Publish date: Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Today we celebrate the feast of the Patron of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe). Read below for the story of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Juan Diego near Mexico City in the 16th century.
After the death of his wife in 1529, Juan Diego, then a 55-year-old peasant, had been living with his uncle on a little farm about nine miles north of present-day Mexico City. Thanks to the witness and instruction of Franciscan missionaries then newly arrived in the New World, all three of them had converted to Catholicism around 1524. Every Saturday and Sunday, Juan Diego walked more than 18 miles to attend Mass and receive further instruction in the faith.
December morning in 1531, en route to Mass, he heard sweet singing and then the voice of the Blessed Mother on the crest of Tepeyac Hill on the outskirts of Mexico City. She called him by name, revealed her identity as the Mother of God, and asked him to tell the bishop of Mexico to build a temple on that hill so that “I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help, and protection, because I am your merciful mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants of this land and all the rest who love me, invoke, and confide in me; [so I may] listen there to their lamentations, and remedy all their miseries, afflictions, and sorrows.” Juan agreed and went at once to the palace of the bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, who promised only to think over the request.
Juan Diego returned to the hill of Tepeyac, reporting to the Blessed Mother the bishop’s skepticism, and suggesting she find a more worthy ambassador who would be more likely to be believed. But she commanded him to return again to the bishop with her request. And on Sunday, after attending Mass, Juan Diego returned to the bishop’s residence and repeated to him every detail of the apparitions. This time, the bishop asked for a sign from “the lady” so he could be sure of her identity. The Blessed Mother had been awaiting Juan Diego at the same spot and promised him that if he returned the next morning (Monday), he would be given a sign for the bishop. That morning, however, Juan Diego did not return to the site where he’d encountered the Blessed Mother. Instead, he stayed at the bedside of his uncle, Juan Bernardino, who had contracted the plague and was near death. Late Monday, Juan Bernardino asked him to leave at daybreak to bring a priest back to hear his confession and give him last rites. So Tuesday morning, Juan Diego left before dawn in search of a priest, taking care to avoid the side of Tepeyac Hill where he’d spoken with Our Lady. She appeared nonetheless, consoled him with a promise that his uncle was cured, and instructed him to go to the hilltop where he would find the sign the bishop requested. There, in the dead of winter, Juan Diego found a great number of Castillian rose bushes in full bloom. He cut many roses, collecting them in his tilma (a type of cloak made of coarse cactus fibers) and returned to Our Lady. She arranged the flowers in his tilma and sent him back to Bishop Zumarraga.
When at last he opened the tilma to reveal the miraculous roses to the bishop, an even greater miracle occurred: her image, exactly as Juan Diego had described it, appeared on the tilma in brilliant colors and precise detail. No paint was used to create the image; the source of the color has never been identified through chemical analysis. Although a cactus fiber cloth is unlikely to last more than 20 years before disintegrating, the tilma—displayed at the original and the newer Shrine(s) of Our Lady of Guadalupe for nearly 500 years—remains exquisitely beautiful, despite exposure to smoke from fires and candles, water from rain and floods, and even a bomb blast in 1921 that twisted a cast-iron cross next to the tilma and damaged a marble altar rail beneath it.
Bishop Zumarraga built the “temple” requested by Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego lived in a little room alongside it, where he prayed and witnessed to visitors for 17 years until his death. He was canonized a saint in 2002.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has been honored by twenty-five popes. She has been formally declared Patroness and Mother of the Americas. Informally, she is honored as Patroness of Unborn Children because she appeared to Juan Diego as a pregnant woman and, in the seven years after the apparitions, approximately eight million Aztec people converted to Catholicism, and abandoned a culture of death that had practiced human sacrifice, including infant sacrifice.