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The Black Christ of Esquipulas: A Brief Look into El Cristo Negro
By Scott Thomas
As one of the most visited sacred sites in the Americas, the Shrine of El Cristo Negro has become a place of many occasions for Guatemalans and the rest of Central America, whether it is for prayer or politics. The site has been host to millions upon millions of visitors through its 400 years of existence. Unfortunately, its pilgrims have not always experienced the peace and joy they may desire. However, they are still thankful for those who care for the Basilica and El Cristo Negro, as they, too, did not have an easy journey to the growing town. Stuck in the southeastern corner of a country torn by war and social injustice, and maintained by a religious order with humble American beginnings, the Shrine of El Cristo Negro is a beacon of hope for those who have, and still are, suffering at the hands of history and politics.
Before the 16th century arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, what is now Guatemala was inhabited with the Mayan Indians, a nation that was extremely advanced for its time in many areas, including architecture and astronomy.[i] Unfortunately for the Mayans though, the Spaniards were not underdeveloped in every area. They were equipped with stronger weapons such as gunpowder and steel swords. The Mayans, on the other hand, were only equipped with spears and “leather shields” and, as a result, suffered many losses to the Spaniards.[ii] But those Mayans who managed to survive the fights were able to keep their traditions and languages alive despite the massive destruction done by the invaders. And in almost every generation to follow, they have risen to fight for themselves against their non-indigenous leaders.[iii]
Today, the scene of Guatemala is completely different from the 16th century. In 1821, the nation won its independence after “three centuries as a Spanish colony”.[iv] There has also been a change in the makeup of the population, with the Mayans down to about 40%, while the rest is Mestizo (a mix of Amerindian and Spanish) and European.[v] One must wonder that if the Mayan culture had not been so devastated, what state would the area be in today? For example, their calendar is said to have been more accurate than the one used today by NASA.[vi] Also, the major genocides and violations of human rights, which the United States CIA played an extensive role in causing[vii], throughout the civil wars the country has experienced over the last 50 years may not have ever happened. But one thing that would not have come to the land is the enormous Basilica in Esquipulas and the extravagant Crucifix within it.
Before the coming of the Conquistadors, the town of Esquipulas, located near today’s borders with El Salvador and Honduras, was inhabited with about 300 people, mostly Indians. But the missionaries who arrived in town were “very aggressive”, according to Abbot Gregory Robeau, causing a large quantity of the locals to convert to Catholicism.[viii] Soon after, possibly around the beginning of the 16th century, they began to ask for a crucifix to display in their town for devotion and veneration. And so a delegate was sent to the Bishop in Antigua, which at the time was the capital city, in order that a crucifix might be requested. At that time an artist named Quirio Catahyo was residing in Antigua. When he was approached about the need of the Indians of Esquipulas, a contract was signed and a crucifix was to be completed by the memorial of Saint Francis, in the year 1594. In order to pay for the cost of the project, the locals of Esquipulas planted and sold cotton.[ix]
Upon the completion of the crucifix, a group was sent by foot from Esquipulas to Antigua to receive it and bring it back to the town, unaware of how beautiful their new possession was. When they finally received it, the group constructed a platform upon which to carry the image of the Crucified Christ to his new home. Along the way home, the group passed through various towns, all of which were just as awestruck by the image’s beauty. As a result, the crucifix spent some time in each village, prolonging the trip to March 5, 1595. Upon its arrival into Esquipulas, the crucifix was given its humble abode in the form of a “little chosita (little hut) at the end of town where it stayed for several years.”[x] No more than eight years later, a “Mexican pilgrim” was cured for his devotion.[xi]
Over the years, devotion to the crucifix grew by word of mouth, drawing more and more pilgrims each year.[xii] Inside the hut, many candles and much incense was burned before the image, including herb incense used by Indians “that makes a heavy smoke with resin”.[xiii] Naturally, due to the small, relatively enclosed quarters of the crucifix’s “chosita”, smoke and resin built up and caused the image to turn to a darkened color, hence the name El Cristo Negro. “Another explanation,” according to Abbot Gregory, “is that the artist… made the image the color of the skin of the Indians.”[xiv] Apparently, there is not any existing documentation on the details of the crucifix from when it was accepted by the locals of Esquipulas, which is not necessarily surprising, seeing as it was received around 400 years ago. Therefore, it seems as if legends have come to explain some aspects of El Cristo Negro, as the beloved crucifix has come to be known.
