The immense Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary dominates the north side of the Zocalo; we, like so many other visitors, graviate there. Cortez built his original cathedral on the exact site of the main Aztec temple his forces had razed, and although that church was destroyed, the present one was constructed in sections between 1573 and 1813. Of course this complicates the ongoing archaeological excavations of the Templo Mayor and Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, behind and to the right of the cathedral.
You can see the steps leading up to some of the pyramids, in the process of being restored.
Inside the cathedral, the main sanctuary is flanked by sixteen chapels, dedicated to different saints, and (in spite of the low light inside them) glittering with gold. Here are the organs; the choir of boys and men sings from inside that wrought iron screen.
This year I didn't take many pictures of the interior, but I did make a few videos, thinking they might provide a greater sense of "being there" than a still photograph. (Apologies in advance for the hand-held shakiness.)
The first video is of the exterior and the immediate plaza outside the main doors. The plexiglass inserts in the floor of the plaza allow visitors to look down into the original foundations. The video starts with the noontime ringing of the cathedral bells - which is done by hand - which is superseded by the sound of the ubiquitous harmonium/organ grinder.
On Sunday, we went to the 12:00 Mass, which is presided over by the Archbishop of Mexico, Norberto Rivera Carrera. Later I learned that the Archdiocese of Mexico was founded in 1530, and is the largest in the world. Accustomed to nearly-empty Catholic churches in Quebec, we were surprised to arrive and find no seats at all, so we stood for the whole service. Most of the congregation seemed to be Roman Catholics who were either local or visiting; there were only a few tourists wandering around disrespectfully, not paying much attention. (I'm sensitive to this from what happens in the cathedral where I sing; some tourists act like they're visiting a zoo.) Many people, however, were taking pictures so I felt like it was all right to do that. We did not take communion, but we did make an offering: it was gathered by navy-blue-suited women and men who passed traditional round palm baskets woven by native women.
The first video was taken during the organ prelude as the procession of clergy began. The second was taken during the Mass itself, as the choir sings a litany.
Afterward, the Archbishop went over to the left, behind a railing, where he greeted or blessed the people, wearing his mitre and holding his gold crozier, protected by watchful attendants. We went over and waited too, and eventually shook his hand and said gracias.
I'm not sure how I felt. It was definitely an experience, but of what, exactly? Was I a bystander, or a worshipper? I certainly didn't feel like a full participant, removed as I was by language and my non-Catholicism, which meant I wasn't welcome to take communion, but there is more to it than that -- in a Catholic mass as compared to an Anglican one, there is simply less congregational participation and more sense of hierarchical division between the clergy and the people, and also, symbolically, between men and women. I was disappointed by the lack of music; as in most Catholic churches now, the chants were very simple and there were no hymns or performances of the great repertoire of liturgical music that was written for the Mass. In a space like that, with two huge organs, fabulous acoustics and so many visitors every day, it seems like a missed opportunity.
One of my impressions was how different it was to see an entire procession of clergy and servers who were brown-skinned -- and yet this is the majority of the world. How color-blind we are, in northern North American Anglicanism -- how used to white-skinned, mostly Anglo-Saxon priests cut out of similar cloth. No wonder European artists have consistently made Jesus and Mary in that image, but how badly their representations fit the different, larger, and more devout population in the southern hemisphere, let alone in plenty of parts of the northern too. The Spanish high altar and gilded reredos shown above contain "white" images too, but in the front of the Metropolitan Cathedral (below), Jesus is black, and it's at his feet where people come to pray, light candles, and leave flowers.
Then, too, there is the absence of women clergy or other female role-models, which makes me understand even better why devotion to the Virgin Mary is so central to Latin American Catholicism, and why the appearance of Our Lady of Guadeloupe on a hillside to the north of Mexico City, back in the 1500s, created a cult of worship that persists strongly to this day. More on that in a subsequent post.