“…to all of you, Mexicans, who have a splendid past of love for Christ, even in the midst of trials; to you who bear in the depths of your heart devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Pope wishes to speak today about something which is, and must increasingly be an essential Christian and Marian feature of yours: faithfulness to the Church.” —Pope St. John Paul II

Those of us who have witnessed the performing of the Santo Via Cruces, or the Living Stations of the Cross in Spanish, or have visited Mexico on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, have truly “wined and dined” with the finest religion in the world – Catholicism. There's just something insatiably inspiring about all of the rosaries that hang from the rusty and loud taxis, buses, crowded cars and motorcycles that pepper the streets of Latin American countries. And there's something about the passion that numerous Latinos cherish for their beloved Reina de las Americas, the Queen of the Americas, that lights a wild, spreading fire inside the searching soul. I have spent a lot of time around Latin Americans, and speak Spanish myself, and over time I've come to see that Our Lady just seems to brings them to life – she is their source of energy and strength, and the one to whom they so naturally turn in the midst of this “valley of tears.”

One of my first encounters with the beauty of Latin American Catholic devotion was when I was when I was studying at a Catholic university in Santiago, the Dominican Republic. At the time, I was a 20-year-old wandering hippie who had been fired at many times on the battle ground of a post-Christian America, and I was looking for some real peace in life. The maid, Elana, who lived with my host family,  was one of those hearty Catholics that seemed to ooze devotion out of her every pore – she could always be caught praying her Rosary when she wasn't scrubbing floors with reused water (clean water is a delicacy on the island of Hispaniola) ; she made impressive sacrifices to make it to daily Mass (in honor of Our Lady of Altagracia she would say), and she prayed psalm 91 every morning and every night. After a few months of knowing her, I began to wonder about this seemingly mystical religion that she belonged to. Whenever she would get the chance, she would ask me to come into her miniscule maid's bedroom and pray the Rosary with her. I was terrified to do so – as a former Calvinist it had always been drilled into me that such idol worship would be severely punished by God. And yet, I couldn't not pray with her. When I saw her turn the rosary beads in her calloused hands, I knew instinctively that what she was doing was somehow born of the Truth, and I longed to be part of it. After I would pray with her, a soul-lifting peace would wash over me, and I was so drawn to praying on the beads of the rosary Elana gave me, again and again, despite my fears.

Sometimes, I still envision Elana today. Poor as the come, with pins in her ears to keep her holes from closing (earrings were too expensive), and her stomach jutting out (she was trying to “fatten up” while she worked in the city before she went back out to her village where good food was scarce.) I wish she knew I was now proud to be Catholic and I prayed the Rosary every day, and that I cherish the memories of my times with her. Maybe she does know – maybe she is watching over me from Heaven.

In 2008, my husband and I went to Mexico for our honeymoon and visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. There, we saw pilgrims crawling for nearly a block on their knees, up to the shrine, doing penance for their sins with a moving sense of sincerity. Some of them were older people who were hardly in any condition to be kneeling, much less walking on their knees, but that didn't stop them from doing homage. Masses in front of the actual tilma of St. Juan Diego, in a church packed full of devotees, were offered each hour at the shrine, and rosaries were continually being prayed with fervor. We also saw street after street lined with booths of locals selling images of La Guadalupana, and a plethora of other holy images. A visual people, these sacred pictures testified to what many of those living in the heart of Latin America value dearly.

Pope St. John Paul II could not have expressed it better when he said that, “In fact, when the first missionaries who reached America from lands of eminent Marian tradition taught the rudiments of Christian faith, they also taught love for you, the Mother of Jesus and of all people. And ever since the time that the Indian Juan Diego spoke of the sweet Lady of Tepeyac, you, Mother of Guadalupe, have entered decisively into the Christian life of the people of Mexico.”

According to recent data gathered by the Pew Research Center, Latin America is home to more than 425 million Catholics –  nearly 40% of the world's total Catholic population – and the Church now has a Latin American pope for the first time in its history.

From lovely quinceañeras (Catholic coming of age celebrations commonly experienced by Latin Americans) to Las Posadas (ritual re-enactment plays of the Holy Family's search for lodging) to the charming warmth of a Spanish Mass, let's offer a toast to our Latin American brothers and sisters in Christ. Truly, we are blessed to be in their company. They rock the Church!

And in union with Pope St. John Paul II, we may pray:

“We also are awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit, who will make us see the paths of evangelization by which the Church must continue and must be reborn in this great continent of ours. We also wish today and in the days ahead to devote ourselves to prayer with Mary, the Mother of our Lord and Master—with you, Mother of hope, Mother of Guadalupe...

We offer you the whole of this People of God. We offer you the Church in Mexico and in the whole continent. We offer it to you as your own, You have entered so deeply into the hearts of the faithful through that sign of your presence constituted by your image in the Shrine of Guadalupe; be at home in these hearts, for the future also. Be at home in our families, our parishes, missions, dioceses, and in all the peoples.”