Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 1531)
During the age of exploration of the New World, Our Lady stamped her image firmly with roses on the Americas at the dawn of the establishment of Christian settlements there. In 1519 Hernan Cortes brazenly conquered the three-hundred-year old civilization of the Aztecs. The wounds that the Aztecs bore in the plundering of their gold and jewels and the dismantling of their way of life were festering in the ensuing decade when Father Juan Zumarraga was made the first Bishop of Mexico City and the first Catholic Bishop in all of the Americas in December, 1528. The heavy-handed actions of the Spanish administrators and soldiers in their interactions with the Aztec people made it hard for Catholic Missionaries to gain much ground in converting the native people. Bishop Zumarraga felt compassion to uphold humanitarian rights of the Aztecs amidst his distress at the way they were treated by his own countrymen, the Spanish leaders. Tensions were high that the Aztecs would revolt. Bishop Zumarraga begged Our Lady to intercede before her Son for peace in the storm.
One very humble new convert was Juan Diego, a 57-year-old former Aztec who lived in the area outside of present day Mexico City. Juan Diego’s wife had died and as they had no children, he went to live with his Uncle, Juan Bernadino. Before dawn on Saturday, December 9, 1531 as Juan Diego was walking on his way to attend Mass and to receive more instructions in the Faith, he began to hear the very beautiful sounds of songbirds. Just reaching the base of the hill known as Tepeyac, the song of the birds made Juan stop in wonder. To his ear, the song of these birds was uncommonly beautiful.
Juan paused to marvel and honestly wondered if he were experiencing the paradise he had heard others speak of. Juan sensed the song was coming from the East and looked toward where the sun would soon be rising when suddenly the melody ceased. After some silence he heard a call coming from the top of the hillock hearkening, “Juanito, Juan Dieguito!” He felt no apprehension at the call, rather he felt a joyous excitement to quickly climb the hill. Upon reaching the top, Juan looked for the caller and there a grand Lady stood. To Juan Diego the woman appeared as a royal personage because her garment shone like the sun. The earth below her feet sparkled like a rainbow. The leaves of the surrounding mezquites, nopales and other weeds looked like emeralds and turquoise having gold stems, branches and thorns. He prostrated in her presence and listened to her speak so tenderly to him like someone who loves you so much even though just having met. She said: “Juanito, the most humble of my sons, where are you going?”
He replied, “My Lady, I am on my way to the Church at Tlatelolco for Mass and to study the Faith given by the priests.”
She said, “Know and understand well, you the most humble of my sons, that I am the ever virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live, who is the Creator of all things, Lord of heaven and the earth. I urgently desire that a temple should be built here, so I may pour out all my love, compassion, help, and protection. I am your merciful Mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants on this earth who love me, trust me and invoke my help. I listen to your lamentations and remedy all your miseries, afflictions and sorrows. To accomplish this request, go to the home of the bishop of Mexico, and say that I expressed my great desire that here on this plain a temple should be built. You will accurately relate all you have seen, admired, and what you have heard. Be assured that I will be most grateful for your effort and will reward you. I will make you happy and worthy of recompense for the effort and fatigue that you expend for what I have entrusted to you. Behold, you have heard my mandate, my humble son; go and do your utmost.”
At this point he bowed before her and said: “My Lady, I am going to do as you have asked.” Then he continued on by the trail which led directly into Mexico City. In time he reached the residence of Bishop Juan de Zumarraga. Presently the bishop’s servants paid little heed to Juan Diego and did nothing to initiate a meeting between he and the bishop most likely because of Juan’s lowly state. At last, however, seeing his persistence, they allowed him entrance to the Bishop. Juan fell to his knees before Bishop Zumarraga and related the wonderful events as they had happened to him.
The bishop listened carefully to Juan but gave his story little credence, thinking it to be fantasy. He told Juan to come back in a few days and he would think over his story. Juan Diego left with disappointment in his heart for not having successfully convinced him of the Mother’s request.
On his way home he resigned himself to telling the Mother of his unsuccessful mission. He made his way up the hill, caught sight of her and knelt down. He said, “My Lady, I went where you asked me to go. I gave the Bishop your request for a temple. He listened attentively, but didn’t believe my words. Please, my Lady, entrust this request with someone else… someone more esteemed than I…I am a lowly man.”
