Sunday, May 08, 2005

Our Lady of the Underpass

The Chicago Tribune has been reporting on a religious phenomena that has been occuring in my neighborhood lately. For the past several weeks, droves of largely immigrant Catholics have been making pilgramages to a concrete underpass underneath the Kennedy expressway in order to venerate what they believe to be an 'image' of the Virgin Mary that appeared on the concrete wall. (The image is believed to have taken shape out of a very ordinary, grimy water stain, prompting some critics to dub it, "Our Lady of the Grease Stain.")

Reactions to the 'Marian image' in Chicago generally, but especially in the Logan Square neighborhood where "Our Lady of the Underpass" resides, have been largely drawn along class and racial lines: White and (upper) middle-class residents who immigrated to Chicago from the suburbs tend to see the image as a saltwater stain while Latino and Polish Catholics (particularly first generation immigrants) treat it as a bona fide shrine.

It is the latter group that has transformed this otherwise nondescript underside of a highway into one of the 7th Wonders of Chicagoland. And it was these largely immigrant Catholic families who kept coming to the shrine even after the Illinois Dept. of Transportation painted it over in the hopes of not only removing the grafitti, but also (presumably) reclaiming control over the underpass itself.

I suspect the discursive response among mostly surbanized and fully assimilated non-Catholic whites has fallen into two broad categories:

(1) Secular: These people are religious nuts; and (2) Evangelical: These people are religiously miguided. They are blinded by superstition and idolatry.

Both of these responses have their antecedents in sixteenth century Europe, when the Reformation and (the later) scientific revolution generated a shared polemical discourse that regarded the late medieval Catholic church as "backwards" and hopelessly "corrupt." These two strands of thought -- secular and Protestant -- are very much alive today and color how we view immigrant traditions that may have pre-Reformation (or even extra-Christian) antecedents.

Moral of the story: History has a way of living on in new contexts. Don't be so quick to judge another's religious practice -- for if we do, we reveal more about our own historical legacy than we may think.