Donate to RNS

As COVID-19 surges, Catholics find new, socially distanced ways to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe

‘Perhaps this year it is Our Lady who will come to our home,’ said the Very Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, rector of the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Hundreds of people hike up Mount Rubidoux, in Riverside, California, as part of a 2.5-mile pilgrimage to celebrate the Virgin Mary on Dec. 7, 2019. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

(RNS) — For many Catholics, honoring the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe will be a more intimate encounter this year.

This year’s pilgrimage will be “un camino hacia adentro,” an inward journey, said Petra Alexander, the Office of Hispanic Affairs director for the Diocese of San Bernardino. Instead of large public processions, she said, leaders are advising the faithful to create altars and offer roses to welcome the Virgen de Guadalupe in their homes.

For decades, thousands in the Inland Empire have embarked on a 34-mile pilgrimage from Palm Springs to Coachella or hiked 2.5 miles up Mount Rubidoux to celebrate the Dec. 12 feast. Pilgrims, some barefoot, make the trek carrying large Virgen de Guadalupe statues and picture frames, while dancing to the sounds of tamborazo ensembles trailing behind them.

The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe marks the appearance of the brown-skinned Virgin to St. Juan Diego, an Indigenous man, on a hill of Tepeyac in Mexico in 1531. The day is typically honored with Masses, pilgrimages and celebrations outside churches.

The pandemic may have canceled these large-scale pilgrimages, but as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, Catholics are adapting. From smaller car processions and outdoor Masses, to virtual services, testimonies and prayers, parishes and dioceses are finding socially distanced ways to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.

RELATED: As the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe approaches, the Virgin Mary inspires community

In late November, Mexico’s Episcopal Conference announced the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City would be closed from Dec. 10-13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, in the Mexican state of Puebla, dozens of pilgrims began making their trek by foot Wednesday (Dec. 9), telling Forbes Mexico that even getting close to her sanctuary would be enough. It’s estimated that more than 10 million pilgrims typically visit the basilica during the first two weeks of December. 

A health worker disinfects pilgrims on their way to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, as Alejandro Castillo carries an image of the Virgin on his back Dec. 9, 2020, in Mexico City. Castillo departed his home in San Gregorio Atzompa, Puebla state, along with his family to make the pilgrimage to the basilica on Dec. 6, and made it to the temple a day before it closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

The church recommended “the Guadalupe celebrations be held in churches or at home, avoiding gatherings and with the appropriate health measures.” A service will be livestreamed and televised from the basilica.

The announcement spurred Pope Francis to grant Catholics across the world the possibility to obtain a plenary indulgence, which means the forgiveness of sins, as they honor Our Lady of Guadalupe from home.

To receive an indulgence, the faithful must prepare an altar or place of prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe at home, watch a livestream or televised Mass at the basilica in Mexico City and “complete the usual conditions for an indulgence by praying for the Pope’s intentions, being in a state of grace after confession, attending a full Mass and receiving Communion.”

Mexico City Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes issued a letter announcing the indulgence, which specifies that the last three conditions “can be fulfilled when public health guidance allow.”

In the Midwest, the Archdiocese of Chicago is encouraging Catholics to place a light or candle at their windows between 6 p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday.

“Perhaps this year it is Our Lady who will come to our home,” said the Very Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, rector of the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. 

“Let us prepare to receive our Blessed Mother in our homes with all of the love and zeal and affection we, her children, have for her,” Sanchez said in a recorded YouTube video.

The Des Plaines’ pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, considered to be the largest in the U.S., was canceled as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the Midwest. More than 200,000 devotees normally attend the celebration, according to the Chicago Tribune. Only Mexico City’s observance of the feast is thought to be larger.

Sanchez, in the video, discouraged individual and group pilgrimages to the shrine.

“This decision was not made easily, but acknowledging the current state of the pandemic, it is essential to prioritize the health and well-being of the community,” Sanchez said.

“This pandemic has already caused so much emotional, psychological and spiritual tension. We have been wounded by watching our friends and families get sick and even die because of COVID-19,” he added. “This is why we’re called to unite with one another.”

People participate in an annual procession ahead of the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Riverside, California, on Dec. 7, 2019. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

In Brooklyn, New York, Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations will be held at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights and will be limited to only three people from each parish under the diocese.

Adriana Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, said officials are expecting about 250 people. Normally, around 2,000 would attend the diocese’s celebration of the Virgin Mary. “This is a massive event for us every year,” she said. “This year, we had to limit it.”

They will also take time during the Mass to pay tribute to the Rev. Jorge Ortiz-Garay, a St. Brigid’s Church pastor who died of COVID-19 in March and is believed to be the first Catholic priest to die of the coronavirus in the U.S. Ortiz-Garay led the diocese’s Mexican ministry for 10 years. 

In Los Angeles, the archdiocese held a smaller-scale car caravan to replace its annual East Los Angeles procession that, according to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was started by Mexican  Catholics in Los Angeles who fled Mexico due to government persecution in 1931.

Normally, the event culminates with Mass in honor of the Virgin Mary at East Los Angeles College Stadium. This time around, the mile-long procession ended with outdoor Mass at the San Gabriel Mission. Parishioners and pastors were masked and physically distanced during the Mass, which was limited to 120 people, according to the Los Angeles Times. The livestreamed service, however, attracted 5,800 viewers.

Archbishop José Gomez and parishioners asked for prayers for those who have died or otherwise been affected by the coronavirus.

“We are a few compared to the thousands who normally attend every year, but we’re very united in this difficult moment,” he said during Mass.

Back in the Inland Empire, the Diocese of San Bernardino, where Alexander works, has virtually hosted “9 Stars & 9 Roses: Our Lady of Guadalupe Novena” from Dec. 2-12. Diocesan ministries of social justice, farmworkers and young Catholics and other committees have held daily reflections throughout the novena.

Alexander said she knows the spirit of the celebrations has remained, even in this strange year.

“For us as Latinos, we’ve had a history of manifesting our faith in the streets. We are proud Catholics who are faithful through pilgrimages and processions,” Alexander said.

However, what’s poignant this year is the faith you have on the inside, she added. “With God’s favor, the time will come to publicly display our faith.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.