Maracaibo, the second-largest city in Venezuela, is nicknamed La Tierra del Sol Amada — “the Land of the Beloved Sun.”
The reason for the nickname is obvious: during every month of the year the sun burns over the Maracuchos, as locals affectionately call themselves. Temperatures often average 95 degrees, and easily exceed 110.
Maracaibo is hardly the first place where you would envision a lengthy religious procession.
But despite the heat, Maracaibo has become an epicenter for devotion to St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy image, with an annual procession that usually exceeds 300,000 people.
In fact, Maracaibo is the unlikely home to one of the largest Divine Mercy Sunday processions in the world.
It is hard to imagine 300,000 people in the midday Maracaibo sun, adoring the Blessed Sacrament, then going out into humid air for a three mile walking procession lasting hours, and then standing on baking pavement for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
But year after year, the impossible happens. Maracaibo comes to a standstill on the feast of Divine Mercy, as hundreds of thousands turn to God in prayer.
So how did the Divine Mercy devotion get so popular in a Venezuelan city, thousands of miles from the Polish monastery where it originated?
Nobody really knows.
‘To publicly proclaim mercy’
“I would like one day to be able to reconstruct that history, because there is no record of how the devotion began,” said Jose Luis Matheus, president of the María, Camino a Jesús lay association, which organizes the annual procession.
Some older priests say they recall a Maracaibo parish pastor who learned about the Divine Mercy image, and the story of Saint Faustina, during a trip to Italy in the 1950s or 1960s, and then began spreading the devotion back at home.
Others point to a jeweler, nicknamed Adita, who in the 1980s was in charge of organizing a Divine Mercy Mass in La Consolación Parish, where the city’s processional Divine Mercy image lives today.
“When we went to start the procession in 1997, we went to talk to her and she told us ‘Great!’ She said ‘it was time to hand over the baton’ and a few months later she passed away,” Matheus told The Pillar.
But however the devotion first got started, the annual pilgrimages started in 1997, three years before Pope St. John Paul II officially added Divine Mercy Sunday to the Church’s liturgical calendar.
It was Matheus and a group of Maracaibo laymen who felt called to get them started.
“We prayerfully felt a call to publicly manifest our faith and to publicly proclaim mercy,” said Matheus, explaining how the group got started.
“We were on a pilgrimage in Mexico City visiting the Virgin of Guadalupe and we found some religious images in a store, including an image of Jesus of Divine Mercy… We fell in love with the image and bought it. With that image we started the processions,” he said
“At the beginning we were very few. We departed from La Consolación Parish, where the image resides today, and we walked through the nearby streets, giving brochures about Divine Mercy to the people, and inviting them to the Mass that was celebrated that Sunday in the Basilica of Our Lady of Chiquinquirá,” Matheus remembered.
When the processions first began, there was skepticism in Venezuela about the Divine Mercy devotion, Matheus said.
Having its origins in 1930s in Poland, the Divine Mercy devotion was encouraged by Pope St. John Paul II, but had not yet taken root in many parts of the world — and some even questioned the orthodoxy of the Divine Mercy messages, recorded by St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish religious sister.
“We started [after] St. Faustina was beatified [in 1993], which gave her some legitimacy, but we still met with some resistance.”
But eventually, that came to an end. And that’s when Maracaibo’s procession got huge.
“When the pope made the feast of Divine Mercy official, in 2000, everyone joined in,” said Matheus.
“Every year more people joined, so we had to make a change of route.”
“One year, Archbishop Ubaldo Santana, then archbishop of the city, accompanied us in the procession for the first time, and suggested that we go through more of the city’s main streets — there was not enough space [on our route then], because of the number of people.”
In 2015, on the 30th anniversary of Pope Saint John Paul II's visit to the city, organizers learned that they could use a large outdoor space for a Mass, which had also been used for Mass during a papal visit to Maracaibo in 1985.
That change of venue brought the event to its current scale. Catholics from across Venezuela, and from Panama, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Colombia and the U.S. began to attend.
By 2018, there were 300,000 people attending the procession, according to official figures from city leaders.
In fact, city leaders told The Pillar that in 2022, the procession included some 320,000 people.
‘We wanted people to understand’
The procession begins in the early afternoon on Divine Mercy Sunday, with an hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in La Consolación Church, where the image is kept all year round. The chaplet of Divine Mercy is prayed, and a video is usually played with greetings from the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, St. Faustina’s religious institute.
“Several years ago, a great friend was going to travel to Poland. So we prepared a small dossier for the sisters with the history of what we were doing, but he left it in the hotel and never gave it to the sisters,” Matheus said.
But something unusual happened.
A few years later, the same friend “went back to Poland and met with the sisters and when he said he was from Maracaibo, they immediately said: ‘Maracaibo, of course, a great festival of mercy.’” Matheus explained.
“The hotel staff had seen that the documents were addressed to the sisters and sent them to them,” he recalled.
From a friendship with St. Faustina’s sisters, new opportunities were born.
“We were concerned about whether people really knew what the feast of Divine Mercy was all about [in Maracaibo],” Matheus said.
“We did not want it to become something simply cultural, we wanted people to understand the origins of the feast and of Divine Mercy. We came up with the idea of making a documentary. So we traveled to Poland with letters from our bishop, we established a bridge with the sisters and they helped us co-produce the documentary, called “Confio” — “I trust.”
“From there we [formed] a very close relationship with the sisters. They even sent us a relic of St. Faustina that accompanies the image of Jesus of Mercy in the procession,” added Matheus.
‘It’s very, very hot’
After a holy hour, the three-mile walking procession itself begins.
