Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., takes a photo Dec. 2 with some of the dancers who participated in the walking pilgrimage as “Las Antorchas Guadalupanas” arrives to St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton. Craig Pittelli photos
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., takes a photo Dec. 2 with some of the dancers who participated in the walking pilgrimage as “Las Antorchas Guadalupanas” arrives to St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton. Craig Pittelli photos

By Armando Machado | Correspondent

About an hour before noon Dec. 2, Leticia Jimenez joyfully raised her voice in song to the beloved Spanish Marian tune “La Guadalupana.”

“We are all here with joy and contentment,” Jimenez, a mother of two, said as she walked along Trenton’s North Clinton Avenue toward St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, surrounded by mariachi music, dancers in colorful dress and faithful carrying images of the Blessed Virgin. “This is a very happy day for us. ...We love the Lord, we trust in him and we believe in the intercession of his mother, the Virgin Mary.”

Photo Gallery: 'Las Antorchas Guadalupanas' walking pilgrimage

Photo Gallery: Mass, festivities for Our Lady of Guadalupe

Jimenez, a native of Mexico and member of St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, was one of about 1,000 of the Diocese’s faithful to take part in the second annual “Las Antorchas Guadalupanas,” or Guadalupe torches pilgrimage and Mass. The daylong celebration kicked off around 9 a.m. with a 3.8-mile pilgrimage starting at Immaculate Conception Church – part of Our Lady of the Angels Parish – that journeyed to the Cathedral for Mass, which was celebrated in Spanish and English by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and concelebrated by 14 of the Diocese’s priests. Following Mass was a celebration complete with food and traditional dances and music in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“As Bishop, I was deeply moved to welcome the hundreds of Catholics who came to the Cathedral for the bilingual noon Mass and the festive multicultural celebrations that followed,” Bishop O’Connell said. “It was so wonderfully evident how deeply our faith unites us all, despite our differences, and how much the protection of Our Blessed Mother means to her children, leading us all to Christ, her Son.”

In the hours leading up to Mass, pilgrims in the procession prayed to the Lord and Mary, singing joyful hymns of faith and praise. Many danced and were colorfully clad in traditional clothing of indigenous peoples of Latin America. A man with a megaphone often shouted, “Que Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!”

Police officers blocked intersections and diverted traffic so that the procession could continue smoothly toward the Cathedral, where the pilgrims were greeted at the church’s steps by Bishop O’Connell and Msgr. Joseph Roldan, Cathedral rector, as well as Father Rene Pulgarin, pastor in St. Joseph Parish, Keyport; Father Cesar Rubiano, pastor in Our Lady of the Angels Parish, and Father Arian Wharff, parochial vicar in St. Theresa Parish, Little Egg Harbor.

Both the Bishop and Msgr. Roldan welcomed the pilgrims with words of gratitude before a troupe of children dressed in vibrant yellow dresses from Christ the King Parish, Long Branch, performed a traditional dance of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

Among the crowd gathered in front of the Cathedral was Frank G. Montes, 21, of St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville. Montes, whose middle initial stands for Guadalupe, was dressed in clothing depicting St. Juan Diego, the peasant boy to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe first appeared.

“This has been a tradition in my family since I was a child in Mexico,” he said of seeking Mary’s intercession. “She is our Mother, our Mother Mary.”

Light of Christ

Lighting the way to the Cathedral were the seven torches honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe – including one dedicated to the pro-life movement – that had been traveling throughout the four counties of the Diocese since the Nov. 4 diocesan pilgrimage to the national Basilica in Washington. In the past month, the torches visited parishes and schools, where they were displayed during bilingual Masses and spiritual events. They were all adorned with ribbons bearing the names of each location it had visited.

“From the moment we lit the seven torches at the conclusion of our diocesan pilgrimage until their arrival at the front doors of our Cathedral, there has been a wave of excitement and enthusiasm for the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, among the faithful throughout the four counties,” Bishop O’Connell said.

After hours of being carried through the streets of Trenton with much fanfare, the torches were brought one by one to the front of the nearly full Cathedral as Mass began. The choir led the congregation in singing a number of hymns, including “Buenos Dias Paloma Blanca” (Good Morning White Dove).

In his homily, Father Wharff spoke of how the torches were symbolic of the Blessed Virgin Mary lighting the way to her Son.

“Today we gather as a Christian community, as Catholics,” Father Wharff said. “We celebrate the light of the Church, the light of each of us. We have seen the presence of God active in our lives. We have been blessed. He has given us the love, faith and hope – hope in the future, in the middle of this diverse community.”

“It is only God who brings us joy,” he continued. “We are here together as a witness to God. Let us bring to our homes the Light of Christ. Let us bring the healing that we need. As the angel said to Mary, ‘Do not be afraid, because you are going to see the power of God active in your life.’”

Father Wharff went on to talk about the power of prayer, the importance of overcoming differences and working toward unity with faith, and the special significance of the “Antorchas Guadalupanas” celebrations and activities held since early November – events leading up to the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12.

Success Stories

One effect the day of celebration had on those in attendance was to bring together those who are proactive in the pro-life movement with the many devout believers of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The presence of uniformed members of the Knights of Columbus showed support as well, said Josue Arriola, director of the diocesan Department of Evangelization and Family Life, which sponsored “Las Antorchas Guadalupanas.” 

Grateful to all who made the torches’ second year a success – last year there were about 300 participants – Arriola said, “Thank you, Bishop, for your leadership, for helping us accomplish [the ‘Antorchas’ events]. I also want to thank the Knights of Columbus. Thank you for your great support.”

Also a success was the day’s presence on social media with the help of the diocesan Office of Communications. Along the pilgrimage route – St. Anthony Church (Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish) and St. Joseph Parish were also starting areas – locations livestreamed the day’s festivities. There was also livestreaming of the Mass and the celebrations that followed from the Cathedral. In total, there were more than 4,000 livestream views.

Meaningful Moments

As part of the afternoon filled with music, food and faith, dance and music groups from around the Diocese performed in the Cathedral’s lower-level dining hall and nearby gym. One music group called out the names of Latin American countries during a song – “Mexico!” “Guatemala!” “Colombia!” – each greeted by loud cheers from the crowd. A visibly happy Bishop O’Connell joined the festivities as well.

Among the performers were Elizabeth Perez and Maria Gonzalez, members of the Danza Azteca Guadalupana dance troupe from St. Mark Parish, Sea Girt.

“For me, this all means love – it means unity,” said Perez, who is Mexican-born. “It is unity among all the cultures, all the nations. We are all feeling the joy of the Holy Spirit – and we are expressing our love for our loving Mother Mary.”

Perez said she and fellow dance organizers were very grateful for Bishop O’Connell’s continued support for all gatherings related to Hispanic ministry, and for his support of immigrant rights. She also noted that she and Danza Azteca Guadalupana were with Bishop O’Connell at the diocesan pilgrimage to the nation’s capital in November.

Gonzalez said her deep faith has helped her through difficult times over the years. “Praying the Rosary is very important and having faith in Christ and Mary,” said Gonzalez, who is from El Salvador; her husband is from Mexico.

Gonzalez, in an emotional moment, noted that for years, she was unable to bear children. After much prayer to the Lord and Blessed Mother, Maria Gonzalez and her husband, Juan – as in Juan Diego – now have two children.

Jacqueline Reyes, 10, a young member of the dance group, said the pilgrimage made her feel content.

“I felt that the Virgin Mary was present,” she said. “I am thankful for the blessings that she has given me.”