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DIVINA PASTORA OF GAPAN NUEVA ECIJA

 

FROM PASTURE TO PARADISE:

The Guiding Presence of La Virgen Divina Pastora

By Rev. Fr. Mark Ancheta

 


 

 

A.    ORIGINS

 

From a lovely vision in Spain…

 

Tracing the story of the devotion to La Virgen Divina Pastora takes us back to 1703 to a devout Franciscan with a deep love for Christ and a profound reverence for His Mother. The Capuchin friar named Isidro or Isidore in the convent of Sevilla, Spain (not to be confused with St. Isidore of Seville who lived in the seventh century) was meditating on the Lord Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd when he reportedly had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Divina Pastora de las Almas (Divine Shepherdess of Souls). Fray (Friar) Isidro later asked a painter, Alonso Miguel de Tovar, to depict what he saw in his vision. And he gave the following description:

 

“In the center and under the shade of a tree, the Blessed Virgin seated on a rock, radiating love and tenderness from her divine face. The red tunic covers the bust to the knees in white fur, cinched at the waist. A blue cloak, attached to the left shoulder, wraps the outline of her body, and towards the right, on the back, she wears the shepherd’s hat, and next to the right hand appears the staff. Her left hand holds some roses and her right hand rests on a lamb that is held onto her lap. Some sheep surround the Virgin, forming her flock, and all in their mouths carry pink paths, symbolic of the Hail Mary with which they venerate her. In the distance you see a lost sheep being chased by the wolf – the emerging enemy from a cave eager to devour it, but the sheep pronounces the Hail Mary, expressed by a label in its mouth, demanding help; and the archangel Saint Michael appears, coming down from Heaven, with the protective shield and the arrow, which he must sink into the head of the cursed wolf…” (translated and adapted from the “Divina Pastora de las Almas,” Wikipedia – La Enciclopedia Libre).

 

After some time, a statue of the Virgin according to the same description was commissioned and propagated by the Capuchins. They effectively spread devotion to this image through the confraternities they founded under the new title of the Mary, the Shepherdess of Souls.

 

It is no surprise that a Capuchin friar should spearhead such a devotion. For in Spain at that time, and everywhere else, up to the contemporary period, the Franciscans are a deeply Marian congregation and where they do mission work, they inculcate in people a reverence and love for the Mother of God. Fray Isidro’s community promoted the Rosary in Sevilla, and so it can be said that the new devotion to La Virgen Divina Pastora was but a natural flowering of the Franciscan zeal to spread love for the Virgin Mary.

 

The Shepherdess, an ancient Marian image…

 

However, the image of Mary as a shepherdess was not entirely a novelty started by Fray Isidro. Centuries prior, the Virgin Mary has been explicitly or implicitly mentioned in relation to Christ the Lamb and Shepherd, to the flock of God, or as one who leads to the nourishing pastures of faith.

 

Saints and mystics alike mentioned Mary in her role as a shepherdess of souls, leading people to Christ her Son. John Geometres, a Byzantine monk, St. John of God, St. Peter Alcantara and Venerable Maria Jesus de Agreda referred in their writings about Mary as shepherd.  As early as the 5th century, the ancient Eastern hymn called Akathistosrefers to Mary in this way:

 

(from the 3rd chant)

“Hail, O Tendril whose Bud shall not wilt!

Hail, O Soil whose Fruit shall not perish!

Hail, O Tender of mankind’s loving Tender!

Hail, O Gardener of the Gardener of Life!

Hail, O Earth who yielded abundant mercies!

Hail, O Table full-laden with appeasement!

Hail, for you have greened anew the pastures of delight!

Hail, for you have prepared a haven for the souls!

Hail, acceptable Incense of Prayer!

Hail, Expiation of the whole universe!

Hail, O you Favor of God to mortal men!

Hail, O you Trust of mortals before God!

Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!”

 

(from the 4th chant)

“Hail, O Mother of Lamb and Shepherd!

Hail, O Fold of rational sheep!

Hail, O Protection against unseen foes!

Hail, O Key to the Doors of Paradise!

Hail, for the heavenly rejoice with the earth!

Hail, for the earthly meet the heavens in song!

Hail, the Unsilenced Voice of the Apostles!

Hail, the Undaunted Might of Martyrs!

Hail, O Steadfast Foundation of Faith!

Hail, O Shining Emblem of Grace!

Hail, O you through whom death was despoiled!

Hail, O you through whom we were clothed with glory!

Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!”

(from “Akathist Hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary,”  Catholic Online)

 

While Fray Isidro wrote about a vision of Mary, it was not clear in what form it came. Was it a vision that came in a dream? Did it occur as an idea through the imagination in prayer or meditation? Did Mary appear to the humble friar?

