LOS ANGELES—The official feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is Dec. 12, but Catholics such as Rosa Garcia started their celebrations early.

Two weeks before the feast day, she and about 300 others—some in traditional Aztec costume—attended a weeknight Mass at St. Philomena Church southwest of Los Angeles to honor “La Virgen de Guadalupe” and to venerate a replica of her image that is traveling to parishes throughout the archdiocese.

The image of our Lady of Guadalupe—which was responsible for the massive numbers of conversions in Latin America in the 16th century—continues to be the most identifiable and loved Catholic image in the western hemisphere.

Thousands are expected at various events not only in Mexico but also throughout the United States. The reasons for the expected turnout include the publicity surrounding the canonization in July of St. Juan Diego, the humble native who received the visions and the miraculous and scientifically inexplicable image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, and the increasing number of Hispanics in the United States.

As a result of this renewed interest and the long-standing devotion of Hispanic Catholics to La Virgen de Guadalupe, large-scale celebrations are planned from Los Angeles to New York to honor both Juan Diego's first feast day as a saint Dec. 9 and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. It was between those dates in 1531 that the apparitions took place.

Because Dec. 8 falls on a Sunday this year, the feast of the Immaculate Conception will be celebrated on Dec. 9, taking precedence over St. Juan Diego. But for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, there will be four days of nonstop celebration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels recalling Juan Diego's vision.

This first-ever event will include traditional dancers, a play portraying the events surrounding the apparitions and the recitation of the rosary, according to Carolina Guevara, associate director of media relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“The four days at the cathedral will give everyone [in the archdiocese] an opportunity to celebrate the feasts of Juan Diego and the Virgen de Guadalupe,” she said, adding that they expect thousands to attend.

Anticipation is building on the other side of the country as well.

“Interest has been growing since [St. Juan Diego's canonization in] July,” said Rodrigo Zuloaga, a spokesman for Asociación Tepeyac de New York, a nonprofit coalition of groups helping to organize the celebration of the feast in New York City.

As a buildup to the feast days, a torch from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City will arrive in various American cities, culminating in its arrival at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Dec. 12. Two special Masses will be held in the cathedral, and torches lit from that torch will then be sent to the Spanish-speaking parishes of the Archdiocese of New York.

Zuloaga said Cardinal Edward Egan of New York had the idea of bringing a torch up from Mexico City to strengthen the largely immigrant Mexican community.

In addition to the attention of the faithful, media coverage of such events has been very intense since the canonization, Guevara said.

Though some publicly raised doubts prior to the canonization about whether St. Juan Diego ever really existed, Father Cesar Ruffo, who celebrated the Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Philomena Church, said that while canonization was a long time coming, those rumors have proved baseless.

“The doubts about whether he existed were not founded,” said Father Ruffo in between blessing medals and images of Our Lady and St. Juan Diego for the largely Hispanic crowd.

The Mexican priest explained during his homily that if St. Juan Diego had not existed, there could be no miraculous image.

Americas' Patroness

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe—which continues to baffle scientists, who cannot explain how it was created—might be located in Mexico, but her influence extends far beyond that country's borders.

In his 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, Pope John Paul II discussed Our Lady of Guadalupe's influence on the American continent.

“The appearance of Mary to the native Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531 had a decisive effect on evangelization. Its influence greatly overflows the boundaries of Mexico, spreading to the whole continent,” the Pope wrote. “Consequently, not only in Central and South America, but in North America as well, the Virgin of Guadalupe is venerated as Queen of all America.”

The Pope stated that he sees Our Lady of Guadalupe as the principle player in the “new evangelization” of the Americas.

“It is my heartfelt hope that she, whose intercession was responsible for strengthening the faith of the first disciples, will by her maternal inter-cession guide the Church in America … so that the new evangelization may yield a splendid flowering of Christian life.”

Father Ruffo agreed that Our Lady of Guadalupe is a powerful intercessor and encouraged Catholics to look to St. Juan Diego as an example.

“We can learn from his profound faith and humility,” Father Ruffo said, occasionally using a translator, of the man who persevered in delivering Mary's message despite the initial resistance of everyone, including the bishop of Mexico City.

“Look at the power that even poor people have to evangelize,” he said.

Increasing Numbers

The increasing number of Hispanics in the United States is also helping to move Our Lady of Guadalupe into the American spotlight.

Nearly 40% of American Catholics are now Hispanic, according to a recent document by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In some parts of the country, the numbers are even higher. About 80% of Catholics in Los Angeles are Latino, Guevara said.

Zuloaga thinks all Catholics can learn a valuable lesson from the devotion of those of Hispanic descent.

Referring to the way in which Latinos celebrate devotions like this feast day, he said: “People can learn to give themselves to a cause and to be passionate about something.”

Andrew Walther writes

from Los Angeles.