BY FR. BRIAN STRASSBURGER, S.J. | December 7, 2024
Mass was about to start at Casa del Migrante, and I was reviewing the small credence table that was set up near the altar. Surveying the table, I noted the paten and chalice, the cruets with water and wine, and the bowl and towel for cleansing the hands. That’s when I realized that one thing was missing. Where was the bell?
Casa del Migrante is a migrant shelter in the border city of Reynosa, Mexico. It is run by the local Catholic diocese and staffed by the Daughters of Charity. The shelter prioritizes women and children, including pregnant women. They have about 140 beds but often house up to 200 migrants, by asking children to share the beds with their mothers. The spirit of the place is marked by the love and care that the sisters show in attending to the migrants who stay there. And the migrants themselves bring life and joy: from the women who volunteer to cook and clean, to the children who run around playing with one another.
The three of us from Del Camino Jesuit Border Ministries visit Casa del Migrante every Tuesday and Thursday to visit with the migrants and celebrate Mass. The shelter has a large covered patio where we set up folding chairs as our pews and the sisters wheel out a large wooden altar for the Mass. Maru, the cantor at a local parish, often joins to lead us in song. She always gets the group warmed up with some fun call-and-response songs as Mass is being prepared.
“Do you know where the bell is?” I ask Maru. “I thought I saw them bring it out, but it’s not here.”
“Oh, sorry!” she replied. “The kids were playing with it, so I moved it out of their reach.” She pointed to the beautiful figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe that stands prominently on a pedestal on the patio. Sure enough, hanging from the crescent moon at the Virgin Mary’s feet was the bell, surrounded by three mischievous kids peering up at it, just out of their reach.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a strong devotion for Catholics all over, especially in Mexico where this remarkable vision of Mary appeared in 1531. As the story goes, Juan Diego, a humble Aztec convert to Christianity, encountered an appearance of the Virgin Mary. When the bishop asked for proof, he carried roses in his cloak to present to the bishop. When the roses fell at the bishop’s feet, the image of Our Lady miraculously appeared on the cloak. The image continues to hang in the basilica outside Mexico City where the appearance first occurred almost 500 years ago. It is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, with an estimated 20 million visits annually. Our Lady of Guadalupe remains popular with migrants too. We often meet people who have a pocket-sized image of her that they brought on their journey. So it is not surprising to see a nearly life-sized image of Guadalupe dominating the courtyard at Casa del Migrante.
As I reflected on the bell hanging below Our Lady, I thought about the connection between these seemingly unrelated objects. You see, the bell is used during the consecration when the bread and wine are elevated as they become the Body and Blood of Christ. The origin of the bell ringing dates back to the pre-Vatican II Mass, when the presider would celebrate Mass in Latin with his back to the people. Most of the congregation would occupy themselves with their own prayers as the priest went through the Eucharistic prayer. Suddenly, the sound of the ringing bell would draw the attention of all, as the priest elevated the host and then the chalice, so that people could see the Body and Blood of Christ as the priest raised them above his head. In other words, the bell was rung to draw people’s attention to Christ’s presence.
Isn’t that exactly what Mary is all about? Mary is always drawing our attention to Christ’s presence among us, inviting us closer to her son. After the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, waves of indigenous Mexicans converted to Christianity, more than all the boatloads of European missionaries had achieved over the preceding decades. Indigenous people were drawn by this image of Mary as a mestizo woman with a darker skin tone. She even spoke to Juan Diego in his native language of Nahuatl. Mary came as one of them, and her appearance invited and welcomed people into the Church, to a deeper encounter with her son, Jesus. That same attraction remains powerful today, as she continues to accompany the faithful and draw people to Jesus.
As we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, let us give thanks for this appearance of Mary that continues to inspire many people in their faith, including the migrants at Casa del Migrante. May she continue to accompany us in our own journey and continue to draw our attention to Jesus as she intercedes for us before him.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.
Editor’s Note: In the days and weeks leading up to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, the Ignatian Solidarity Network and our partners invite you to join us as we stand in solidarity with our migrant sisters and brothers. We will provide opportunities for you to learn about the experiences of those in migration, pray together with folks in your community and across the country, and act in solidarity. Join us in our collective Guadalupan Vigil by registering at igsol.net/olog
Fr. Brian Strassburger, S.J., is a Jesuit priest missioned to the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, to assist in a local parish and accompany migrants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. He now serves as the executive director of Del Camino Jesuit Border Ministries.