MEXICO CITY, MEXICO (1531) “Our Lady of Guadalupe”
Juan Diego (57) was a farm worker and mat maker who had lost his beloved wife and had only one surviving relative, an uncle, Juan Bernardino. He was one of 15 million Aztec Indians who had new freedoms after the Spanish conquistadors had overrun the ruthless Aztec chieftains. On December 9, 1531, he was traveling his daily route past the hill of Tepeyac when he saw a cloud encircled with a rainbow of colors and heard strange music. A woman’s voice was calling above the music. Ascending the crest of the hill he encountered a strikingly beautiful woman standing there, beckoning to him. She radiated such light and joy that he dropped to his knees and smiled at her in wonderment. The leaves of plants were aglow; the bushes and trees shone like polished gold. She spoke seriously yet lovingly with him:
“You must know and be very certain in your heart, my son, that I am truly the perpetual and perfect Virgin Mary, holy Mother of the true God through whom everything lives,the Creator and Master of Heaven and Earth. I wish and intensely desire that in this place my sanctuary be erected so that in it I may show and make known and give all my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection to the people. I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate their suffering, necessities, and misfortunes. And so that my intention may be made known, you must go to the house of the bishop of Mexico and tell him that I sent you, and that it is my desire to have a sanctuary built here.”
He immediately went at that early hour of dawn to the bishop’s house and was reluctantly received. The bishop, Don Zumarraga, listened respectfully but did not really believe him and told him to return in a few days after he thought about it. Juan Diego could sense his disbelief and became disillusioned when he left. But on the road home, the Lady appeared a second time. He was ashamed and suggested that she get somebody more influential for this job. But she smiled and reassured him that he would be successful. Holding his trembling hands in hers, she said,
“My little son, there are many that I could send to the Bishop. But you are the one whom I have chosen for this assignment. One day all will know my love for you and all my little children. Tomorrow morning you must return to the Bishop and express again my great desire for a church in this place.”
On the next day after Mass, he returned to the bishop’s house but was told to now provide proof that this was indeed the Virgin Mary and that she really wanted a church built on Tepeyac Hill. The bishop sent two servants to secretly follow him but they said he disappeared into thin air before their eyes. Juan Diego had actually entered the mystical realm of Mary as she appeared to him a third time and agreed to give him that desired “proof” on the next day.
“My little son, am I not your Mother? Do not fear. The Bishop shall have his sign. Come back to this place tomorrow. Only peace, my little son.”
He was overjoyed — but that was short-lived as he found his uncle — his only living relative — gravely ill upon returning home. As he could not leave his uncle’s side the next day, he was forced to not show up for Mary to receive the sign of proof she had promised. He felt horrible, but when he did manage to get out on the following day, he took a different route, hoping to not run into her. However, he suddenly ran into her, face-to-face. He begged her forgiveness and told her about his sick uncle. She reassured him with these words:
“Listen and be sure, my dear son, that I will protect you. Do not be frightened or grieved or let your heart be dismayed however great the illness may be that you speak of. Am I not here, I who am your Mother, and is not my help a refuge? Am I not of your kind? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Do not be concerned about your uncle’s illness, for he is not going to die. Be assured, he is already well. Is there anything else you need?”
She directed him to climb to the top of the barren Tepeyac Hill where he would find roses growing miraculously among the thistles and thornbush in the winter. There was a lush abundance of every color of rose. He picked them and carried them to the Blessed Mother, and she arranged them in his cloak, which he then folded shut for his journey to the bishop’s house.
“My little son, this is the sign I am sending to the Bishop. Tell him that with this sign I request his greatest efforts to complete the church I desire in this place. Show these flowers to no one else but the Bishop. You are my trusted Ambassador. This time the Bishop will believe all that you tell him.”
This was the fourth and last time he would see her. The bishop was actually eager to see what miracle had been brought to him, but not even Juan Diego was prepared for what was about to happen. As he unfolded his cloak to dump the multi-colored winter roses before the bishop, they were all stunned to see a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary imprinted on the rough cactus fiber of his cloak! The bishop fell to his knees in reverence and from that moment forth, all worshipped and adored this treasure.
When Juan Diego returned home, he found his uncle completely healed and telling of a visit that he had had with the Virgin Mary. She told of a temple that would be built on Tepeyac Hill and that her image should be called “Our Lady of Guadalupe” — although the uncle did not know yet what image she was talking about.
