RECTOR Eduardo Ortega
ADDRESS 400 N. Virgen De San Juan Boulevard
ON THE INTERNET sanjuanshrine.org
HEALING SERVICE Last Saturday of each Month At 7 P.M.
EVERY RELIGION OF CONSEQUENCE deals with ultimate matters: Why are we here? Where are we going? How can we relate to who or what sustains the universe? But every religion also has an instrumental dimension: How can I raise a good crop? How can I make an adequate living? And perhaps most urgent, how can my loved ones and I receive healing for our bodies and minds? The answers vary, from dips in the Ganges to tent revivals to disciplined meditation. Among Roman Catholics, certain sacred sites draw pilgrims in search of healing and other blessings. The most notable of these in Texas is the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, just a few miles north of the border town of Reynosa.
The major attraction at the basilica—the designation of “basilica” means that Our Lady of San Juan del Valle is considered one of the pope’s special churches, where he would likely attend were he to winter in the Valley—is a small wooden figure of the Virgin Mary, a replica of a beloved statue from the Mexican village of San Juan de Los Lagos. After migrants from that area moved northward, they persuaded their priest in San Juan, Texas, to obtain a copy. Placed in the parish church in 1949, that statue gained a reputation as a source of blessing and soon drew large numbers of visitors, leading to the dedication of a shrine—briefly, a particularly holy spot, worthy of pilgrimages—in 1954, with 60,000 people present.
Its mystique was enhanced in October 1970, when the pilot of a small plane deliberately crashed into the building, creating a fire that destroyed everything except the tower. Marvelously, no one on the ground was injured, and the statue was rescued from the flames unsinged, adding to its fame. For the next ten years, Mary held court in the parish cafeteria.
The new shrine, dedicated in April 1980, reminds one more of a modern megachurch than of Lourdes or Medjugorje. Constructed mainly of large limestone blocks, its amphitheater sanctuary can seat more than 1,800. Notably lacking in the sanctuary itself is the statuary often found in Catholic churches, particularly those with ties to Mexico. Instead of being represented by plaques along the walls, the stations of the cross are depicted in life-size bronze statues placed along a three-quarter-mile circular path outside the church. A large but simple crucifix hangs on one side, but unless I missed something, that’s it, except for the statue of the Virgin, which is only three feet tall but is set in the midst of a glorious, mandala-like aggregation of biblical and saintly figures that nearly fills the wall of the chancel. Beneath her, in a sunken area largely out of sight of the congregation, people come to pray, light candles, make promises, and bring flowers to honor her.
I had come specifically for the healing service, held at seven o’clock in the evening on the last Saturday of each month, but caught a bit of the regular five-thirty mass, which had packed the sanctuary. It appeared that most of the six hundred or so people who were seeking healing simply stayed over from the earlier service. Their devotion was rewarded by a half-hour concert from a superb fourteen-piece mariachi band. As with many gatherings in the Valley, the crowd was predominantly Latino but also included a number of Anglos, blacks, and people of Asian descent.
The presiding priest was Father Edouard Atangana, the coordinator of Health Ministries for the Diocese of Brownsville, which includes San Juan (Atangana is not specifically assigned to the basilica but assists with the healing services). A native of Cameroon, he delivered a fairly long sermon in both English and Spanish, dividing it into extended stretches in each language. He told the story, found in Mark 4:35—41, of how Jesus and his disciples had been caught in a fierce storm on the Sea of Galilee. When the disciples woke Jesus from a nap to tell him they feared for their lives, he spoke to the wind, saying, “Peace! Be still!” and the storm immediately calmed. With Jesus in the boat, Atangana said, nothing really bad can happen to us, a comforting but empirically dubious assertion.
The sermon was more psychological than sacred and could apply to people in or out of the Jesus boat. Human relationships, he said, are critical for physical and emotional well-being. Broken relationships can inflict great pain and give rise to myriad physical and mental health problems. Thus, no medicine works better than fixing our broken relationships.
Following the sermon came a string of testimonies from people who claimed to have been healed, thus encouraging the faith of others—“It happened to me; it can happen to you.” For fifteen minutes or so, they came to a microphone and told their stories: diagnosed with cancer but, after surgery, radiation, and chemo, alive and well because God had answered their prayers; cancer in the brain and both breasts, followed by a stroke and two months in rehab, but still walking by the grace of the dear Lord Jesus; recovered from alcoholism, now sober for 32 years. There were no stories of certifiable miracles, just repeated heartfelt expressions of strong faith, which, like good human relationships, can have a therapeutic effect.
At this point, the style of the service became more recognizably Catholic, with a procession of white-robed priests carrying a stunning gold cross, a series of “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Father’s,” and an omnidirectional incense fog that heightened the dramatic atmosphere. One of these priests noted that although people come to the shrine in search of specific favors, God’s response might not be exactly what they expect. “God performs miracles here even though we don’t always recognize them,” he said. “God knows what you need. He loves us. You have been saying your prayers; now is the time for him to talk.” He asked us to close our eyes and put our minds “in blank” and invited the Holy Spirit to take over our thoughts. After kneeling during several minutes of impressive silence followed by additional ritual movements by the priests and music by the mariachis, he encouraged people to line up to talk to one of the many priests arrayed in front of the broad altar area. He assured them that they need not become anxious, that everyone who desired it would receive individual care. He and his colleagues fulfilled that promise. For at least half an hour, they placed their hands on the head or shoulders of every person who came forward, listening to his concerns and praying for his needs. The mariachis played throughout this process, and the sanctuary lights dimmed from time to time, focusing attention on the brightly lit statue of the Virgin and her circle of saintly friends.
True to the priest’s suggestion, I saw no recognizable miracles—no crutches tossed aside, braces discarded, or wheelchairs rolled away empty. Instead, after their brief time with the priests, the supplicants moved quietly away, to light candles before the Virgin’s image, to have their pictures taken, or simply to gather their belongings and leave, hoping that their promises to Mary, the touch of a caring priest, and the mystery of faith might somehow provide the blessing they sought or, at least, a peace that passes understanding.