(Written by Caleb )
Photo Credit: Luis Puell (El Comercio)
In 1664, word reached the mountain village of Otuzco that the Dutch pirates who had ransacked cities along the coasts of Ecuador and northern Peru were heading south toward Trujillo and its inland sister towns and villages. Desperate for protection, the villagers placed an image of the Virgin of the Conception at the village gate. For three days they pleaded with the image to save them from the raiders. The ships passed by and Otuzco and Trujillo were spared. Now, 250 years later, the image that has come to be know as the Virgin of the Gate (La Vírgen de la Puerta) has evolved into one of the most powerful and central objects of faith and religious devotion for Catholics throughout northern Peru.
The figure, representing Mary, is a child with sad, downcast eyes. Her fine gauzes and silks are embroidered in gold and silver, and spread from narrow above to wide below, giving her a distinctly triangular form, like a glittering mountain peak. At her feet lies a silver crescent moon, supporting the whole figure like a delicate skiff.
The presence of the moon gives us some insight into the nature of this image. In Revelation we read, “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1). The Roman Church holds that this woman is Mary, and so in the image she stands with the moon underfoot. But in Incan religion, the moon was the Mother from whom all people descended. In this way, the image becomes not merely an image of Mary, but also of a diety whose adoration predates, perhaps by many centuries, the arrival of Roman Catholicism to Peru.
She holds court in a stone church set against a mountainside in Otuzco, and once a year she is carried down to the city of Trujillo. For several days the people celebrate her sojourn at the foot of the mountain, and the crowd that gathers is immense. The people throng. Parents lift their infants before her, and the masses leave trinkets at her feet, hoping for a miraculous cure for an incurable illness, the return of a loved one that some irreparable rift has torn from them, for love, prosperity, long life. To them, she is more than a doll in gowns and jewels. She is even more than the representation of Mary, the mother of Christ, whom they believe intercedes for them before the Lord. For many, the image itself is endued with a miraculous power.
It is not the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the image carries with it some magical power, but complicity with this view is officially sanctioned. This procession, and others like it, are deemed by the Catholic Church as popular piety, a sort of pseudo-catholicism (usually synchrotized with pre-Conquest religious practices) tolerated, if not always respected, by Catholic clergy.
Photo Credit: Luis Puell (El Comercio)
It is actually quite difficult to tell where priests in Latin America stand on this issue. Anecdotally, one Catholic priest who ministered in the Wichanzao neighborhood told one of his paritioners that, although he disagreed with the idolatry, he could not say so publicly. His flock would never allow him to continue to be their priest.
It is possible that this fear of rejection and expulsion is at the heart not only of the public stances priests believe they must adopt in order to continue their ministry, but also of official Roman Catholic doctrine. In not speaking out against these displays of misdirected worship, these priests are following the leadership of their Church. Festivals dedicated to various saints and images of Mary and Christ are supported by the Vatican as a means of bringing the people closer to the God. As Pope John Paul II explained in a homily he delivered in Chile in 1987: “They [saints' festivals] are signs of the true popular religiosity, that moves to direct the mind and the heart to God, our Father: that propels toward the sincere reconciliation with God and that makes you feel more connected with your brothers, with those whom you should love and serve as Jesus has taught us with his words and with his entire life.”
Despite the motive the late Pope provided in this homily, all of this is a dangerous game for the Roman Church to play. The rest of John Paul II’s homily is full of optimism. He goes on to encourage worshippers in their dances and rituals, and enumerates the benefits of these to them, their families, and the future of Christianity in their country. From a distance, it isn’t difficult to understand his eagerness to encourage them. It is hardly convenient to tell these thousands of worshippers they must leave all of this behind. It is easiest to explain it away, excuse it, even encourage it. But then you get up close, in the sweet, spicy haze of the incense, among the drummers beating out with flawless rhythm the paces of the altar-bearers upon whose grave shoulders the glowing and pristine figure makes her way, exalted and adored, through the city. The strength of emotion, the pomp, and all of the trappings of the procession, is all directed to the image. She receives the prayers, she receives the worship. Is it possible that these festivals draw some people closer to the true God? Perhaps it is possible. But if this is idolatry, the exaltation of the creature above the Creator, then it is a dangerous thing, accomplishing precisely the opposite of what the Church claims it accomplishes, bringing death, not life.
Or perhaps the danger is exaggerated. Perhaps this assembly is an anomaly, and not truly indicative of the spiritual state of Catholics in northern Peru. Perhaps these are only the elderly, the infirm, clinging to traditions already dead. A brief glance across the plaza reveals a different and startling reality. This is no insignificant portion of the population, and neither is it confined to any one group. It is in effect an entire metropolis turned out for worship, taxi drivers and teachers, day laborers and doctors, street cleaners and mayors, and their children. The sheer number of people is awful as they strain to touch anything near her person, if only the edge of her pedestal, the hem of her garment.
Their devotion is celebrated throughout the country. The pageantry, the noise, the passion, are all marks of a truly devoted people, a people whose hearts are lifted up into the heavens. But there is tragedy beneath the devotion, and that is that the worshippers mistake their attitudes and actions for faith. So deep runs the lie, that this word, faith, is the word emblazoned on the broadsheets and emphasized with reverence on the television and radio news programs. Faith it may be, but upon what object is it placed?
This brings us to our central question: Why do we send missionaries to Catholic countries? Wouldn’t our time be better spent among the heathen? The truly lost? One of the reasons we send missionaries to Catholic countries like Peru is that the best of lies are mixed with enough truth to make them palatable. These dangers are real, not imagined.
The Bible is clear in its praise of Mary as a godly woman, a hero of the faith. What would she say about the adoration she now receives, an adoration that places her beside her Savior?It is a sad thing that the words of the Apostle Paul in Acts 20 remain all too applicable in our ministry context in Peru: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (vv. 29-30). Some leaders in the Catholic Church “speak twisted things,” others remain silent. Their motives may lie in a variety of places, but the result of their actions is the same. Ruin.
The Virgin must return to her mountain home, and return she does. What remains following her time among the mortals? There, on the pavement, among the candy wrappers and fruit rinds, lie the dreams of the people. They have been crushed beneath a thousand heels, the dust and grime of the city ground into their very fibers. The people, elevated by the experience, return home empty handed and empty hearted.
Thank God in heaven that there is hope, and that hope liest within the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone, the Good News that can bring light where darkness has for so long reigned. We ask for your prayers. Please pray for the souls of those who have misplaced their trust and bought into the lies, that the Holy Spirit would clear the mist from before their eyes. Please pray for those Catholics in Peru and elsewhere who are true believers and who have rejected this idolatry and are seeking reformation from within, particularly those in positions of leadership. Lastly, please pray for those in Peru who like the Apostle Paul faithfully and fearfully preach “the whole counsel of God”, that they would not lose heart and that the Lord would cause their ministry to be effective for the transformation and liberation of hearts and minds (v. 27).