Multitude flocks to Mexico's Basilica of Guadalupe

A multitude surrounds Mexico City's Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the feast day of Mexico's patroness

MEXICO CITY -- A multitude surrounded Mexico City's Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe Thursday following days of pilgrimage from all over the country.

By 7 a.m. officials estimated a crowd of 9.8 million in the area surrounding one of the Roman Catholic world's holiest shrines, according to national civil defense coordinator David Leon. That number seemed almost impossible, however: It would exceed the population of Mexico City itself.

The Dec. 12 pilgrimage honors the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patroness. Many carry large statues or other images of the cerulean-shrouded, contemplative virgin as they stream en masse to the temple. Some make the last stretch crawling emotionally — and painfully — on their knees.

According to church tradition, in 1531 the dark-skinned virgin appeared to the indigenous peasant Juan Diego and her image was imprinted on his cloak, which is on display inside the church. Juan Diego was made a saint in 2002 by Saint John Paul II.

The masses are so huge that people are often left to sleep on the sidewalk while they wait for a turn inside to view the cloak.