Diocesan faithful celebrate feast of ‘Empress of America’

By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

TAUNTON, Mass. — As Spanish-speaking Catholics worldwide prepared to celebrate the feasts of St. Juan Diego on December 9 and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, members of several Hispanic parishes within the Fall River Diocese were also preparing for their own annual Mass to mark the occasion this weekend.

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This year the annual Spanish language Mass honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe will be held tomorrow beginning at 6 p.m. at St. Anthony’s Church in Taunton with Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., as the principal celebrant.

With a growing number of Hispanic cultures moving into the area, Spanish language Masses are among the most popular non-English services in the diocese, second only to Portuguese.

“It’s a nice tradition and some of the Hispanic communities are actually growing (within the diocese), so it’s good to be able to get everyone together in one place,” said Father Marc Fallon, C.S.C., regional coordinator of the Hispanic apostolate and priest in residence at St. Mary’s Parish in Taunton. “It’s certainly become a high point for the Hispanic community over the years.”

Noting there are currently “seven different parishes that sponsor Hispanic ministries in the diocese,” Father Fallon explained that historically the annual observance has rotated among those seven locations — Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Parish and St. Kilian’s Parish in New Bedford; St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis; St. Mary/Our Lady of the Isle Parish in Nantucket; the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River; St. Vincent de Paul Parish (formerly St. Joseph Parish) in Attleboro; and his own St. Mary’s Parish in Taunton.

But because the Mass has consistently drawn larger crowds in recent years, Father Fallon said this year’s Taunton celebration has been moved to St. Anthony’s Parish, where pastor Father William Rodrigues has graciously offered to host.

“We are very happy to be hosting the Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe this year,” Father Rodrigues recently told The Anchor.

“We’re having it at St. Anthony’s because their hall is larger than our grade school auditorium and also with it being held at night during the winter, it’s nice having the church and the hall under the same roof,” Father Fallon added. “That’s a big blessing, of course, and we’re all looking forward to it.”

This year will also mark Bishop da Cunha’s first celebration of the feast Mass since being installed as the eighth bishop of the diocese in September.

While the bishop has been busy visiting many of the parishes now under his purview since his installation, “in many ways this will be Bishop da Cunha’s wider introduction to the Spanish-speaking communities within the diocese,” Father Fallon said.

The annual celebration commemorates the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Juan Diego in Mexico in December 1531. One of the earliest documented Marian apparitions, Our Lady of Guadalupe remains one of the most popular and familiar iconic images of the Blessed Mother alongside her subsequent appearances in La Salette, France (1846); Lourdes, France (1858); and Fatima, Portugal (1917).

“The Spanish TV network, Univision, often broadcasts Mass celebrations from different locations throughout the Americas — bouncing back and forth between three different basilicas,” Father Fallon said. “It really has become a key celebration for Latin Americans.”

Although the name might suggest the series of apparitions between December 9 and December 12 took place in “Guadalupe,” they actually occurred on a hillside in Tepeyac, northwest of present-day Mexico City. 

It was the Blessed Mother herself who asked to be identified as the “Virgin of Guadalupe,” the latter word thought to be a misinterpretation or incorrect translation of the original Aztec phrase for “(she) who crushes the serpent.”

After requesting that a church be erected in her honor, Our Lady instructed Juan Diego to collect an assortment of roses that were growing nearby despite the cold winter weather and take them to Bishop Juan de Zumarraga as proof of her presence and intentions. 

The middle-aged Juan Diego dutifully gathered the roses in his tilma, a coarse cloak woven from cactus fibers, and took them to Bishop Zumarraga. But when he opened the tilma to reveal the roses, the iconic image we’ve come to know as Our Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared on the fabric of the cloak.

“They have placed the original tilma under high-powered microscopes and, in fact, in the eyeballs of the image of Our Lady, when it’s magnified, the viewer can see Juan Diego and the bishop and other people in the bishop’s office that day, as well as an indigenous family, while on her dress is depicted the constellations which were in the sky above Mexico City for December 12 … which is her feast day,” Father Fallon said. “There are many who will make pilgrimages to the basilica this time of year to honor her. It’s just a wonderful celebration.”

Describing the depiction of the Blessed Mother on the tilma as a “woman who is indigenous — or pre-Columbian — American,” Father Fallon said there are hymns that describe her as the “beautiful, brown-skinned ‘Queen of the Americas.’”

“I think that’s getting at the essence of the miracle and the feast day for Latin-American Catholics,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a strong basis for the identification of Our Lady as being the Queen of the Americas.”

In fact, it was St. John Paul II, who had a well-known personal devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who proclaimed Our Lady of Guadalupe as the “Empress of America” in his “Ecclesia in America” on Jan. 22, 1999 and personally dedicated a chapel within St. Peter’s Basilica in her honor.

“Then there is the basilica in Mexico City, where the miracle took place,” Father Fallon said. “There are some who might think she’s only identifiable to Mexico, but there’s a strong identification for Our Lady of Guadalupe to Latin-American Catholics throughout the Americas and those here in the Diocese of Fall River.”

The iconic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has also become a symbol for the Pro-Life movement — since the sash tied around her waist would indicate she is pregnant — and immigrants from all walks of life.

“One thing that’s been so consistent in some of the parishioners who have traveled here from different lands … is the image of the brown-skinned Mother of God guiding them,” Father Fallon said. 

“Whether they were saying Rosaries on their journey or carrying an image of her, it’s just a profoundly central part of their devotion. And having that sense of security and welcoming here at the various parishes within the diocese certainly makes it a more powerful and very joyful celebration,” he added.

Noting that the White House’s recent executive order on immigration “is certainly going to keep Catholic Social Services busy processing people with their applications,” Father Fallon said this year’s celebration is likely to take on a greater meaning for immigrants within the diocese because of it.

“With the Church’s advocacy for family reunification with the immigration laws, it’s certainly going to make for a special celebration,” he said.

Father Fallon praised the “great cooperation among the various parish choirs” at the Mass every year and said attendees can anticipate another solemn and prayerful Liturgy tomorrow night.

“They just sound extraordinary when you bring them all together,” he said. “I’m sure there were more than 30 in the choir last year, and there may be more this year.”

All are welcome to attend the Mass celebration, to be followed by dinner in the parish hall featuring a variety of Latin-American ethnic foods from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico.

“We’ve been able in past years to service everyone who wants to attend and we’re confident that St. Anthony’s Church will be able to accommodate the crowd this year,” Father Fallon said. “Some of the parish groups are traveling in buses, so up to this point it has yet to become a ticketed event.”

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