Hundreds of dancers adorned in bright colors — many wearing masks or feathered headdresses — filled several blocks of downtown Phoenix Dec. 7 in a festive display of affection and honor to Our Lady of Guadalupe nearly 500 years after her appearance to St. Juan Diego.
Participants in the Diocese of Phoenix’s 14th annual Honor Your Mother celebration proceeded along to a continuous beat of tom-toms, kettles and base drums, some dipping their heads and shoulders low then rising again, others tapping their feet against the asphalt, then turning in circles as dozens of the faithful watched from either side of the street.
“It’s our expression of love for the Virgin Mary,” explained Patricia Sanchez of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix prior to starting out with fellow members of the parish’s Danza Azteca Guadalupana dance troupe. Sanchez, 45, has been participating in some type of dance event honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe since she was 9.
Adorned with a headpiece of peacock feathers, she and her daughter, Patricia Saldana, 21, wore dozens of half-dollar size seashells around their ankles. “The shells announce (the Virgin Mary’s) coming. That’s why we dance for her,” explained Saldana.
In his homily at an outdoor Mass at the end of the route in the Diocesan Pastoral Center Plaza adjacent to St. Mary’s Basilica, Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares referred to the Virgin Mary as the first missionary because she brought the Word in her womb to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Recounting the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the bishop noted how this missionary mother chose St. Juan Diego to deliver her message to the missionary bishop of Mexico.
“Oh mother, he’s not paying attention to me. I’m a nobody. I’m the least of your children. Send someone important. Send someone studied. Send someone who has words to be able to convince the bishop of your desire,” the bishop said, in the voice of St. Juan Diego. “And our Blessed Mother reminds him, ‘Aye, Juan Dieguito, don’t you think that I could have chosen a great person, an articulate person, a studied person, an eminent person. But I want you. I want you to go and do my bidding.’”
Referencing the tilma on which her image is imprinted and still on display 488 years later at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, Bishop Nevares noted how she continues her missionary role in bringing millions to her Son.
“So, my dear brothers and sisters, let us always have San Juan Dieguito as our patron saint, the least, the smallest, the most insignificant,” the bishop said, “and yet, in the eyes of God and Our Lady, a truly great saint because he listened to Our Lady, he obeyed God’s holy will through Our Lady, and he was the servant of the Mother of God. So may we all be today, and every day of our lives.”
Earlier, the auxiliary bishop, together with celebrant Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and other diocesan officials, offered a blessing to each of the dozens of dance troupes and floats taking part.
“I was impressed. The floats had a lot of detail. They were very beautiful. It seems to grow every year,” said Fr. Kieran Kleczewski, executive director of the diocese’s Office of Worship.
Dozens of parishes were represented, and Office of Ethnic Ministries Associate Director Ignacio Rodriguez said an estimated 8,000 people attended.
Pam Butler, a snowbird from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Ridgewood, New Jersey, was there for the second time in as many years.
“I’m very excited,” said Butler, who attends Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish — where the procession began — when she’s in the Valley.
“I was here last year by chance. The devout faith of everyone who participates is inspiring.”
The cross-section of spectators signals the broad appeal of Our Lady of Guadalupe, according to Armando Ruiz, planning committee member and parishioner of St. Catherine of Siena in Phoenix.
“Our Blessed Mother brought two cultures together: the European and the indigenous culture in the Americas. With this event, we celebrate that — bringing Mexicans and non-Mexicans together,” Ruiz said. “This event (also) offers young people an opportunity to participate in church like none other throughout the year. If you look around, the vast majority are young people. I’d say 60 percent of the participants are under (age) 25, and in the Southwest, that’s the Church.”