The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the greatest Marian Shrine in the world. The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary four times to Saint Juan Diego and once to his uncle Juan Bernardino from 9 to 12 December 1531 made the Basilica popular. The divine imprint of Our Lady on a perishable mantle of Juan Diego as a proof for the local Bishop Zumarraga is still fresh and displayed in the Basilica. This miraculous image of the Blessed Mother has great communicative value because of its divine origin and symbolic meanings. This image attracted many throughout five centuries and made revolutionary spiritual and social changes in Mexico.
(Rev. 11:19a) Then the temple of God in the heaven was opened, and the Ark of the Covenant of God could be seen inside the temple.
(Rev. 12:1-6a) (1) A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (2) She was pregnant and cried out in pain, as she labored to give birth. (3) Then another sign appeared: a huge, red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and wearing seven crowns on its heads. (4) It had just swept along a third of the stars of heaven with its tail, throwing them down to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour the child as soon as it was born. (5) She gave birth to a male child, the one who is to rule all the nations with an iron scepter; then her child was seized and taken up to God and to his throne, (6) while the woman fled to the desert where God had prepared a place for her.
(Rev. 12:10ab) Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the Kingdom of God, and the rule of his anointed.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe: Historical Background
The historical background of Mexico gives us a better understanding of the impact of Blessed Virgin Mary’s apparitions in Guadalupe, Mexico. Human beings migrated to Mexico around 13,000 years ago. When the Spanish forces under Captain Hernando Cortes arrived at Veracruz, south-east of Mexico City from Cuba on 22 April 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma II was in power. He had 10 million subjects in 38 provinces with governors as local leaders under the emperor. Cortes waged war against the emperor for two years and took control of the empire. The native people whom the emperor oppressed joined the Spaniards in the fight against the emperor. The Spaniards also used the emperor’s surrendered soldiers to continue the war against the emperor’s army. The emperor attempted for a settlement with the Spaniards. After several days of negotiations, Cortes arrested the emperor and killed him because he did not trust the emperor. He then brought Mexico under the Spanish crown.
After the conquest of Mexico, Captain Hernando Cortes tried to introduce European culture among the natives in Mexico. He demolished the temples of human sacrifices and built Catholic churches over the ruins of the pagan temples. Cortes brought missionaries from Spain. They opened churches, schools, and hospitals in Mexico. Though there were a few conversions to Christianity, the missionaries could not eradicate the centuries- old Aztec culture and pagan worship.
Hernando Cortes left for Honduras in 1524. His successor, the representative of the Spanish Emperor Charles V, found it hard to manage the situation in Mexico. So, in 1528, the emperor replaced him with a team of five administrators known as the First Audience. Charles V appointed a Franciscan Bishop Zumarraga in Mexico with considerable powers over the First Audience to control their misuse of power over the Mexican natives. This first bishop of Mexico worked hard for the evangelization and social welfare of the natives. However, the deep-rooted idol worship of the natives and the cruelty of the Spanish administrators were a huge impediment to the evangelization efforts of Bishop Zumarraga and his team of missionaries from Spain.
Don Nune de Guzman, the dominant member of the First Audience, turned against Bishop Zumarraga and other Christian missionaries because they did not agree with his cruelty to the natives. Guzman thought the natives were soulless, and he treated them with inhuman cruelty. Finding no chance of compromise with Guzman, Bishop Zumarraga secretly reported the situation to Emperor Charles V. So, the emperor replaced the First Audience with a Second Audience headed by Bishop Don Sebastian Ramirez de Fuenleal. However, the new administrators reached Mexico only a year after their appointment.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs along with other tribes in Mexico took arms against the cruelty of the Spaniards. Bishop Zumarraga could sense that the rebellion could lead to a massacre of the Spaniards. He prayed to Blessed Virgin Mary to intervene and save the few Spaniards in the country. He secretly asked Mother Mary to send him some Castilian roses, not available in Mexico, as a sign of hearing his prayer.
