Associated Press

December 12, 1996

By EDITH BELTRAN Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Arriving on foot and on their knees, on bicycles and in cars, tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered for the annual fiesta honoring Mexico's beloved patron saint.

The pilgrims converged at the Virgin of Guadalupe's Basilica for the traditional midnight serenade and a Mass shortly after midnight Thursday to honor the dark-skinned version of the Virgin Mary.

Many worshipers approached the shrine while walking on their knees and had tears in their eyes.

The Virgin is an important religious figure and symbol of Mexico's cultural heritage, credited with bringing Roman Catholicism to the indigenous population that resisted the invading Spaniard's religion for decades.

Wednesday, more than 90 percent of Mexico's 90 million citizens are [Roman] Catholic.

said Guadalupe Rosales, a 17-year-old girl who walked some 295 kilometers (185 miles) from her town in the southeastern state of Veracruz.

Dulce Maria Mendez, 10, came to ask for the recovery of her 12-year-old sister, who suffers from severe back problems.

Alfredo Guzman, 17, said between sobs. He said he made the entire 115-kilometer (70 miles) trip from his town in the central state of Tlaxcala on his knees.

There have been several documented cases of pilgrims walking on their knees for long distances to the shrine. But usually, people make the journey on foot and crawl or walk on their knees for the last few miles (kilometers).

Far from home, peasants set up plastic tents around the basilica grounds, where they planned to spend the night.

Police closed 17 streets around the basilica and dispatched 3,200 extra officers for security.

Some 14 million people annually visit the basilica, including 6 million in December alone.

Church tradition says the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in 1531 on a hill just outside of Mexico City. When Juan Diego returned to tell the Mexico City bishops he had seen the mother of Jesus, they did not believe him.

Juan Diego returned to the site where the Virgin told him to pick the roses on the hill -- blooming in mid-winter -- and take them to the priests as proof of her existence.

When Juan Diego opened his cloak before priests the roses fell out and a perfect image of the Virgin was stamped on the cloth. The cloak hangs in the basilica Wednesday.

Some academics have doubted the existence of Juan Diego and of the Virgin herself, arguing that she was probably an invention of the Spaniards to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism.

Monsignor Guillermo Schulemburg, the abbot who oversaw the basilica for three decades, resigned in September amid a national scandal over his reported doubts about the tradition.

Schulemburg, 80, told reporters age was behind his decision to step down. But the resignation came amid a scandal over his view of the history of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

An Italian magazine with close links to the Roman Catholic Church in May published a summary of statements Schulemburg had made last year to a small Jesuit magazine in Mexico, Ixtys.

He was quoted as saying that Juan Diego "was a symbol, not a reality," and that Pope John Paul II's beatification of Juan Diego in 1990 "is a recognition of a cult."

Schulemburg denied the account in the Italian magazine, but never that of the Mexican publication. The Mexican church insists that Juan Diego's existence is "scientifically proven."