The Virgin of Guadalupe

She is known as “Our Lady”, the virgin mother of Jesus, and the Patron Saint of the Americas. Her shrine at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world, and the world’s third most-visited sacred site.

Today, December 12, marks the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She is said to have appeared to a man named Juan Diego in 16th century Mexico. Her image, which was left on Juan Diego’s cloak, is now enshrined in the Basilica. And weirdly, the image has not tarnished nor faded in almost five hundred years!

But who is the famous lady, and what did she want with Juan Diego?

Juan Diego was an indigenous Mexican peasant and a member of the Chichimec tribe. He was over fifty years old at the time of the apparitions. He was basically a nobody, an old man by standards of the time—but he was unique in the sense that he was a baptized Catholic.

 According to Nican Mopohua, a 17th-century account written in the native Nahuatl language, which Juan Diego spoke, the Virgin Mary appeared four times to him, and once to his uncle, Juan Bernardino. The first apparition occurred on the morning of Saturday, December 9, 1531.  While walking down the road, Juan Diego saw a vision of a young woman at a place called the Hill of Tepeyac, which later became part of Villa de Guadalupe, in a suburb of Mexico City. The woman spoke to Diego in his native Nahuatl language (the language of the Aztec Empire), identified herself as the Virgin Mary, “mother of the very true deity”. She asked Juan Diego to petition for a church to be built at that site in her honor.

Poor Juan Diego! He must have been amazed, confused, and flabbergasted, but what could he do? He went to the Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, and told him what had happened.

The archbishop wasn’t buying it.

He sent Juan Diego away with no plans for the new church. But later that day, the Virgin appeared to Diego again and told him not to give up.  And so, the next day, Sunday, December 10, 1531 Juan Diego spoke to the archbishop a second time.

This time, the archbishop wanted proof. He instructed Diego to return to Tepeyac Hill. He was to ask the woman of a miraculous sign to prove who she was. So, Juan Diego returned, and saw the Lady for the third time. She agreed to give him a fool proof sign on the next day, which would be December 11.  

But then tragedy struck!

On Monday, December 11, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, became ill. Since Diego had to attend to his uncle, he could not visit the Virgin that day. Instead, he stayed with his uncle, whose condition deteriorated. On the next day, December 12, Diego journeyed to Tlatelolco to get a Catholic priest to hear Juan Bernardino’s confession and help minister to him on his deathbed.

Now Juan Diego was embarrassed! He had not kept his part of the bargain, and had not met the Virgin on Monday. He was scared, and wanted to avoid her. So, he took an alternate route around Tepeyac Hill, as he went to get the priest.

Yet the Virgin would not be outdone. She intercepted him and asked where he was going. Juan Diego explained what had happened. The Virgin then asked: “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?” (“Am I not here, I who am your mother?”). She then assured him that his uncle was now fully recovered.

The Virgin then instructed Juan Diego to accompany her to gather flowers from the summit of Tepeyac Hill. This should have been impossible, as it was the dead of winter and the land was barren. But! You guessed it. When Diego went to the hill, he found a beautiful garden of Castilian roses in full bloom. Not only were the roses blooming, but this particular strain was not native to Mexico, so the occurrence was doubly strange.

The Virgin arranged a bouquet of roses inside Juan Diego’s cloak. The fresh roses were meant to be the “miraculous sign” the archbishop had asked for. Diego then went to see Archbishop Zumárraga. When he opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor. But there was more! Not only did the miraculous roses tumble to the ground, but the Virgin had left her own image in the fabric.

It is that fabric that remains in the Basilica today.

Needless to say, after a sight like that, the archbishop hopped to it! He got his men to erect a makeshift church in honor of the Lady.

But there’s more to the story.

The next day, December 13, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered as the Virgin had assured him. Juan Bernardino claimed that he had seen her at his bedside.  She had instructed him to inform the archbishop of her presence, and of his miraculous cure. Also, she had told him she desired to be known under the title of ‘Guadalupe’.

On December 26, 1531, a procession formed to transfer the cloak with the miraculous image back to Tepeyac Hill. There it was installed in a small, hastily erected chapel. The Indians were celebrating, and it was the custom of the Chichimecas to play with bows and arrows. While some celebrants fired arrows into the air in jubilation, one of them accidentally pierced the throat of an Indian who was walking with a group. The Indian was killed instantly.

But! The corpse was carried into the chapel and laid beneath the sacred image. The arrow was extracted, and crowd prayed aloud to Our Lady of Guadalupe for a miracle. And… You guessed it! Minutes later, the man regained consciousness and rose, completely healed. Only the scar remained visible until the day he died.

This miracle was a catalyst for conversion. Following this impressive feat, 9 million Indians converted to Christianity. Spaniards and Mexicans who had previously been mortal enemies, now joined together in faith of the Virgin.

In the end, it seems, the Virgin’s work was all about bringing people together.

Have a holy and sacred Feast of Guadalupe.