“Listen, the least of my sons,” she gently replied, “I have many messengers and servants whom I could call upon for this request, but it is you whom I have chosen. I earnestly implore you to go again tomorrow to the Bishop and ask again for the construction of a temple for which I ask. Tell him again that it is I, Holy Mary, Ever Virgin, Mother of God in person who sends you.”
With renewed determination, Juan Diego agreed to the Heavenly Queen’s request and went home for the night. Very early Sunday morning, Juan got up and traveled to Tlateloloco to attend Mass to be counted among the Indians present. Then in anxious excitement, he again presented himself to Bishop Zumarraga and in tears relayed again that the merciful Mother asked for construction of a temple at the same sight as the apparition. The Bishop listened with greater attention and asked several questions to try to determine Juan Diego’s credibility. While inclined to believe the humble Juan Diego, the Bishop told Juan that in order to act on the request at once, a further sign from the Lady was needed to be certain this was her request. The Bishop’s response was heartening to Juan and he eagerly rushed to tell the Lady about the audience. Bishop Zumarraga had some aides follow Juan to report about where he went and with whom he spoke to in order to check his story. After a short journey the aides lost sight of Juan Diego and although they searched carefully they couldn’t find him. Angry and suspicious of Juan’s motives, the aides recommended to the Bishop that Juan’s words were fraudulent and that he was trying to trick him.
Juan Diego saw the Heavenly Queen for a third time at the top of the hill and joyfully told her of the positive meeting he had with Bishop Zumarraga. She told him to return tomorrow to the hill for the sign, which the bishop requested.
Juan Diego’s joy turned to anxiety when he returned home to find his beloved uncle, Juan Bernadino sick with a high fever. All thoughts of the Heavenly Mother were suspended while Juan sought care for his uncle. A large part of the next day, Monday, December 11 was spent getting a doctor to come to aid Juan Bernadino. Despite the doctor’s efforts, Juan Bernadino grew worse. By nightfall, Juan Bernadino, thinking he was near death, implored Juan Diego to summon a priest for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and for confession.
Before dawn on Tuesday, December 12, 1531, Juan Diego hastily left his uncle to get a priest for the last sacraments. In reaching the base of the Tepeyac hill and remembering that he hadn’t met the Lady yesterday, Juan Diego took steps to avoid the area where the Lady appeared as he thought there wasn’t a moment to be lost. Using a side trail, he avoided the hill, not even imagining that Our Lady would seek him out, but she did. Our dear Mother spoke, “What is the matter? Where are you going?”
Miserably, Juan replied, “In sadness, my Lady, I must tell you that my uncle is seriously ill. He has the plague and is near death. I am hurrying to get a priest to administer the sacraments of anointing and confession for him. If I succeed in doing this, I will return later to go and deliver your message. Forgive me and be patient with me, my Lady.”
How compassionately did Our Lady regard Juan Diego. Her sympathy was evident in these consoling words renown from this fourth apparition, “Listen, my son, to what I tell you now: do not be troubled nor disturbed by anything. Do not fear illness, nor any other distressing occurrence, nor pain. Am I not your merciful Mother? Am I not beside you? I have made you my responsibility so let nothing distress or disturb you. As to the illness of your uncle, he will not die from it, for I tell you, he is already cured.” Juan Diego’s concern was eased. Having assurance by her words, Juan rededicated himself to the Lady’s mission. Our Lady told him, “Go, my son, to the top of the hill where we met before. There you will find flowers growing. Gather them and bring them to me.”
Juan Diego immediately went to the top of the hill. The scene he found was described best in the words of Father Miguel Sanchez, one of the first chroniclers of the Miracle of Guadalupe. Father Sanchez wrote, “There appeared before his eyes diverse flowers, blooming by a miracle, born of a prodigy, uncovered by a portent. The roses invited their beauty, the lilies offering their tribute of milk, the carnations – flesh and blood, violets – ardor, jasmines, rosemary – hope, iris-love, and broom – captivity. The flowers eagerly rivaled each other and seemed to speak to his hands, not only hoping that he would cut them, but sensing the glory for which they were being cut.” How astounding this was, given that it was December when the ground was too cold for flourishing plants, especially flowers in full bloom and touched with dew when the normal vegetation were thistles, prickly pears, and mesquite.