The Apparition of the Virgin
Juan Diego, his wife Maria Lucia, and his uncle Juan Bernardino accepted Christianity in 1525. Since Diego’s parents died when he was young, his uncle Bernardino was his foster father. After his marriage, Juan Diego moved to a new house. Juan and his wife used to walk 15 miles to his parish at Tlatelolco to attend Holy Mass and religious education class. Maria Lucia died in 1529. Since Juan was childless and his uncle needed care, he moved to a house near his uncle’s home.
On Saturday, 9 December 1531, Juan Diego, then aged 57, was going to his parish church in the early morning to participate in the feast of the Immaculate Conception. While passing through Tepeyac Hill he saw birds on the summit and heard celestial music. He also saw a white cloud and rainbow. Then he heard a feminine voice calling him by name and asking him to climb up. Juan went up the 130 feet mountaintop and saw a lady. She said, “Know for certain, dearest of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God, through whom everything lives.… Here I will hear their weeping and their sorrows, and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.” The lady then asked him to tell the Bishop of Mexico City to build a shrine in her name on the spot where she appeared.
When Juan Diego reached the bishop’s house, the bishop’s staff did not allow him to see the bishop because he was a native. After a long wait, he was taken into the presence of Bishop Zumarraga, who, with the help of Juan Gonzalez, a Spanish missionary among the natives and an interpreter, listened to him. However, the bishop asked Juan to come again so the bishop would have more time to consider the request. Juan went back to the top of the Tepeyac Hill where the lady was waiting for him. Juan said the bishop did not believe him, and he suggested to her that she assign someone of higher status for her mission to the bishop. The lady asked him to visit the bishop the next day.
On the next day, Juan Diego went after Sunday Mass to see the bishop. After much waiting, the staff allowed him to see Bishop Zumarraga. This time the bishop asked for a sign from the lady to support the veracity of the vision. The bishop secretly sent his trusted assistants to follow Juan and verify the fact. Though they followed Juan, they missed him on the hill. Juan Diego again met the lady at the hill and explained to her what the bishop had asked him. The lady told him to return to her the next day.
When Juan reached home, he found that his 68-year-old uncle, Juan Bernardino, was terminally ill. Some believe Spanish opponents shot Bernardino because he cooperated with the Spanish missionaries. Juan sought the help of a village physician to treat his uncle. But the herbal treatment was not effective. Since Juan was taking care of his sick uncle, he did not go to the Lady on the next day, Monday, 11 December.
On Tuesday early morning, Juan’s uncle requested Juan to go to the local church and get a priest for his confession and last rites. Juan took a deviation as he approached the hill to avoid seeing the mysterious lady so he could get a priest before his uncle’s death. However, the lady came down from the Tepeyac Hill to meet him on the way. She assured him she would cure his uncle at that moment and asked him to go up the hill where she had met him three times before and gather some flowers from there and bring them back to her. Though flowers could not grow during the winter and on a rocky place, Juan Diego found flowers including Castilian roses that were not common in Mexico. He brought the flowers tucked inside his tilma (mantle) and showed them to the lady who rearranged them and asked him to take them to the bishop as a sign.
Juan’s uncle Juan Bernardino also had a vision of the Lady. She healed him and told him what was going on with Juan Diego. She revealed to him that the church should title her as “The Ever Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.” Bishop Zumarraga, when he later heard this, was surprised because this name corresponded to a historical Marian shrine of his native country, Spain.
When Juan reached the Bishop’s house, the staff again tried to deny him a meeting with the bishop. He waited there a long time with the flowers hidden in his mantle. Only much later could he meet the bishop. Some important visitors, including the new governor of Mexico Bishop Don Sebastian Ramirez Fuenleal, were there. Juan, while explaining what happened during his fourth vision of the lady, opened his tilma to show the flowers. The flowers, including the Castilian roses, fell to the floor. The Castilian flowers amazed Bishop Zumarraga because this was the sign he had asked the Blessed Virgin Mary as a signal of resolving the conflict between the natives and the Spaniards. Bishop Zumarraga saw an image of the Blessed Virgin on the tilma that poor Juan was unaware of. The bishop fell on his knees to honour Our Lady. He embraced Juan and asked pardon for not believing him before.