 

One of the disciples of Fray Isidro wrote that the vision he referred to was an idea, that had its root in divine inspiration. “Although some have wanted to say that Mary Most Holy appeared to him in a shepherdess dress, ordering him to have her paint in the same dress in which she appeared to him, I cannot approve of these voices, what happened here, as I heard him … It was more than a pious idea; although it is true that he assured me that he had had it by divine inspiration” (Rodriguez, 2012).

 

The former archbishop of Sevilla, the Blessed Cardinal Marcelo Spinola y Maestre seemed to believe that the vision must have been in some form of apparition of Mary to the discreet and humble friar. “Did he really have, as crowds counted, a vision of heaven … or … did he have a heavenly inspiration? We judge, from what concerns us, the first thing … The divine will has been revealed by supernatural vision, now it has been manifested by celestial inspiration, there is no doubt that the invocation of Shepherdess of the Souls, attributed to Mary, has come down from on high, as John’s name given to the Baptist came down…” (Rodriguez, 2012).

 

Fray Isidro never did explicitly explain the circumstances that accompanied his vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, perhaps in an attempt to focus more attention on the Blessed Mother rather than on himself. However, the fact that people readily embraced the image he proposed of Mary as Shepherdess of souls is enough testimony that this was in fact, inspired by deep faith and reflection on the role of the Blessed Mother within the flock of God’s holy people. No wonder then, that La Virgen Divina Pastora found her way into the hearts of people, their devotions, and their expressions of faith, not only in Spain but all over the world.

 

The French sheepfold…

 

In France, an older devotion to Mary as a shepherdess can be found in the Diocese of Amiens. It centers around a statue now known as Notre Dame de Brebières, which according to tradition was discovered in the 11th century in that place… Here there is an obvious play on words, since the town’s name — Brebières — is similar to a French word for sheep, brebis, and another French word, berger, meaning shepherd. (Kasten, 2018).

 

Tradition holds that when sheep were grazing at Brebières, the shepherd noticed that his herd was concentrating on the same spot for the longest time, biting down on the grass and pulling it up with the roots. The shepherd’s curiosity was kindled, and he started unearthing the ground. He soon found hidden beneath a statue of Our Lady which was sculpted in a piece of flinty yellowish rock.

 

Unlike the Spanish version, the French image represented the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, with a sheep resting at Mary’s feet. It might have been buried underground to protect it from pillaging invaders, a common occurrence at that time. A chapel was erected in the place to honor the discovery of the image. This original small chapel that was immediately visited by pilgrims later became a parish church, that in time gave way to a magnificent basilica.

 

The plain sculpture, of Romanesque style and 1.20 meters tall, represented Mary carrying the Child Jesus with a sheep resting at her feet. As in so many other places, the discovery of the statue elicited both the curiosity and devotion of the local people and those of the surrounding areas of France.

 

These events in France seem to have occurred around the twelfth century, thus predating the vision of the Spanish Fray Isidro. Saint Colette contributed greatly to the dissemination of the name and reputation of Brebières shrine. This saint was a renowned Franciscan tertiary who heroically lived her life following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. The saint, then fourteen years old, was of modest stature and was in precarious health but when she prayed to Our Lady of Brebières, she recovered strength and courage from the Lord. It was also reported that her petite physique grew several inches after her devotion to Our Lady.

 

It is obvious that between the Spanish devotion and the French devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Divine Shepherdess of Souls, the common denominator was the presence of the Franciscan propagators. In Spain, the Franciscan Capuchins, following Fray Isidro, spearheaded the spread of the devotion. They also brought this devotion to the New World that was opening up to them as missionary territories, thus explaining the huge attention and fervent love for La Divina Pastora in Latin America. In France, the pious sentiments of the people were further strengthened by the testimony of the Franciscan St. Colette. A Franciscan thread links the two original places of devotion to Mary, the Shepherdess.

 

 

To a miraculous patroness in the Philippines…

 

The Philippines benefitted from the rich sources of Catholic faith and devotion introduced by the Spanish missionaries. The early missionaries were men of scant resources but were zealous evangelizers of the natives. In the short span of just a few years since their arrival, the missionaries accomplished the Christianization of almost the whole of the country. Love for the Lord Jesus Christ, for his Mother, and for the Church slowly but steadily grew in the hearts of the people.

 

In the agricultural town of Gapan in Nueva Ecija, a unique experience brought the lovely vision from Sevilla, Spain to the Philippine shores. In the late 1700’s a daughter of a wealthy provincial clan had an unusual dream. Doña Juana Valmonte dreamt of the Blessed Virgin Mary beckoning her to fetch a special image of hers from Spain. Upon consultation with her father, Don Bartolome Valmonte, who was the gobernadorcillo of the town, the two decided to consult a friar friend in Manila to interpret the dream.