Early into the 18th century, around 100 years after El Cristo Negro’s arrival into Esquipulas, the first Archbishop of Guatemala, a native of Peru, fell ill. So he decided to journey to Esquipulas and “pray before the Christ” for some time, until he was reportedly cured.[xv] In thanks for this grace bestowed upon him, the Archbishop decided that the parish church[xvi] that held El Cristo Negro at the time was too small and that a much larger church would be more worthy. And so, on January 15, 1759, a nearby bishop consecrated the present-day church, as the Archbishop had become too old for another travel.[xvii] In 1961, Pope John XXIII proclaimed it a Basilica.[xviii]
In 1948, Rome began to divide Guatemala into more dioceses, threatening to move Esquipulas out of the Archdiocese. Upon realizing this, the current Archbishop pleaded with Rome to be able to keep it as a Prelacy. Rome agreed with the move on the condition that the Archbishop found a religious order to care for the Basilica and El Cristo Negro within the next two years. But that turned out to be an impossible task for him, as he was forced to ask for a six-month extension at the end of the two years.[xix] During those six months, two seminarians for the Archdiocese were attending Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana, just a few miles south of the Benedictine community of Saint Joseph Abbey. But the first two times the Archbishop contacted the Abbey, he was turned down on account of the small numbers of the Abbey in Louisiana. So the Archbishop himself journeyed to Louisiana to invite some of the monks to visit Esquipulas and see El Cristo Negro for themselves. Abbot David agreed and took along with him Father Matthew Martin to translate, as Fr. Matthew was the only monk in the Abbey who could speak Spanish.[xx]
Upon their return to St Joseph Abbey, Abbott David and Fr. Matthew met with the rest of the monks to tell of their two-hour stay in Esquipulas. During the discussions, Father Odilo addressed his fellow monks, saying:
The bishop has asked us three times if we would come to take care of the pilgrims; three times we have refused—always thinking about our own concerns; what about his concerns? I would go but I’m too old; but I ask for a younger monk to go for me.[xxi]
According to Abbot Gregory, “With this, the decision was made”, and two priests and a brother were sent to begin work in Esquipulas, with more to come in years to follow.[xxii] Today, Abadia de Jesucristo Crucificado is doubling in size with many scholastics and seminarians, some of which are from Honduras.
Over the many years, numerous practices of devotion have come into action in Esquipulas. The most common is standing in line for sometimes hours, only to spend one or two minutes at the most kneeling at the foot of El Cristo Negro, and then proceeding to walk away backwards, so as to not turn their back on their Lord. When one first walks into the Basilica, he or she will notice the many candles across the floor, causing the layer of wax that is to be cleaned periodically throughout the day. According to Abbot Gregory, “they burn candles for everyone in their family who could not come”.[xxiii] At the high points of the pilgrimages, Mass is said every hour with the confessional constantly in use and a waiting line is formed outside the window for submitting Mass intentions. But what is most amazing, is for the festival in January, tents of tarp begin to pop up and cover the plaza in front of the Church, as pilgrims arrive three and four days in advance, in anticipation of the great feast to come.