The material of Juan’s tilma was maguey cactus fibres. It comprised of three pieces joined together. The miraculous image appeared on two pieces six-and-a-half feet long by 42 inches wide with a joint running down the middle. Though such a mantle has a life span of 10 to 30 years, it stays with the same freshness even after five centuries. It has survived open exhibition with no glass covering, and the touch of bare hands and weapons by millions of pilgrims. Smoke from thousands of candles and dust from the stone chapel did not lessen the brightness of the image.
Pilgrims who prayed in front of the image received many miracles and favours. The tilma survived an accidental acid spill in 1785 while cleaning the encasing frame, and a deliberate bomb blast attempt to destroy it in 1921. Dr Callahan, who studied the tilma using infrared technology in 1979, discovered that the tilma maintains a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit the same as that of a living person. The Church now displays it at the back of the sanctuary of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, attracting pilgrims from all over the world.
Juan Diego died on 30 May 1548. Pope John Paul II canonized him on 31 July 2002, and made him patron of the Indigenous people. His feast is on 9 December.
INTERPRETATION OF THE IMAGE OF GUADALUPE
Pictographs are an effective method of educating illiterate people. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was a perfect pictograph that the native Mexicans could understand. Its imprint on a tilma is unique because it is of divine origin. It has no brush strokes, no primer or overcoating with varnish. No fungus or insects could damage the sack-like fabric even after 500 years. The clarity of the image is still vibrant. Modern scientists accept that this image is beyond scientific explanation.
Some interpretations of the image are:
1. The Lady in front of the sun
Aztec Interpretation: For Aztecs, the sun is a prominent god called Huitzilopochtli. The pregnant virgin standing eclipsing the sun illustrates that she introduces the real God greater than the sun.
Christian Interpretation: Artists portray the halo of a saint only around the head. For Our Lady of Guadalupe, it is all around her body reminding us of the greeting of Angel Gabriel, “Hail full of grace” (Lk 1:28). John describes his vision at the Island of Patmos: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, clothed with the sun” (Rev 12:1a). That is what we see in the image of Guadalupe.
2. Mary “with the moon under her feet” (Rev 12:1b)
Aztec Interpretation: The moon for the Aztecs is the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. This moon-god was for the native Mexicans, the god of night. The image of the moon is dark in the tilma.
Christian Interpretation: Mary stepping on the serpent (dark moon-god) means she has crushed and defeated this god of darkness, fulfilling God’s word in Genesis 3:15.
3. The clouds around the sun and the moon
Aztec Interpretation: The clouds around the Virgin represent the divine origin of Mary’s son. The natives greeted people from God with the expression: “Among the fog and the clouds.”
Christian Interpretation: In the Bible, the cloud is a symbol of the Divine presence (Ex 16:10; 33:9; Num 11:25; 12:5;
Job 22:14; and Ps 18:13).
4. The long greenish-blue mantle with the stars
Aztec Interpretation: The Aztec royalty wore greenish-blue colours. Therefore, Mary is a royal lady, a queen. For the Aztecs, stars are gods. But in the image of Guadalupe, stars are merely a decoration on the mantle of the Lady. So, she is greater even than the star-gods and she comes from heaven.
Christian Interpretation: The long robe is not the dress style of Mexican women but a Jewish dress of Palestinian women. So Mary is of Jewish origin.
5. Rose-coloured garment
Mary’s rose-tinted garment with flowers embossed on it is symbolic of the earth. So, the heavenly colour of her mantle with stars and the earthly colour of her garment show that the God she introduces is both divine and human.
