After the Spanish Mass, a young couple approached me at the back of the church and asked if I would accompany them to the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They held a tiny infant — “She’s three weeks old. We had made a promise (voto) to Our Lady that if she was born safely, we’d go to church and go to her image on our knees.” The grandparents and godmother of the mother were also present. The child was tiny — clearly she was premature, and this had been a difficult pregnancy.
So I prayed with them, and said I’d wait for them by the statue of Our Lady. Then all five of them started their crawl up the aisle on their knees, one holding the child, another a vase of flowers, and a third, a statue of the Divino Niño, the infant Jesus. Silently. When they reached their destination, I led them in praying an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, had them light a votive candle, and gave them a blessing. They laid the flowers at the foot of the statue, and stayed on in quiet prayer.
“¡Ahora, no olviden del bautismo!” Don’t forget about the baptism, I gently reminded them. “¡Claro que sí, Padre!” The grandparents and godmother are parishioners, The young couple lives in a different state, and were visiting — she is one of 10 siblings, scattered around the Southeast.
It was a very moving experience. It’s my first experience of this kind of votive offering being requested. I’ve done numerous “juramentos” (oaths, or promises made usually by young men, who swear off alcohol for a determined period, and want the Padre to lead them in a prayer in front of the statue of Our Lady, a very common practice in Mexico, and among Mexicans in the US.) But I hadn’t yet seen this.
To the rationalist, modern, secular mind, this is all so medieval. We’re oh-so enlightened, and beyond all this mumbo-jumbo. (But even the oh-so-secular person cannot help but conceive of the “universe” as a sentient actor with intentions and designs ... always for our good!) To the “Bible-believing” Protestant, this smacks of superstition and paganism ...
... and indeed, the idea of a “votive offering” (from the Latin “voto” - “promise”) is a universal phenomenon in the human religious landscape. I recall a visit to the shrine of the local Hindu deity Khandoba in Jejuri near Pune in south-central India, decades ago (accompanied by a Jesuit friend). Pilgrims ascend the hill on their knees, or with their legs tied to heavy metal chains or blocks of metal — a promise they had made to obtain the favor of the deity. At the tombs of any pir (Sufi saint) in India — whether Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi, Haji Ali in the middle of a bay in Mumbai, or Salim Chishti in Agra (I’ve not been to the most popular destination, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s tomb in Ajmer), pilgrims tie color strings to the grill near the tomb, making a “mannat” (promise), of some kind of hardship or penance, in order to receive a favor.
Authentic Catholic culture takes the nature desires of the human heart — including the desires that are manifest everywhere in folk religion — and purifies and transforms them in Christ, who revealed to us the face of the Father who loves His children. Indeed, the Bible too, knows this kind of offering — think of the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6, which early Christians, including St. Paul himself took (Acts 18, and 21). And certainly Christian culture and tradition, both East and West, is no stranger to similar practices ... even down to our day — whether it be those who ascend the Scala Sancta on their knees in Rome, or a Mexican family in the mountains of North Georgia who fulfill their “voto” to the Virgin after a difficult childbirth.
|(Ex Voto offerings — a painting from the early 20th century giving thanks for protection in war, and a wall of medals of thanksgiving, from the Shrine of Our Lady of Montenero in Tuscany. Jan. 2014.)|