Three hundred and twenty thousand people is more than 10% of Maracaibo’s total population. It is not an exaggeration to say that the city comes to a halt for the annual procession.
And with temperatures on Divine Mercy Sunday regularly exceeding 100 degrees, many people in the city find ways to put mercy into practice — those who do not walk the procession often set themselves on street corners, to offer water, fruit or sports drinks to those who walk.
“This year, our school participated with the boys from fifth year distributing water and ice to those who walked. And usually about 10 or 15 schools always do the same,” the director of a Catholic school in Maracaibo told The Pillar.
“But also many companies and many people spontaneously do the same in front of their home or business.”
In addition to the water offered along the route, organizers set up 55 official hydration points along the procession route, and the mayor's office arranges ambulances and paramedics, since fainting is not uncommon.
The city firefighters usually appear on some street corners to spray with their hoses the Catholics walking in the procession.
“When we showed the images of the feast in Maracaibo to Cardinal Dziwisz, who was the private secretary of Saint John Paul II, he looked at the photos and videos and was impressed. And he said to me ‘Is this Maracaibo? … [It is] very hot, very hot’," Matheus said with a laugh.
“The cardinal remembered the heat when he was here with the pope in '85,” Matheus chuckled.
Matheus explained that the procession takes place often in the hottest part of the day on Divine Mercy Sunday, so that Mass can be offered before it gets dark. Electricity is notoriously unreliable in Venezuela, and Maracaibo has limited infrastructure for evening events.
“The time of the procession [in the hot part of the day] is not the best in a city like ours, but we do it that way so that the Mass can be offered with natural light and then people can go home safely afterwards,” Matheus explained.
“Perhaps in a better lit city, with more security and traffic, with more public transportation, we could look for an easier schedule of the day.”
“But people aren't stopped by the heat or the sun, it's impressive,” he added.
“This is a feast that the laity offer. It is something that arose in the midst of the laity, all the work assignments are carried out by lay people. Of course, without priests, there are no feasts because there are no sacraments, and there is no one to administer mercy.”
On the primary role of laity in the procession, “a priest jokingly told me that all that was left was for us to celebrate Mass and hear confessions,” Matheus said with a laugh. “But that's up to them, the priests.”
‘That’s the real miracle’
Matheus told The Pillar that he believes devotion to Divine Mercy is so popular in Maracaibo largely because locals attribute miracles and physical healings to the procession.
"Jesus told St. Faustina that on the Day of the feast of mercy, ‘the floodgates of heaven are open and I pour out a sea of graces on those who come to ask for it.’ I think that is true to the letter,” he explained.
“A few days ago, I was in a store and a woman recognized me and told me that she has been walking the procession for 15 years, because when she was pregnant she had an illness and the doctors told her that her daughter was going to be born deaf or blind. But she asked Jesus of Mercy for a miracle, and her daughter was born very healthy, [with no disability],” Matheus explained.
“Also, once I was in my store, and a lady from a government agency came in, and while we were talking, she told me that Jesus of Mercy had performed a great miracle for her.”
“She told me that she was a santera, and despite all the ‘works’ that she did in that religion, she couldn’t get pregnant. Then she told God that if he gave her a child, she would not step foot in any church but a Catholic Church. Shortly after she got pregnant and had a girl,” he said.
“But then, her very young girl had a very strange illness, and they had to hospitalize her in the ICU. The doctors had already told her to say goodbye to her daughter because there was no treatment for her, and that if, by some miracle, she survived, the child would be like a ‘vegetable.’”
“Coincidentally, her aunt told her on the Saturday before the feast of Divine Mercy that she should go to the procession to ask Jesus of Mercy for a miracle. That year we took a different route, and the image passed right in front of the hospital where the girl was hospitalized and there the aunt told her ‘this is the moment, ask the Lord for a miracle’ and she knelt down and asked for her daughter," he added.
“The next day, she got a call from the hospital, early in the morning, telling her to go to the hospital. At first, she thought the daughter died. But when she arrived at the hospital, she saw her daughter, perfectly healthy, being held by a nurse.”
“The doctors said they didn't change the treatment, they didn't do anything different—that they had no explanation. One of the doctors even asked her if she had gone to the Divine Mercy procession the day before and she said yes. The doctor told her that they had no other possible explanation,” Matheus added, obviously awed by the story, even after telling it many times.
“Listen, I am telling you two testimonies, but I have hundreds like this. We can be here all day. I believe that these miracles have made the devotion grow,” he said.
But Matheus said he is convinced that the greatest miracle is another: the sacrament of confession.
"On the day of the procession we place a lot of emphasis on providing spaces for confession, we ask the priests of the diocese to accompany us on the day, with confession both in the church where the procession begins, and in the place where we have Mass at the end.”
“And that is where the miracles begin: I once saw a whole line of people who said they had gone more than 10 years without going to confession. Others who have not confessed since their first communion. I have seen people who have gone 70 or 80 years without confession, and that day they come to the sacrament,” said Matheus.
"That's the real miracle."
If the real miracle is Catholics turning to Jesus, then perhaps the nature of Venezuela’s Divine Mercy procession is best summed in word from the homily of Archbishop José Luis Azuaje of Maracaibo, as he preached at the procession Mass this year:
“Let us always turn to Jesus. Always. If you think that Jesus won’t hear us where we are, forget it! He has heard us before. He is our permanent companion!”
“Everyone who walked today, remember the road to Emmaus and think how many times Jesus has met you on the road. Surely you knew him in the procession today, in meeting with one another, in the rosary that we prayed. Of course, we have found him! Although we don't realize it, he was walking next to each one of you."