Juan Diego wore a cactus woven cloak over his clothing. It was a type of mantle to protect against the cold. Known as a tilma, this garment could be described as a length of fabric six feet long and three feet wide that could reach from the front of a person around to the back. Juan tied the bottom of his tilma behind his head and then picked the exquisite flowers and gathered them in the fold of his tilma and then went back to Our Lady to show her. Incredibly, Our Lady took the flowers and arranged them in his tilma with her own hands. She told him, “These roses are the sign that you are to take to the Bishop. Tell him that in them, he will recognize my will and fulfill it. Only in the presence of the Bishop are you to show the roses and tell him all that has happened to you so that he may agree to the construction of the temple.”
Juan Diego went with enthusiasm directly to the Bishop’s residence. He was treated derisively by the Bishop’s servants, however. They wouldn’t announce him to the Bishop and he waited long. The servants noted that he was carrying something curious. They tried to look at what Juan was carefully holding within his tilma, and started to push him to better see, but Juan warded them off on three attempts. One guard caught sight of the colorful bundle and smelled the intoxicating fragrance they were giving off. That prompted him to tell the Bishop that Juan Diego had returned with a curious offering.
Juan told the Bishop all that had happened that day and said that he brought the sign with him. At that time, he unfolded his tilma and let tumble down the exquisite flowers and roses to the floor. The Bishop was marveling at the beauty of the flowers especially what appeared to be Castilian (Spanish) roses that Juan presented. Then he looked at Juan Diego himself and was wonder-struck at the sight on his tilma. He got up from his episcopal chair and knelt down in front of Juan. There on Juan Diego’s tilma was a glorious image of the Holy Mother just as she had appeared to him. What a moment in time! Here was the answer to the prayers Bishop Zumarraga had made to the Virgin for her to intercede before God for peace in the land. She had wrapped her image around the Castilian roses that he knew from Spain with a heavenly fragrance. Both Bishop Zumarraga and Juan Diego felt heavenly affirmation in each of their missions by the most generous and gentle Mother of Jesus. Bishop Zumarraga untied the tilma from Juan Diego and took it to his chapel and hung it on the wall next to the altar. He gave thanks to God and to his mother for so great a miracle. The Bishop invited Juan Diego to stay at length and treated him as a privileged guest. They visited the Tepeyac hill where the apparitions took place and where the Virgin Mary asked for the Church to be built.
Elated at the successful outcome of the audience with the Bishop, Juan Diego asked permission to return to his uncle to see how he was. Juan saw that his Uncle Juan Bernardino’s health had been completely restored. Juan Diego marveled when his uncle told him that the Holy Virgin herself had appeared to him under the same visage as how she had appeared to him and cured his ailment. He said that she called herself, “The Ever Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.”
News spread far and wide about these events. Many, many people flocked to the Bishop’s residence to view the tilma. The Bishop led a procession with the tilma from his private chapel to place it in the Cathedral so that more people could view it.
Not only was the miraculous origin of the image wondered at, the Aztec people saw several things in the Holy Virgin’s image that were deeply symbolic to them. The blue-green color of the mantle of Our Lady indicated that she was of the royal class and the pattern of forty-eight golden stars on her mantle confirmed that she was royal and powerful. The small brooch on the center of the neckline of her dress has a cross on it indicating that our Queen is Christian, the religion of the Spaniards, not a pagan deity. Our Lady has her eyes lowered and her hands are folded in prayer showing that although she is royal, she is a humble and devout subject of the eternal God.
The native people recognized the tie around her waist as a symbol of maternity that indicated that she was with Child. God gave us an earthly miraculous image of the Queen who carries the Messiah, the Savior of the world in her blessed womb. The Queen is seen standing on a crescent moon. In the pictograph tradition of the Aztec people, the crescent was symbolic to them as the feathered serpent pagan god, Quetzalcoatl. Worship of this demanding pagan god entailed offering children as human sacrifices to him. Twenty thousand children and people were sacrificed annually to Quetzalcoatl by one estimate. The Queen is pictured standing on the burned-out crescent, Quetzalcoatl, demonstrating that she is more powerful than he. Her humble posture with lowered eyes, her identifying modest brooch with a cross emblazoned upon it, and her position of stepping on Quetzalcoatl all exhibit that Christianity is victorious, not through violence, but through humility.
