass along with Fr. John Lankeit, rector of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, Fr.  Luis Gonzales, parochial vicar of Ss. Simon and Jude, and Fr. Ernesto Reynoso, JCL. The image of the Holy Black Christ, Fr. Castañeda said, is not a sign of humiliation, but rather of the victory of Christ.

“It’s a consolation in the midst of persecution, to the victims of violence and poverty, those who suffer in the spirit and in the body,” Fr. Castañeda said. “It is the image of the crucified Christ who was obedient unto death, who was victorious over death and sin.”

CRISTO NEGRO 3For those far from their homeland of Guatemala, a country that was torn apart by civil war for 36 years, the image is a powerful reminder of God’s great love.

“The crucified Christ shows the love of God for the world,” Fr. Castañeda said, “a love that is made of sacrifice, of giving one’s life for others, the love that makes us able to sacrifice ourselves, the love that gives us strength to carry the cross every day and follow Him as His disciples.”

The visiting priest also cautioned against following those who might preach a Gospel of prosperity and escape from suffering.

“It is not that God wants us to suffer, but He transforms our suffering. Before the cross of Christ we discover how to love,” Fr. Castañeda said.

Kelly Vargas, dressed in her native Guatemalan attire, said she was deeply moved by the presence of the holy image. Her eyes filled with tears as she explained that she’d visited the original crucifix inside the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala. She’s been in the United States for two months and misses home.

“It means a lot to me,” Vargas said. “I am a faithful believer in the Holy Black Christ. I trust in Him completely.”

Fr. John Lankeit, rector of Ss. Simon and Jude, said he once spent nine weeks in Guatemala learning Spanish.

“I think people who are far from home — especially those who can’t return home — this is a piece of home for them,” Fr. Lankeit said. “I could feel the energy that it evoked in them.”

Deacon Marvin Hernandez, who helped organize the event, said he left Guatemala in 1989 in the midst of the civil war and was granted political asylum in the United States. He said Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted encouraged him to come up with a way to build community between those from Central America and Mexico. The procession, Mass and reception in honor of the Holy Black Christ was one way to do that, Deacon Hernandez said. Another celebration is planned for January.

The original Holy Black Christ was carved from wood more than 400 years ago. Other replicas are housed in Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey and Moroleón, Mexico.