Ah, Mexico! Pope Francis' visit to that country to our south has been a splash of vibrant colors, lively music and stark mountain landscapes. The women and children in traditional dress, the cascades of flowers and the brilliant reds, greens and yellows. The high-spirited hymns accompanied by maracas and guiros, violins and vihuelas. It is a culture rich in tradition and awash in color.
But the image which caught my attention as the Holy Father celebrated Mass at the Venustiano Carranza Stadium, in the drug-infested area of Morelia, was of a beautiful Madonna robed in blue. She was a serene presence, standing to the right of the altar, her elaborately embroidered blue cape spread wide to reveal a white tunic.
Pope Francis stopped at the end of Mass to pray before the statue. But what was the title of this image? This, I later learned, was Our Lady of Health.
Our Lady of Health, unlike the simpler and better known image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is adorned in royal blue with a Byzantine-style jeweled crown on her head. The life-sized statue which was displayed at the Mass was probably created using a technique called “titzingueni” which is common to the indigenous peoples of Mexico. In titzingueni, a statue is created by first building a wood frame, which is covered by a paste containing corn pith and orchid juice. She is then coated with gesso and painted.
The image, which is venerated both in Mexico and in Spanish communities here in the United States, was originally titled Nuestra Seňora de San Juan del Valle (Our Lady of St. John of the Valley).
Here is her story:
In 1543 a Spanish priest, Father Miguel de Bologna, brought a statue of the Immaculate Conception to the village of San Juan Mezquititlan (later renamed San Juan de Los Lagos), northeast of Guadalajara, Mexico. Because the statue was not in good condition, it was enshrined in the sacristy rather than in a more public space in the church.
According to local history, there was a circus acrobat passing through town with his wife and two young daughters. The family's stunts included swinging on wires over a dangerous landscape in which knives and swords were stuck in the ground, their points facing upward. They had practiced and had performed their act often before; but this time, as they performed for the people of the town, something went terribly wrong. The younger of the acrobat's daughters slipped from the rope, landing upon the knives.
The grieving parents wrapped their mortally wounded daughter in burial cloths and carried her to the chapel of Our Lady of San Juan for burial. But as they approached the chapel, they were approached by the elderly wife of the caretaker, who encouraged them to have faith. She retrieved the statue from the sacristy and laid it beside the body of the dead little girl; and after only a few minutes, there was a slight movement under the shroud. The parents unwrapped their daughter to find her alive and unharmed.
News of the miracle quickly spread to neighboring villages, and Mexicans began to venerate Mary as Our Lady of San Juan. In neighboring communities, similar statues were given new names—among them “Our Lady of Health.”