SAN NICOLAS - A number can have many meanings. Or none at all. Faith, we know, can’t be measured in numbers. In contrast, there are little details in the middle of a multitude that summarize the phenomenon much better than numbers could.
Elderly people in the crowd are standing up, not crushed by the long hours or the cold. They have been standing since the early morning to see the image of the Virgin Mary of Rosario. You can see the faith in their actions. It is the same faith as the 10-year-old girl in a wheelchair who waves her flag of the Virgin Mary with enthusiasm.
The celebration of the 29th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin Mary in a residence in San Nicolas, a city to the north of Buenos Aires, has gathered more than 800,000 people over the course of this past week. There were 300,000 visitors on Tuesday alone, according to numbers confirmed by the police and the rector of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Rosario, making the pilgrimage the largest in memory.
The faithful came from places as distant as Rio Negro and San Salvador de Jujuy, but also from Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. The religious events in San Nicolas are a Latin American affair.
Just like every year on the 25th of September, the city is radically changed by the faithful who grab up the 2,000 hotel rooms in the city of 146,000 souls. Since there are not nearly enough rooms in San Nicolas, many pilgrims stay in the surrounding cities.
The celebration also generates an explosion in street commerce, which is alight with all sorts of products: gadgets, clothes and baked goods, adorned with the image of the Virgin Mary. “Thank you, Mother,” is written on the box. But there are also Spiderman bubble bottles, because children’s faith sometimes needs to be distracted.
Minutes before the image of the Virgin left the sanctuary and was paraded through the streets of San Nicolas, a woman was offering “three handkerchiefs for 10 pesos,” to wave at Mary as the image passed. And above the house of Gladys Motta, where the Virgin appeared on September 25, 1983, a woman was selling paper and ballpoint pens for whoever might want to write a letter and put it up in the house. All of the vendors have been betting on the miracle of a good day of business that would carry them for weeks to come.
The Virgin's statue passed six blocks in 35 minutes, cheered by all the faithful watching. When it arrived in the small field, where most of the faithful were congregated, everyone raised their flags with the image of Mary. Bishop Héctor Cardelli called on everyone gathered there to leave their differences behind them to avoid “rancor, injustice and abuse of authority.”
The 800,000 faithful of the past several days seem small in comparison with the stories that each pilgrim carries with them. No number can compete with that single story, chosen by chance. That story might be the one told by Roxana and Victor, a couple who say they felt the presence of the Virgin when their son, who is now 14 and in a wheelchair because of neurological problems, was in intensive neonatal care. “She brought him through it,” they said.
Others might have come to ask for good health. Some preferred to give thanks.
Belcy, 39, was also grateful, but came with a special request. She comes from Colombia and was accompanied by her husband, who she met through an online dating site for single Catholics. In spite of the geographic distance between them, they married in 2010.
The couple now lives in Argentina and came to San Nicolas to ask for “the blessing of a child.” The stories multiplied throughout the day, breaking down barriers and confirming faith. No number could possibly measure that either.