At a shrine in the northeastern corner of Mexico City, lines of worshippers on four moving walkways glide beneath the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A basket-laden woman in an embroidered blouse raises a knotted hand and murmurs a prayer in Mazahua. A couple tries to frame a selfie with the Virgin. In the plaza outside, ringed by religious souvenir shops selling candles, rosaries, and pastel-hued, Virgin-shaped plastic bottles of holy water, a priest dashes holy water over a team of cyclist-pilgrims in matching neon safety vests with fresh calla lilies taped to their handlebars, while families stretch out on blankets and cook quesadillas over portable braziers in a temporary tent city. The side streets are choked with a caravan of wooden-walled trucks festooned with marigolds and metallic streamers — another transportation and lodging option for the 20 million pilgrims who visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year, which surpasses the Vatican as the most-visited Catholic holy site in the world.
In one dusty truck bed, Yolanda, who traveled through the night from Nicolás Romero in the State of Mexico, rests against her backpack and plays with the laminated lanyard that denotes her as a pilgrim; it’s the seventh time she’s made the trip. “It’s our custom to come every year,” she says. “If we need to ask the Virgin for something, we should come and do it front of her image.”
Technically, the Catholic church does not agree. Since 2001, the Basilica’s official webpage has included an online portal through which the pious can send their requests directly to the Virgin without leaving the comforts of their internet connection.
Every morning, Ricardo Galindo Melchor, who manages the website, wakes up to an email inbox with between 350 and 450 unread prayers (the number spikes around December 12th, the Virgin’s feast day, when in 2017 a record 7 million pilgrims visited the Basilica in person). He downloads them onto USB flash drives, which he places in a discreet wooden box in front of the image of the Virgin. They stay there for 15 days, after which Melchor erases the flash drives and replaces them with new ones. The messages are never read by human eyes, not just because of the time it would take, but out of respect for the privacy of the petitioner.
Originally, the Basilica printed out the prayers, but that quickly became impossible to manage. “Sheets and sheets and sheets and sheets,” says Melchor, conjuring stacks of paper with his hands. Then, for a few years, they burned the prayers onto CDs, which had to be literally burned after their 15 days at the Virgin’s feet. USB technology caught up to streamline the process, and today, online devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe offers a glimpse of what may be the future of faith.
Though the concept of emailing the Mother of God might seem sacrilegious, the website was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II. “He saw how the people come to Guadalupe, and he wanted her to be able to come to them as well,” explains Father Andrés Enrique Sánchez Ramírez of the Basilica, sitting in one of its upper chapels while a crowd of parishioners listens to mass in the pews below. “It demonstrates the extent of the presence of the Virgin; just like the Basilica, with its doors always open, anyone can be near to her.” The Basilica of Guadalupe isn’t the only holy site to offer virtual pilgrimage: the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France and the Sanctuary of Fátima in Portugal also broadcast livestreams of their masses in addition to online petitions.
Technology can be seen alternately as a boon or as a threat to spirituality. At the very least, some religious groups see the internet as something to be controlled — hence faith-specific search engines like JNet, for a kosher browsing experience, Halalgoogling, which filters out haram results, or Covenant Eyes, a Christian porn-blocking service that monitors online activity and sends a monthly report to a spouse or “Accountability Partner.” The Catholic church in particular has long used technology when it acts as a way to proselytize or disseminate information to its advantage. It was an early adopter of radio, especially in Latin America, where Catholic radio stations were alternative voices to government mouthpieces during the political turmoil of the 1930s. While digital Catholicism seems like a forward-thinking step for a church whose backward-looking dogma is costing it followers, it actually fits within the progression of aggiornamento, “bringing the church up to date”, a concept that was first thrown around at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, when the Vatican made a commitment to listening and responding to the “signs of the times.” Today, Pope Francis has almost 17 million followers on his Spanish-language Twitter account alone (he has eight other accounts in different languages). During his World Youth Day trip to Brazil in 2013, he offered indulgences — essentially knocking time off of one’s sentence in purgatory — to those following along on social media who faced a “legitimate impediment” to attend, as long as they expressed “due devotion”.