 

Doña Juana immediately travelled to Manila to seek the help of a friar who was close to the family. The friar convinced Doña Juana to consider securing an image of the La Virgen Divina Pastora from Sevilla as it seemed that this was exactly the description the dream alluded to. The gracious lady arranged for the purchase of such an image and had it transported via the Galleon returning to Manila from Acapulco. The image was then designated as the patroness of the family farm in Barrio Callos.

 

Enshrined in the family home altar at first, the Marian image was later transferred to the Valmonte farmhouse where the family continuosly prayed for abundant harvest. Every first of May, the last day of harvest, a fiesta was held in honor of the Blessed Virgin to thank her for protecting and blessing the family and the farm. When Doña juana died childless and without an heir, the image passed into the care of her siblings. This original image was later on consigned to the care of the Church in 1986.

 

A string of miraculous events were reported in connection with the image and these triggered local legends that even gave birth to an alternative version of its provenance in Barrio Callos. One such endearing story recounted how the Augustinian missionaries brought the image to province. The image eventually got lost but was later found in in the trunks of the callos trees as if watching over some shepherds in the area. Similar stories circulated that depicted the image wandering about doing miracles in people’s lives. For instance it was believed that before the annual fiesta, a woman with a hat on her head and a staff in her hand went about inviting people to attend the festivities at in the barrio. Those who did so found the details of the Marian image fitted the description of the lady who visited them and invited them to the feast.

 

More importantly, in Nueva Ecija, people believed that the presence of La Virgen Divina Pastora provided a sense of security and protection from all natural calamities or manmade disasters. The Virgin Mary was believed to be a powerful intercessor to her children in times of distress, desolation and destruction.

 

 

 

 

B.    GROWING MARIAN ADULATION

 

All throughout Spain, devotion to Mary the Shepherdess is prevalent and active. Outside Spain, the continent that replicates this ardor most is Latin America. The Divina Pastora annual procession in Barquisimeto, Venezuela attracts more than a million pilgrims, that it allegedly rivals the multitudes of Guadalupe and Fatima. Observing videos of the event, one cannot but compare it to the Filipino processions of the Señor Jesus Nazareno and the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia. Trinidad and Tobago also has an image of Divina Pastora that attracts devotees from across the country’s various religions, and so it brings together many people of different creeds.

 

Outside of Europe and Latin America, the lively devotion in Gapan, Nueva Ecija to the La Virgen Divina Pastora speaks volumes about the ingrained appreciation and love of the people of Central Luzon to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her fiestas (on the 1st of May and on the anniversary of the coronation) gather so many people to her shrine in an explosion of joy, gratitude and petition. Her image is brought in pilgrimage to various areas of the country to further spread her message of kindness, care and solicitude for the scattered flock of Her Son, Jesus the Good Shepherd.

 

 

Below are some highlights of the increased devotion and fervent love of the people of Nueva Ecija and of Central Luzon to the revered image of the La Virgen Divina Pastora, the acknowledged “Queen of the Province” and “Queen of the Central Plains.” Devotees find the following events or dates endearing and worthy of constant remembrance:

 

·      Declared Patroness of the Archdiocese of San Fernando (metropolitan)

·      Declared Patroness of the Diocese of Cabanatuan (est. 1963)

·      Canonical Coronation held on April 26, 1964 by virtue of St. Pope Paul VI’s bull Novissima in Insulis

·      Declaration of the Parish of the Three Kings as National Shrine of La Virgen Divina Pastora (1986) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Canonical Coronation

 

Here there is no cause for surprise because the Novo Ecijanos, like all Filipinos, are known worldwide for the fire of their attachment and commitment to the memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mother of the Church. The La Virgen Divina Pastora is a Marian icon that joins the revered images of the Virgin in Luzon that also enjoy the veneration of multitudes of people. There is the Black Madonna of Antipolo — Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, the regal matriarch of Pangasinan — Our Lady of Manaoag, the stately Lady of Ilocos — Our Lady of Piat, just to name a few.

 

The main difference from all these other Luzon images is the fact that Gapan holds pride of place in the devotion to the Divine Shepherdess — the only place in the country where the devotion to this image and title of Mary is popular, active, alive, and massive. One only has to survey the profuse literature in the internet and social media to see how Nueva Ecijanos bestowed on their unique Marian image a pulsating and vibrant affection.

 

La Virgen Divina Pastora is by no means formally venerated in our country only in Gapan. There is also a quiet but steadfast devotion to her in the beautiful barangay of Tambo in Lipa City. There stands a parish church warmly entrusted to the patronage of the Divina Pastora. According to the story, the original image came to the barangay through three travelling Spanish men who left the image in the care of the teniente del barrio, at an undetermined time in the past. Enthroned in the barrio’s tuklong (chapel), which was gutted by fire, the original image was severely damaged and eventually got lost. The replacement image now shows the Divina Pastora standing rather than seated, as in the image of Gapan which was faithful to the vision from Sevilla, Spain.

