It’s the festival of Our Lady of Suyapa in Honduras, a celebration of a tiny carved image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that’s venerated here.
The carving - less than three inches tall - is credited with miraculous healing powers. Suyapa is seen as a benelovent force looking after Hondurans when times are hard, as they usually are.
Sunday is the main celebration of the 250-year-old icon. Thousands of people have been making the pilgrimage to the Tegucigalpa neighbourhood where the caarving, usually in a small church, is moved to a basilica built specially for its display.
I haven’t been yet, but would like to. We went to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and the devotion of the faithful - and the sprawling market of commemorative items for pilgrims - were impressive. You shuttled past the image on moving sidewalks inside the church, so people wouldn’t linger too long. (It was still a much warmer experience than joining the long lines visiting Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi, where guards watch closely for any signs of disrespect - like having your hands behind your back - as you approach the bleached body.)
Marco Cáceres of Honduras Weekly, the leading English-language news and analysis source for the country, wrote an interesting piece headlined “No harm in a little idol worship.”
Suyapa, he wrote, “represents one of the few things in Honduras today that can help bring people together and get them to put aside their differences, even if it's just temporary.”
“While it may seem silly placing so much credence in a tiny piece of carved cedar, there's no real harm in it, and if it can unite Hondurans in silence, stillness, and prayer... well, that's no small achievement,” Cáceres wrote.
Canada is a resolutely secular society today, to an extent that baffles most Hondurans I talk to, who assume everyone has some religious affiliation. So partly, this a question of perspective. And I genuinely respect faith in a higher power and the chances of a better world.
But I worry a bit about faith as a substitute for action.
In San Pedro Sula a few months ago, the taxi driver taking us from our hotel to the bus station was a chatty guy, talking about getting deported from the U.S. after 12 years and the perils of being a cabbie in the city. He had been robbed, a pistol held against his head, he said, an occupational hazard.
But now, Raul said, life was safer. He had arranged to be on call for the hotel, and had other regular customers, and no longer had to do street pickups.
“Gracias a dios,” he added. You hear that a tremendous amount here.
I’m too polite to talk about religion, and too inarticulate to engage in philosophical discussions in Spanish.
But I often want to point out that while God might have been helpful, Raul was the one who made the difficult trip to the U.S., saved some money, got a decent car, made a sales pitch to the hotel and delivered reliable service so they would keep on using him.
At the least he should say thanks to God and and his own efforts.
Partly, of course, it’s just an expression, a way of showing faith.
But there is also a sense of real fatalism - that individual efforts and community efforts don’t really matter as much as divine forces. And fatalism and learned helplessness can be close relations.
Congress has just passed a law making Suyapa and the area around the basilica part of the country’s cultural heritage. La Prensa quoted Rigoberto Chang Castillo, the congress member who sponsored the bill. He said the decree acknowledges that Honduras is a secular state that respects religious freedom, but has deep Christian roots, “the values of which all build on the principles that underpin our society and strengthen the culture of peace and democracy.”
Except when you have the highest murder rate in the world, and a democracy that can be kindly described as troubled, maybe it’s time to rely less on faith, and more on changing things through action.