“Technology is simply a tool,” says Melchor. “First it was written in stone, now it’s written in ones and zeros. The mediums change, but the aim is the same: to connect with God.”
“The medium keeps getting better,” says Father Ramírez, who sees technology as a way not just to spread the good news, but to actually communicate with the divine. “It could be printed, musical, pictorial — and now we have electronic means that expand this encounter with God.”
But does a prayer bouncing up to satellites in space gets just as close to heaven as one offered at the feet of the Virgin? According to Father Ramírez, it does. “As Cardinal Newman said, ‘Heart speaks unto heart.’ I would say that a virtual pilgrimage has the same value because it comes from the need of the one praying. He knows that he’s being listened to by the Virgin.”
Rodolfo and Noel, who walked for four days from Temascalcingo in the State of Mexico to reach the Basilica, understandably see things differently. “It’s a question of faith,” says Rodolfo. “Walking is a kind of penitence; it allows you to reflect on your daily life and what you need to change.”
“By the end, you feel like you can’t take anymore, but faith motivates you to keep going,” adds Noel.
In the old cathedral, which was replaced in 1976 by the current Basilica with its soaring rooftop like an oxidized copper revival tent, a family from Mexico City holds their infant granddaughter up to look the statues of saints in the eye. They concede that online messages might be valuable for those who can’t make the journey because of illness or distance, but insist that “it’s more faithful to come.” And outside in the plaza, Mary and Jonathan from Colombia dismiss the idea of emailing the Virgin completely. “That doesn’t make any sense,” laughs Jonathan.
Though these Guadalupanos may be biased, virtual pilgrimage seems like a case of aggiornamento in which the people need time to catch up with the church, and not the other way around.
Melchor counters that the Virgin doesn’t make transactions. “She won’t love you more because you make more of an effort.” And yet effort is an essential part of his job, which requires a kind of spiritual alchemy — taking the online prayers out of the ether and making them tangible, in the form of a flash drive in a wooden box. For Diana, a tourist from Colombia, that detail makes all the difference. “It’s incredible,” she says. “With so many messages being sent, you would never think that they’re actually going somewhere.”
“There’s a spiritual, psychological, natural, anthropological need to express, to leave something permanent, to make manifest,” says Father Ramírez, as the priest in the pulpit below gives a sermon about the fleeting nature of the human world. The impulse to write to the Virgin or to light a votive in the shrine both speak to the same desire to remain — and what makes the Virgin of Guadalupe’s image holy is, in fact, its permanency.
As the story goes, the Virgin Mary appeared to the 16th century indigenous peasant Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin and asked him build a temple where the Basilica stands today. When his vision didn’t convince the local bishop, she appeared to him again and told him to gather roses. Juan Diego brought those roses to the bishop and when they tumbled out of his cloak, they left behind an indelible image of the Virgin — the same bent head, spangled robe, and radiant halo that now can be spotted on T-shirts, tattoos, and figurines dangling from taxi rearview mirrors. Juan Diego was canonized as the first Indigenous American Catholic saint, and the Virgin has since come to be known as the Patroness of Mexico and the Empress of the Americas. Her image in the Basilica is, for many Latin Americans, “the real, concrete, presence of the mother of god,” says Father Ramírez.
Diana plans to check out the website when she goes home, but she says that nothing can replace the energy of being in the Basilica. Can she imagine a future of online devotion, with the pious worshipping at their phones? “It’s a really complex topic. Maybe” — she emphasizes the maybe — “in a few generations I can imagine that. I feel like for my generation, faith isn’t so much about the physical, but more about what you feel.” She places her hands on her heart.
Father Ramírez isn’t concerned: “Think about a mother and son. He has to migrate, and he takes with him his mother’s photo. The photo serves to remind him of her, to maintain their love. But it will never invalidate his return home, his need for a mother’s embrace, her kiss. What you begin online when you write to the Virgin, you complete here in the sanctuary.”