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To Ask is to Receive
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Raul E. Salcedo
People walk on their knees leaving a bloody trail as they painfully climb the steps leading to the church doors. The devotion seen in their faces erases whatever pain they may be feeling. They are not being punished. On the contrary, they willingly and faithfully put themselves through this ritual to show their gratitude to God for favors granted. to God for favors granted.
In their time of need, they turned to God for help, as children to a parent. It's human nature to ask for help from friends and neighbors, making arrangements to repay them. But many people make promises, or mandas, to God when asking for help in more serious matters.
In a 1988 article in the Journal of Latin American Lore, Stephen Gudeman defines manda as a transaction between Catholics and saints. These transactions always contain a request for help from God on behalf of a human on earth. He explains that though the help comes from God, most mandas are mediated by a saint that provides concrete images we can relate to more readily than to a God whom we cannot see. In turn, the saints serve as mediators to God for the petitioner.
Fr. Jorge Soria from Juan Diego Catholic Church says that humans on earth, ask the saints for help just as they would ask their friends and relatives. For example, kids will ask their mother to ask their father for something they want, or they will ask an older brother to intervene with mother on their behalf. Consequently, Catholics try to use the same approach in their prayers with saints.
Fr. Arturo Perez of the Tepeyac institute of El Paso adds that in order for a manda to be successful, "faith and a good personal relationship with God is essential. People without faith don't make mandas because they look for earthly solutions to their requests."
Perhaps the most popular request made in mandas is for curing illness and restoring health. People often turn to God when modern medicine is unable to help. Many people believe that the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos, an important religious image for Mexican Catholics, has the power to cure the sick.
Guadalupe Salcedo, a Eucharist minister for the Catholic church, once made a manda to the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos, on behalf of one her sons, who was born with an eye abnormality. The doctor feared the infant would be unable to survive the necessary surgical procedure. The family also worried about the high cost of the operation. Salcedo turned to the Virgin for help. Soon, afterwards, her son's eye miraculously healed by itself, amazing the doctor.
When someone makes a manda, the petitioner vows to perform a personal duty or sacrifice in return to give thanks for the help they receive. One of the most popular forms of giving thanks is to visit a particular shrine or church of the saint or Virgin involved.
Recently Jesus Placencia made a trip to San Lorenzo Church in Clint on foot. He and a friend jogged for a couple of miles but mostly walked and trotted the 14 miles it took to get there. They completed their mission in four and one-half hours, arriving at the church totally exhausted. But the trip was Jesus' way of giving thanks to San Lorenzo for a prayer he had granted a few years ago. Many people walk barefoot to the church to repay their mandas to San Lorenzo.
The famed Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is another gathering place for people seeking help or looking to repay their mandas. Here the devoted walk for long distances, many barefoot and some traveling through the last few streets on their knees to the shrine.
In the El Paso border area, thousands of people show their appreciation to God for fulfilled mandas by hiking up Mount Cristo Rey every year. Inspired by heartfelt devotion, they endure pain and physical discomfort as they journey to the cross. Fr. Soria says, "For many humble devotees, this sacrifice is giving oneself to God which is worth a lot more than money."
In contrast, some wealthy Mexican Catholics have made large monetary donations to the church to fulfill their mandas. On some occasions, they attempted to buy favorable results for their petitions. Many old church buildings in Mexico were financed with these donations. However, Fr. Soria emphasizes, "God doesn't want your money. He wants your heart and your goodwill at your own discretion. Money contributions will be gladly accepted if it does not represent an attempt to coerce God."
Martha Egan in her book Milagros: Votive Offerings From the Americas discusses other offerings to the saints and the Virgin. These offerings, called milagros or miracles, are small replicas in silver or gold of body parts such as heads, arms, legs, feet and eyes. According to Egan, the main altar of the old Basilica to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City was covered with thousands of milagros placed there by the devoted to thank the Virgin for healing them. Such milagros can be seen in various Southwestern Catholic churches as well.
While the tradition of mandas and milagros may seem strange to some people, these practices have been in existence for centuries. Egan explains, " Votive offerings nearly identical in form to milagros used today in Mexican chapels have been found…from North Africa through the Middle East and across all of Europe."
It is evident that for thousands of years, humanity in general has relied on spiritual intervention in times of need. In El Paso, the custom of making mandas is no exception. After all, John 17:23-24 says, "Ask in my name and you shall receive."