6. An angel with eagle’s wings carrying the Lady
An angel supporting the Lady signifies that she is a queen. According to the native Mexican culture, people will carry only royal people on the shoulder. Unlike the angels in the regular Christian arts, this angel is adult looking and has wings of an eagle. Eagle was the “bird of the sun” that delivered to the sun- god the hearts and the blood sacrificed on the pyramids. The angel holds the pregnant Virgin, signifying that the child in her womb is the perfect sacrifice offered to God. His tunic has the same colour as the Virgin’s tunic and he wears a broth like hers. The angel holds the Virgin’s mantle with one hand and the garment with the other, showing that the Son she bears is from both the heaven and the earth.
7. The hairstyle
The hair parted in the middle and hanging loose is the conventional hairstyle of virgins in the Aztec culture. Virgin Mary has the same hairstyle in the image, signifying her virginity.
8. Eyes cast down
The gods of the native people look straight forward with their eyes wide open. However, in the image of Guadalupe, the eyes of the Virgin are looking down with humility and compassion. From this image, the natives understood that Mary was not a goddess.
Modern scientific studies by ophthalmologists have proved that the eyes of the image are not paintings but human eyes. They contain reflections of 13 people, including Juan Diego and Bishop Zumarraga. No human painter is capable of doing such an intricate piece of work.
9. Olive complexion with rosy cheeks
The facial colour of the image varies at different distances. It has the colour of the natives at one distance and the colour of Europeans at another distance. This is a unique feature not seen in any painting but only in certain flies. Thus, it is a blend of two cultures: the natives and the Spaniards.
10. Cross on the medallion
Mary is wearing a gold medallion around her neck with a small cross engraved on it. For the native Mexicans, the medallion is a symbol of consecration. Mary consecrated herself to God when she was young and later to her son Jesus. This cross was also the symbol of the Spanish ships and the Catholic Missionaries. Mary wants the natives to welcome the Spaniards, their missionaries, and their God.
11. Hands joined, and knee bent
Mary’s hands joined in prayer shows that she is not a goddess but is subject to God. Her hands point to the cross on her brooch. Her son Jesus is greater than her. So, Mary directs the pilgrims visiting her to her son Jesus.
The natives express their prayer on their entire body. Like them, the picture depicts Mary as in dancing prayer with her knee bent in movement.
12. Black ribbon around the waist
The black girdle around Mary’s waist shows that she is expecting a child. It was the traditional dress code of pregnant women in that culture.
13. Four-petal jasmine flower
A jasmine flower with four petals appears on Mary’s garment over her womb. It represents the Aztecs’ highest deity, Ometéotl. This flower over the womb or the centre of the image shows that the one true God born of the virgin is the centre of the universe.
14. The four-petal flowers with leaves
According to the Aztec “Legend of Five Suns,” this world has five life cycles. When each cycle of the world ends, it will be reborn through the sacrifice of a god because the god’s sacrifice creates a new sun, which creates a new world. The four-petal flowers on the tunic of the Lady show that it is time for the fifth age through the sacrifice of the real God.
15. The eight-petal flowers
The eight-petal flowers imprinted on the tunic with a hill and a river flowing from them symbolize the day of a new creation. For the natives, hills were the high point where God and people meet. This flower, when viewed upside down, take the shape of a heart with arteries that is the source of life originating from God.
THE IMPACT OF THE IMAGE OF GUADALUPE
1. End of Enmity between the Spaniards and Natives
The Spaniards and Mexicans volunteered to construct a small stone chapel where the lady asked to build the church. After the completion of the chapel, they took the image of Guadalupe there in procession on 26 December 1531. During the procession, some people shot arrows into the air out of excitement. One of them struck the neck of a spectator and he died. People took the dead man’s body in front of the image and prayed for a miracle. The dead man opened his eyes with full recovery. Out of joy, the Spaniards and Mexicans embraced one another. This led to a gradual merging of the two cultures with intermarriage and harmonious life.
