By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor
When Maria Arriola, parishioner of St. Joseph, Trenton, visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, she had a specific mission – to dedicate her son to the Blessed Mother, keeping a promise she had made many years ago.
“I asked for a miracle to have a child … But my son was born early and was very small,” she explained. “I asked for a miracle of health, and promised to present him when he turned 15 to the Blessed Mother in Guadalupe. Unfortunately when he was 15, I did not have the funds to take him. So when my son told me about the pilgrimage, I knew I had to go to keep my promise. I presented him to the most Holy Mother [in Mexico].”
That son is Josué Arriola, director of the diocesan Department of Evangelization and Family Life.
Photo Galleries: Our Lady of Guadalupe Pilgrimage to Mexico
Our Lady of Guadalupe Pilgrimage to Mexico – Gallery 2
When the 40-some pilgrims from the Diocese of Trenton and beyond returned from a Dec. 2-7 trip with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., to the Basilica and other holy sites, they were effusive with recollection.
Travelers shared memories of the uneven streets filled with faithful on their knees singing Marian hymns; the blue skies and thin air of 3,500 feet above sea level; the historic sites whose foundations were sinking after so many years built on marshy land, and flags displayed in the Basilica representing all countries of the Americas of which Our Lady of Guadalupe is Patroness.
Why a Pilgrimage?
“I had never been on a pilgrimage before,” said Kathleen Vandegrift of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cinnaminson. “I wanted to detach for a week and rekindle my spirituality.”
Vandegrift volunteers at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, which houses an altar dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. “I have been intrigued with this story of Our Lady and wanted to learn more and experience these blessings for myself.”
Margaret Batkowski, who belongs to St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish, Bridgewater, went on the pilgrimage with her husband, John, a freelance photographer with The Monitor. Originally from Poland and devotees of Our Lady of Czestochowa, they wanted a spiritual trip to visit and pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Before the pilgrimage, I had known some of the stories of apparitions, but did not realize the richness of symbolism, inspiration and their full impact on the people’s lives at that time as now, in ours,” she said. “Since we are now Polish-American, it’s time to extend our devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe – after all it is the same one Blessed Mother for the entire world!”
Dr. Jewel Brennan, parishioner of St. Gregory the Great, Hamilton Square, was revisiting an opportunity she missed years ago when a work injury kept her home. “I was planning on going with my mother in the 1990s – but on this trip, we got to do a lot of the things that she talked about.”
Another pilgrim making her fourth trip to Mexico said that it was this journey for which she was most prepared. Eva Szewczyk of St. Paul Parish, Princeton, said this year she cut back on work hours to invest more in her spiritual life.
“I was there 32 years ago with my fiancé; I was … more of a tourist back then,” Szewczyk said. Seeing the holy sites in person differs from merely reading about them, she attested. “It’s like having a relationship with someone in a different country, versus seeing them in person.”
Jeanette Fusco, parishioner in St. Joseph, Toms River, went to the Shrine at the behest of her bedridden mother, who lives in Puerto Rico and went into septic shock last year. “Before they took her to the ER, the nurse let me talk to her, and my mother said to me over the phone, ‘Take me to see Lady Guadalupe,’” Fusco recounted. “I was surprised by her desire … so I decided to go for her. I bought her a small painting of the Tilma, I got it blessed by the Bishop, and on Jan. 4, I am traveling to Puerto Rico personally to bring it to her as a Three Kings Day gift.”
A Mother’s Company
Most notable, perhaps, was the palpable nearness of the Blessed Mother herself.
“It was most memorable to be in the very presence of where the Blessed Mother herself appeared to Juan Diego – and for us,” Maria Arriola said. “You could just feel it the moment you walked through the doors, and I want everyone to experience that.”
Dr. Brennan recalled one moment in which she felt held in the arms of the Blessed Mother – not in the great Basilica, but in the little Chapel of the Fifth Apparition up in the mountains, built on the foundation of St. Juan Diego’s uncle’s home, where he was miraculously healed by Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“I was down by the foundation stones [under the chapel] by myself for a minute, and I felt like the Blessed Mother was right there,” Dr. Brennan said. “She is the Mary of healing. I was so overwhelmed – I was standing on the same stones Mary was.”
Batkowski felt that being in the apparition locations made Mary’s own journey more evident.
“The story of the Our Lady of Guadalupe apparitions becomes more lively, tangible, meaningful and an inspiration for the greater devotions,” she said. “Advent is a time of waiting to celebrate the first coming of Jesus as a baby, Mary’s son. That Mary is Our Lady of Guadalupe. What better way to participate than in Jesus’ baby shower?”
The pilgrims collectively noticed their faith strengthening during their Mexico journey and shared moments they found both surprising and touching.
“I was totally at peace while visiting these holy places,” Vandegrift said. “One of the priests on this tour handed me a brilliant red rose just as I viewed the original Tilma; my very own rose petals from the Shrine of Guadalupe – I will cherish them forever.”
Dr. Brennan found the faith of the people of Mexico overwhelming. The pilgrimage, she said, was “more than I expected. I asked the Bishop, ‘Can we stay one more week?’”
Added Batkowski, “It surprised me that a group of strangers united in the same spiritual quest … can quickly overcome the boundaries of language, habits and shyness to journey together in harmony and helping each other.”
Szewczyk found herself paying more attention to detail this time in Mexico and to the faith of her fellow pilgrims.
“This [trip was a] profound experience and a learning opportunity,” she said. “All [the travelers] were on the same page – many of them devoted for years to Our Lady of Guadalupe … some had Our Lady of Guadalupe prayer cards that were torn from praying for years.”
Fusco called the pilgrimage “a beautiful experience. It made me realize that I do have a family at my Catholic Church, that I feel a sense of belonging that everyone yearns for… It increases my desire to be more spiritual – closer to God – and more involved in helping the less fortunate.”
Arriola said the best part of the trip for her was the Mass the Bishop celebrated in the Basilica, and the happiness of those with whom she traveled. “The Bishop and the priests and people that went were all filled with such joy,” she exclaimed.
“My faith in humankind has been restored,” Vandegrift affirmed. “Sometimes life can be hard and so much is going on that you forget that you are not in charge … If you need reassurance that you are held in the palm of God's hand always, I would recommend a pilgrimage. It will surely change your life for the better!”