March 12, 2024 // Perspective

How a Lenten Climb Up Tepayac Hill Leads to Christ

I should have been more prepared for the altitude. I knew Mexico City’s elevation had been a concern during the organization of Pope Benedict’s 2012 trip to the country. (Many Vaticanists say that his increasing difficulty in traveling precipitated his resignation from the papacy.) But I was not paying attention to just how high the city sits. At 7,350 feet above sea level, the metropolis of 20 million people dwarfs Denver (5,280 feet).

I needed water. And sleep. My friend, Katie McGrady (host of OSV’s “Like a Mother” podcast), had invited me to serve as a chaplain on a tour she had organized. I was eager to accept since Our Lady of Guadalupe was on my bucket list. But the trip was a quick pilgrimage, and I was coming in hot. And my preparation was focused on reading about the image, studying the words of the apparition, and working on my preaching.

And that made the climb up Tepayac Hill … well … more strained than I would have preferred.

As I mounted the steps up to the Chapel of the Roses, I joked with Katie about how messy my white habit already was. The hem of my tunic was caked with dust and dirt from the city. The bright late-morning sun was a welcome change from the dreary East Coast, but not for long.

The several hundred-foot-tall hill was a surprising workout. Graced by beautiful stone steps, the climb includes a ramp the entire way to make the site accessible. Our little group of pilgrims smiled at the children posing for photos on statues of burros, giving a bit of Disneyland-like flair to the experience.

The climb reminded me of the Stations of the Cross at Lourdes, where pilgrims view the larger-than-life golden depictions of the Passion while ascending a hill behind the main basilica. Praying the stations at Lourdes is no easy feat.

The Chapel of the Roses, or the Chapel of the Hill, as it’s sometimes called, marks the place where St. Juan Diego cut and collected roses at the direction of Our Lady of Guadalupe to show them as proof of her appearance to the local bishop. The baroque chapel, complete with facade graced by volcanic rock, includes murals by Fernando Leal, which tell the story of the apparitions.

As I climbed, I couldn’t help reminding myself that Juan Diego walked eight miles (one way!) to the Church of St. James for instruction and catechesis. And I also began to reflect that journeys like ours are the perfect setting for Lent.

Lent is a call to step out of the ordinary rhythms of life. We talk about heading into the wilderness or up to a high place to be apart from the world, with God alone. It’s a time to reset, to reprioritize, and recommit.

From the plaza in front of the chapel, pilgrims get a glimpse of the extraordinary landscape of Mexico City. With the city stretching across the horizon, the 20-minute climb was well worth it. I marveled at the old and new basilicas, which stand at the foot of the hill.

The Virgin Mary herself had come to this place. She called for a church to be built here. Yes, it was in her honor. Yes, extraordinary miracles have been worked in this place (not the least of which is the tilma, which bears her image). But Tepayac Hill is ultimately about the worship of her Son. And just like the season of Lent, Our Lady of Guadalupe points to Him.

That’s the point of Juan Diego’s climb. His encounter with the Virgin Mary is about meeting the Mother of God who leads us to her Son.

So, climb on this Lent. Seek the Virgin Mary. And she will lead you to Christ.

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is Editor of Our Sunday Visitor.

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