2. Replacing of mother-goddess with the Mother of the True God
Tepeyac Hill, where the Blessed Virgin appeared, was the site of the temple of the Mexican mother-goddess Tonantzin. Spanish Captain Juan Cortes had destroyed it. The people who used to worship the mother-goddess substituted her with Mary, the Mother of God, in the same place.
3. Destruction of the Serpent god
For Spaniards, Guadalupe signifies a shrine of the Virgin Mary in Spain. However, in the native language, it sounded like “she who crushes the serpent.” “I will make you enemies, you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring. He will crush your head and you will strike at his heel” (Gen 3:15). God’s word to the serpent came true in Mexico. The native Mexicans used to offer human sacrifices to the serpent-god Quetzelcoatl. The apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary stopped that practice. People left this god and received Jesus through baptism.
4. Lay ministry started with Juan Diego.
Bishop Zumarraga assigned Juan Diego in charge of the chapel built at Tepeyac Hill. Juan introduced the Catholic faith to all the pagan Mexicans who came to venerate the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He explained to them the story behind the image in their native language and sent them to Christian missionaries for baptism. Thus, Juan Diego became the first lay missionary who made mass conversions possible.
5. Mass conversion to the Catholic Faith
The Catholic Church had lost five million (5,000,000) faithful because of Protestant Reformation in Europe. At the same time, the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe gained nine million Aztec converts to the Catholic faith. The Protestants had refused to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, whereas she gained it by double that number in Mexico.
6. The end of pagan worship and human sacrifice
The Aztec built their towns around pyramid-shaped stone temples where they had their religious ceremonies. The native people worshipped the sun, moon, fire, rain, wind, corn, maguey cactus, and others as gods and goddesses. Besides offering agricultural products and animals, they used to offer human sacrifices to these gods to avoid natural calamities. Aztecs considered themselves as “the people of the sun.” They used to offer the human heart on the temple top to nourish the sun god to assure that the sun will rise the next morning. Aztecs used slaves, prisoners of war, and children as sacrificial objects. They sacrificed thousands to the mightiest god Quetzelcoatl, a feathered stone serpent. Mary “crushed” this serpent, ending the human sacrifices. Instead, she established the kingdom of her son Jesus, in Mexico. What the Spanish missionaries could not do for 10-years, Mary achieved expeditiously through her miraculous image.
1. The Blessed Virgin Mary intervenes in times of crisis when we seek her help. The Christian denominations who do not honour Mary are surely missing something!
2. Many Christian denominations teach against the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her apparition to Juan Diego, Mary revealed that she is “the perfect and perpetual Virgin.”
3. Mary promised to Juan Diego that at the Tepeyac Hill she “will hear their weeping and their sorrows, and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.” Thousands have been going there in the last five centuries with their sorrows and getting relief through the intercession of the Blessed Mother.
4. Bishop Zumarraga’s staff did not treat Juan Diego too well until the miracle happened. That God loves the poor and presents Himself through them, is clear from Jesus’ words about the last judgement (Mt 25:31-46). We need to reconsider our approach towards the less fortunate in society because they are the valuable people of God.
5. Zumarraga was a committed missionary bishop who offered great service to the natives in Mexico. His doubt on the apparition and request for proof resulted in the miraculous tilma and increased the credibility of the apparitions of the Blessed Mother.
6. The cruelty of the Spanish administrators toward the natives was a major hurdle for Spanish missionary work. Love and kindness should be the language of evangelization and pastoral ministry.
7. The vision to a peasant was far more credible than a direct communication of the Blessed Virgin to the bishop. The natives better trusted one among their own who had the apparition of the Blessed Virgin, who could speak their language and understand their culture than the foreign missionaries. Like Jesus, who humbled himself to be one among humans, a missionary or a pastoral minister should become one among the people he preaches to.
8. Saint Juan Diego was the first lay missionary who converted a vast number of people to the Catholic faith. We should promote lay missionaries who can do excellent groundwork for the pastoral ministry.