The pictures the Native Americans saw in the image of Guadalupe spoke volumes to them. The design on the dress Our Lady wore has nine big golden flowers on it each one surrounded with smaller blossoms. The stems of the nine larger flowers point out to the Lady’s star-covered mantle. One interpretation of the design is that the flowers of the dress have their roots in the stars of the mantle and that truth (flowers) has its origin in God (stars).
There is a four-petaled jasmine flower design on the dress that is near the womb of the Mother. The four petals represent the four directions: north, east, south, and west that encompass the earth. The placement of the center of the jasmine over where Mary bears Jesus, symbolizes that He is King of all nations, even in the womb.
The indigenous people came to view the miraculous tilma in droves and it brought about a monumental change in their mentality. No longer would they have to sacrifice their precious children to the demanding Quetzalcoatl whom they appeased by human sacrifices in their religion of fear. Rather the consoling, motherly words of Our Lady were repeated over and over by Juan Diego thousands of times to all those who wanted to hear his witness, ”… I am your merciful Mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants on this earth who love me, trust me and invoke my help. I listen to your lamentations and remedy all your miseries, afflictions and sorrows…”
The Church that Our Lady asked for was erected by Indians who worked long hours to have the adobe shrine ready for Christmas, 1531 just two weeks after the end of the apparitions. A great dedication was planned for the Shrine December 26, 1531. On the four-mile road that led from the Bishop’s Church to the new chapel for Our Lady, the Indians strew flowers and fragrant herbs. There were musicians, dancers, and actors who took their part in the pageantry that surrounded the installation of the tilma in the new chapel. A tragedy occurred when an Indian was accidentally pierced by an arrow in the neck in a mock battle enactment. He had expired from the wound. In tears they brought him before the image of Our Lady on the tilma and prayed fervently for his healing. It was done! The afflicted man arose and had only a scar as evidence of his brush with death and subsequent restoration to health.
The healings and the miraculous image caused a great awakening to the Catholic faith. Many conversions occurred, much more than would be expected than through the efforts of the missionaries alone. Father Motolina, one of the twelve Franciscan missionaries who first preached the Faith in Mexico recorded that between 1531 and 1541 about nine million native people were baptized. One priest wrote that he and another priest “baptized fourteen thousand two hundred souls in five days. We even imposed the Oil of Catechumens and the Holy Chrism on all of them, an undertaking of no little labor.” That whole-hearted conversion number is astonishing given the time in history (less people populating the earth) and the tensions that the Conquistadors had initiated.
The original adobe shrine expanded to larger and larger Shrines to Our Lady. Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe stands at the original Tepeyac hill apparitions. The original miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tilma still hangs in the church. Remarkably, even after 488 years, the cactus fiber tilma has the same woven integrity as it had when Juan Diego wore the garment, despite the millions of touches, caresses, and pleas that have been rubbed into it. It has weathered floods, epidemics, and an attempted bombing in 1921, but the image has come away unscathed. On Tuesday, May 31, 1966, Pope Paul VI sent a Golden Rose to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. In a radio address, he said, in part, “With this gift, that we blessed in the Sistine Chapel, we wanted to honor the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and reward the faith and Marian devotion of the Mexican people.” Pope Francis sent a second Golden Rose to the image on November 18, 2013. Many, many miracles have become associated with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and have been documented. Our Lady of Guadalupe remains a marvel for us in the twenty-first century. A study of the eyes of Our Lady showed that they reflected the presence of four people in the room: Juan Diego, his interpreter, Bishop Zumarraga, and perhaps another newly appointed Bishop. On April 24, 2007, Mexico City lifted the ban on abortions for pregnancies up to twelve weeks. In response to this horror of injustice to the unborn, witnesses noticed a supernatural light emanating from the womb of the Virgin of Guadalupe image on the tilma. One visitor described, “an intense light which emanated from her abdomen, constituting a brilliant halo having the form of an embryo.” Isn’t it marvelous how we have a living image of the Mother of God, the Patroness of the Americas, from the very beginning when Christians set foot on the soil until now. We appreciate her patronage over the Americas and any more surprises that she may reveal.