“Pilgrims come from all over—they come here to pray—not as tourists,” said Abbot Gregory. This is true, as a study was done in 1987, showing that somewhere around one million pilgrims visit the shrine every year. The majority of pilgrims (60%) come from Guatemala, while another 20% come from Honduras and 10% come from El Salvador. The remaining 10% come from Mexico and the United States, with Mexico having the upper hand of the two.[xxiv] The two “most popular” times of pilgrimage are the week of Easter and the Feast of El Cristo Negro, celebrated on January 15. But the most populous times are the Feast and July, as both are during the area’s dry season.[xxv]
One testimony to the popularity of El Cristo Negro is the many copies of it that have appeared in Churches both near and far. Each of these has their own areas from which they draw pilgrims. Numbers in these pilgrimages correspond to the distance from Esquipulas and the status of those in nearby areas. Many who cannot afford to spend the money or take the time to make the trek to Esquipulas simply go to a nearby Church that houses a copy of El Cristo Negro.[xxvi] This seems to be reasonable, as it is not the image itself that is venerated, but the person who the image represents—in this case, Jesus Christ.[xxvii] One such example would be El Santuario de Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas in Chimayo, New Mexico, which brings in more pilgrims than any other site in the United States. Finished in 1816, it was founded by Spanish-Mexican settlers.[xxviii] Another example is in Guatemala, in a town called Chinque de las Flores. According to the 1987 study, “Estimates indicate that as many as 5,000 persons journey” to the town “during a week prior to January fifteenth.”[xxix]
One other comment Abbot Gregory made in his May 31, 2000, talk, is that El Cristo Negro “is truly a ‘thanksgiving shrine’”.[xxx] This is true for two reasons. First, the pilgrims themselves go to the shrine to give thanks for themselves, their families, and whatever else they have. But the second reason applies to a political event that took place at the shrine. May of 1986 saw the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala come together and pray before El Cristo Negro in hopes of peace being found in Central America. About ten years after, a treaty was signed, with Esquipulas seen as the starting point of the road to that treaty.
Others, however, come with prayers for those in need. In 1996, for example, Pope John Paul II made a visit to the shrine, as one of the pilgrims himself.[xxxi] As he knelt “praying at the foot of the Crucifix”, he prayed for the “millions of the poor in Latin America, crucified because of human injustice.”[xxxii] He also celebrated the Eucharist in the Basilica, which he later described as “a moment of great spiritual intensity”.[xxxiii] At the end of his homily, John Paul referred to El Cristo Negro as “This ‘most perfect and complete’ image of Christ on the Cross”, proceeding to recall the many occasions that have taken place at the shrine, including the 1986 meeting of the five Central American Presidents.[xxxiv]
El Cristo Negro certainly has put its name in history as one of the most important shrines in the Americas. Its festivals are times filled with much joy and celebration, but at the same time much piety and prayer. The inside of the Basilica may not be the most beautiful of Catholic Churches, but to the pilgrims that means nothing. What matters is that the Lord of Esquipulas watches over them as they pray for themselves, family, and friends. In a nation that has been torn by civil war, genocide, oppression, and other social injustices, El Cristo Negro is a sign of optimism for a better future.
[i] “Guatemala: A Brief History” in “Mission Pilgrimage: Esquipulas”, Matt Rousso ed., pg. 7-9, paragraph 1-2
[ii] Ibid, 2
[iii] Ibid, 4
[iv] “Guatemala” in The World Factbook <http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/gt.html>, November 1, 2005, background
[v] Ibid, Population
[vi] “Guatemala: A Brief History”, 1
[vii] Ibid, 6
[viii] “Talk by Abbot Gregory” in “Mission Pilgrimage: Esquipulas”, Matt Rousso ed., pg. 10-12, paragraph 1
[x] Ibid, 2
[xi] Horst, Oscar H., Robert N. Thomas, and John M. Hunter, “Pilgrim Networks of the Holy Shrine of Esquipulas, Guatemala” in Journal of Cultural Geography, Fall/winter 2002, vol 20, Issue 1, pgs 27-50, paragraph 2
[xii] “Talk by Abbot Gregory”, 4
[xiii] Ibid, 3
[xv] Ibid, 4
[xvi] Eventually a parish church was built, connected to the “little chosita”. The hut still stands today, connected to the parish church, which now holds a replica of El Cristo Negro.
[xviii] “Thanksgiving for peace at Guatemala shrine”, Catholic World News, <http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=4066>, Jan 20, 1997.
[xix] “Talk by Abbot Gregory”, 5
[xx] Ibid, 6
[xxi] Ibid, 7
[xxiii] Ibid, 8
[xxiv] Horst, paragraph 1
[xxv] Ibid, 10
[xxvi] Ibid, 33
[xxvii] Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q 81, art 3, rep obj 3
[xxviii] Lamadrid, Enrique R, “On the Road to Chimayo” in US Catholic, Mar 2001, vol 66 Issue 3, page 30-5, paragraph 4
[xxix] Horst, 34
[xxx] “Talk by Abbot Gregory”, 8
[xxxiv] “Homily at Holy Cross Shrine”, 2