Ordinarily, the cloth of Juan Diego’s tilma or cloak should have deteriorated in twenty to thirty years. It is made from the maguey cactus plant and is something like burlap, rough and lattice-like. The material is called ayate and is ill-suited for use as a canvas for painting. It is actually made up of two pieces sewn together lengthwise and held together by a single cotton thread. An effort to make a replica of the cloth and image to test its true durability failed miserably — as it deteriorated badly within 15 years. The original cloth and image will be nearly 500 years old soon! And the image is as fresh as ever.
The Indians in Mexico saw something in the image of Our Lady that the Spaniards did not comprehend. In that period, the Indians did their writing in hieroglyphics, so to them the image was a “hieroglyphic letter.” The fact that the natives “read” the picture is most important in understanding the purpose of Our Lady’s apparition. To the Indians, the image depicted a beautiful Lady standing in front of the sun – a sign to them that she was greater than the sun god (Huitzilopochtli), whom they worshipped. The crescent beneath her feet showed that their moon god (Tezcatlipoca) was less than nothing since she was standing on it. The Indians noted that the Lady was not of this world, for a young child with wings was holding her aloft with his two arms. At her throat was a brooch with a small black cross in the center, reminding them that this was the emblem of the Spanish Friars – and there was One greater than she. The “reading” of this sacred image brought whole tribes from all over Mexico, led by their chiefs and rulers, to be received into the Faith. The significance of her words, the meaning of her garments, and her whole appearance on Juan Diego’s tilma were perfectly clear to the Indians. And so it happened that the worship of pagan idols was overcome.
The Spaniards were quick to notice that Our Lady was the woman of the Apocalypse – “clothed in the sun and the moon under her feet.” The Spanish word “Guadalupe” is similar in sound to Aztec words meaning “she who will crush the serpent.” “Coatl” means snake; “llope” means tread on – or “Who treads on the snake.”
Miguel Cabrera, a famous Mexican artist, was commissioned along with six other artists to examine it in 1750. After a very careful examination in great detail, they concluded that it had been created in a “miraculous” fashion – not by any human artist!
In 1754, Pope Benedict XIV wrote,
“In it everything is miraculous: an Image emanating from flowers gathered on completely barren soil on which only prickly shrubs can grow; an Image entrusted to a fabric so thin that through it the nave and the people can be seen as easily as through a trellis; an Image in no matter deteriorated, neither in her supreme loveliness, nor in its sparkling colors, by the niter or the neighboring lake, which however, corrodes silver, gold, and brass … God has not done likewise to any other nation.”
For the first 116 years, it was unprotected by glass. People freely kissed it, rubbed it, and touched objects to it. In 1753 it was removed from its glass protection for just two hours. But at least 500 people filed by and touched the frail cloth with many objects like sharp-edged crosses, medals, swords, and rosaries – yet no harm came to it.
In November of 1921, a bomb was secretly planted in a bouquet of flowers that was placed on the altar – just beneath the divine image hanging above it. The bomb exploded with such force that it blew out windows in the old Basilica, shattered the marble altar, and twisted a large bronze crucifix. Yet, the image of Our Lady and the glass enclosing this sacred treasure were completely unharmed and safe – despite its location right above the bomb.
Father James Meehan and Dr. Charles Wahlig examined the sacred image in 1975. They reported that the image does not impregnate the threads of the cloth, but lies on top – something like the emulsion of a photographic print. They state, “The picture defies human explanation. Its artistic source is outside human capabilities. It is a miracle.”
In 1979 — 448 years later — Dr. Philip Callahan, an infrared specialist and biophysicist, scientifically analyzed the Guadalupe image. He found the pigments to be authentic for that period in time but amazingly well preserved, whereas later added embellishments were fading, cracking, and deteriorating while the original image appears to have never aged at all. There were no preliminary sketched lines underneath the painting as could be expected in a hoax. Careful examination with a magnifying glass revealed NO brush marks and no deterioration or cracks in the coloring material.
His greatest discovery came with the enlarged photos of her eyes, revealing the reflection of a man’s image — that resembling the image of Juan Diego! An esteemed opthalmologist, Dr. Javier Torella-Bueno, noted that this image is located and distorted in the precise position that such a real reflection would have occurred on the curvature of an eyeball. Dr. Rafael Torija-Lavoignet adds,
“It is impossible to attribute to chance, to a textile accident or the pictorial matter this extraordinary coincidence between the localization of the reflections in the Virgin’s eyes and the most elaborate and up-to-date laws of optical physiology…”
Over the years, many healing miracles have been documented regarding those who came before her image. The image has also been observed to have been weeping tears.
Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990 and raised him to sainthood in 2002. The great Basilica of Mexico City was built on Tepeyac Hill and houses the divine image today. Our Lady of Guadalupe inspired over nine million conversions in Mexico!