 

As a surprising footnote to history, it must not be forgotten that in 1892, when the Capuchin Fathers opened their Intramuros chapel, La Divina Pastora de Intramuros was nominated patroness of that sacred sanctuary. A charming representation brought by the Capuchins showed Mary swarmed by adoring, meek lambs. The image however succumbed to the ravages of the wartime bombings of Manila, together with other precious icons and images treasured by the different religious orders who owned churches in what was know before as the “city of a hundred churches.”

C.    REFLECTIONS

 

Let us now try to understand the profound meaning of the title, the  sacred icon and the devotion to La Virgen Divina Pastora. For without such comprehension, any devotion, however well-intentioned, will fall into distortions of doctrine, superstitions or purely mechanical exercise. While we cannot cover all the questions, at least we can give some explanations to the major points surrounding our devotion to Our Lady.

 

Why Divina Pastora? Is Mary “divine” like her Son, Jesus the Lord?

 

The title can indeed give rise to misinterpretations. “Divine” Shepherdess can give the impression that Mary is considered at par with God in majesty, glory and divinity. However the word “divine” in the title is not meant to attribute to Mary the rank of a goddess but to describe the nature of her motherhood. The Divine Maternity of Mary refers to her becoming, through sheer grace of the Lord, the chosen mother of God’s Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. It is not Mary who was divine but the Son she carried in her womb. The title shows the unique and irreplaceable role of the Incarnation in the history of salvation. God’s Only Son truly became a human being, and this through a humble maiden who willingly and wholeheartedly gave her consent to be an instrument of God’s saving power.

 

La Virgen Divina Pastora therefore, is all about motherhood; Mary is the Mother who took into her arms, her first lamb — the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

 

Why Pastora? In what sense was Mary a Shepherdess?

 

In the ancient world of the shepherds of Israel, it was mostly men who took charge of the flocks. However it was believed that when the men were out to run after wolves or other ferocious animals, the women took over the care of the flocks. The title Shepherdess, attributed to Mary, is not to be taken literally. As mentioned above, this title is a fitting one for Mary, in the sense that she nurtured Jesus, the Lamb of God.

 

Indeed, it is Jesus himself who is the Good Shepherd, the one who knows each of his sheep and whose voice the sheep follow. Mary is figuratively shepherdess, in that she cared for Jesus, and she now cares for the flock — the lambs and sheep — belonging to her Son, if we will trust her and allow her to care for us as she solicitously cared for her Son. She is therefore, shepherdess in the sense again of her motherhood, for Jesus and for each and every Christian who comes to her.

 

In what way is Mary our Shepherdess?

 

Mary had a special mission from God, to unite herself to Jesus the Good Shepherd in guiding and guarding the flock with simplicity, determination and kindness. She pleads and intercedes for the flock. She offers herself as a Mother and a sister to all who want to follow Jesus in faithfulness and truth.

 

Mary is our Shepherdess too, in the way she protects, consoles and soothes every Christian who put his or her trust in her motherly love and solicitude. This is the way a shepherd acts toward the sheep. But a mother does this also for her children. It would not be wrong to surmise that perhaps, Mary’s own way of protecting, consoling and soothing Jesus as a child left an imprint on his heart and from this example he learned to incorporate these merciful actions in his own life. Considering the sure influence of Mary on her Son, it is not so unusual for us to regard Mary as the “the Good Shepherdess,” the Mother of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Our Lord.

 

Patron and Model of Priests

 

Each priest assumes the role of shepherd. Entrusted with the pastoral care of people in parishes, schools, hospitals, and all sorts of communities, priests follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd. As the Mother of the Lord Jesus, Mary knows the challenges involved in becoming a shepherd of souls. She saw in Jesus the joys and the tribulations attendant to leading and guiding people to the Kingdom. She witnessed too, the behavior the flock, that not all are too willing to obey and follow, but many too, act rebelliously and stubbornly.

 

Mary prays constantly for the shepherds of the Church today. She takes them into the mantle of her love and protection just as she took the Lamb of God into her own heart. She guides the shepherds themselves to discover the presence and the power of the Good Shepherd they both follow and represent. La Virgen Divina Pastora has a special place in her heart for bishops, priests, religious and seminarians.

 

 

 

References Consulted:

 

Castro, Andro. Towards a Filipino Mariology at the Advent of the Third Millennium (dissertation)

 

Catholic Online

 

Casten, Patricia. “Mary is a Good Shepherd Too,” The Compass

 

Cruces Rodriguez, Jose Francisco. “La Divina Pastora de las Almas: Historia de la Advocacion e Iconografia, y su Vinculacion con la Ciudad de Malaga

 

Pintakasi Blog

 

Wikepedia, La Enciclopedia Libre