SANTA NINO DE ATOCHA: Plateros, Zacatecas
The headlines today are replete with stories of persecuted Christians: “Fresh Risk of Genocide to Middle East Christians” and “Breaking the Silence on Nigeria’s Christian Genocide” are commonplace in today’s news (Crisis magazine).
This, of course, is nothing new: For almost 800 years (711-1492) Spain was under Muslim occupation. Christians, then as now, were often brutally persecuted. As Christian resistance increased, the jails filled up! Muslim law dictated that only children could bring food and drink to the near-starved prisoners. But woe to those prisoners without children! They faced starvation on a regular basis.
According to a 15th century Dominican tradition, help did indeed come to these unfortunate souls. The story is told that one day in Atocha, Spain, a child dressed as a pilgrim in cape and plumed hat, carried a basket of food into the prison. No matter how much food he distributed, his basket remained full to the brim. All present were astonished by the miracle. The prisoners related that they were filled with peace and consolation when the tiny child lifted his hand to bless them. This was the Christ Child who became known as SANTO NINO DE ATOCHA.
The sacristan related that the Infant Child left his mother’s arms (from the statue) for several nights and journeyed through the dusty streets of the town. When he returned to His mother’s arms, the sacristan reported that His sandals were splattered with mud!
In 1566 Spanish Dominican friars brought a statue of Santo Nino to the Northwestern state of Zacatecas in Mexico. They preached about Santo Nino and his miracles and, eventually, in 1789 a church was built in His honour in Plateros, Zacatecas, a mining centre. The mountainous state of Zacatecas was at one time the largest producer of silver in the world. Consequently, most of its inhabitants were miners. The Dominicans compared the fate of the prisoners in Spain to that of the miners in Zacatecas, many of whom perished in perilous conditions underground. The friars encouraged the miners to pray to Santo Nino for protection.
His reputation as a miracle worker grew. And the grateful Zacatecans left testimonials at the shrine to give thanks. These testimonials are in the form of small paintings, known as EX-VOTOS, which describe the miracle in a pictorial form. They all begin with the words, “Doy Gracias” (“I give thanks.”) The donors’ purpose is to portray publicly the wonders God has worked in their lives.
We read about Feliciano Pitello who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle in Mexico City on June 9, 1959, and was saved from serious injury. He stated in his ex-voto: “I am making this public for the benefit of those who do not believe.”
Alberto Acosta gives thanks in 1973 for “saving me from fractures.” He is pictured, grimacing in pain, with his leg caught under a refrigerator which had fallen from a dolly. In each ex-voto Santo Nino is prominently shown as the One implored for the favour.
Miracles seemed to abound in Plateros through Santo Nino’s intercession! So impressed was the bishop of Zacatecas in 1882 with the “great quantity of acknowledged favours” that he ordered a special “salon” to be built for their display. This can be seen at the shrine today. With walls overflowing with ex-votos! Those from the families of soldiers in World War ll and the Gulf and Iraq wars, are numerous, as well as those with health, migration and family concerns.
It is not only church officials which attest to Santo Nino’s miraculous intercession. Municipal officials do as well! It even calls itself the city of miracles: As one enters the town of Plateros the pilgrim sees an enormous arch which spans the highway, emblazoned with the words, PLATEROS: TIERRA DE LA FE Y LOS MILAGROS (“Plateros, Land of Faith and Miracles.”)
The shrine of Santo Nino de Atocha in Plateros, Zacatecas, is considered the third most venerated shrine in Mexico, after the Basilica of Guadalupe and the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Santo Nino is the patron of those unjustly imprisoned, travelers and miners. His feastday is January 1.
Let us remember in this coming new year to pray to Santo Nino for justice for Cardinal Pell imprisoned in Australia!
Portions of this article have been reprinted with permission from the CANADIAN MESSENGER OF THE SACRED HEART.