Guadalupe 1, December 1531, by Donal Anthony Foley
The Apparitions of Our Lady at Guadalupe, in 1531, took place only a dozen years after Hernán Cortés and his Conquistadors had defeated the Aztec forces of Montezuma in Tenochtitlan, Mexico City, in 1519. The Spaniards succeeded in stopping the bloody human sacrifices practised by the Aztecs, but it looked as though bringing them into the Church would be a long drawn out affair. Then, in December 1531, the Blessed Virgin intervened.
At this time in Europe, the continent was being convulsed by the Protestant Reformation, which would eventually see its cleavage and the loss of many people to the new beliefs. But as a result of Guadalupe, millions of souls were won for the Church in the New World, and so it is perhaps not far-fetched to regard Guadalupe as part of God’s response to the break-up of Christendom, as formalized by Luther’s revolt.
Initially, though, the prospects for the Faith did not look good in Mexico. The conquered Aztecs were treated badly in many cases, and among the Spaniards, the only people prepared to take their side were the increasing number of churchmen arriving in Mexico, including, in 1527, the first bishop of Mexico City, Juan de Zumárraga, who preached against the abuses being perpetrated against the Indians.
Franciscans had been sent out as early as 1523, with Dominicans soon afterwards, and they began the work of Christianizing these vast new lands; but they faced many obstacles, from the need to learn new languages, to Indian attachment to the old ways, and resentment by the Spanish authorities at what they regarded as interference. Despite these disadvantages, the missionaries worked diligently, but even the most optimistic among them must have thought that the conversion of the natives would take an inordinately long time.
There were some converts, though, and amongst these were a man and his wife who lived in the vicinity of Mexico City: they accepted the Faith, taking the names Juan Diego and Maria Lucia on their baptism in 1525. When Juan Diego’s wife died in 1529, he moved to live with an older relative, an uncle, in a village nearer the capital. In order to be in time for Mass, he had to set off across the hills before dawn, and on Saturday 9 December 1531, he journeyed to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which in that era was held on that date, rather than on 8 December as today.
As he came close to the city, Juan Diego had to pass Tepeyac hill, where a pagan Aztec temple had formerly stood, and as he did so, he was surprised to hear the sound of extraordinarily beautiful music coming from the summit. He looked up in astonishment to see a white cloud streaming with rainbow-colored lights. Suddenly the music ceased, and he then heard an exquisite female voice calling to him, “Juanito, dearest Juan Diego,” in his own Nahuatl language. He felt drawn towards this voice and climbed up the hill to be met by a Lady of surpassing beauty, enveloped in a dazzling light, a brilliance that illuminated the surroundings.
Juan Diego fell to his knees in reverence before this wonderful apparition, as the young Lady, who looked about fourteen, asked him where he was going. He told her he was going to Mass and she smiled in approval before continuing:
“Know, know for sure, my dearest, littlest, and youngest son, that I am the perfect and ever Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the God of truth through Whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near us, the Lord of heaven and earth. I want very much to have a little house built here for me, in which I will show Him, I will exalt Him and make Him manifest. I will give Him to the people in all my personal love, in my compassion, in my help, in my protection: because I am truly your merciful Mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries, my lovers, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their complaints and heal all their sorrows, hardships and sufferings.
“And to bring about what my compassionate and merciful concern is trying to achieve, you must go to the residence of the Bishop of Mexico and tell him that I sent you here to show him how strongly I wish him to build me a temple here on the plain; you will report to him exactly all you have seen, admired and what you have heard. Know for sure I will appreciate it very much, be grateful and will reward you. And you? You will deserve very much the reward I will give you for your fatigue, the work and trouble that my mission will cause you. Now my dearest son, you have heard my breath, my word; go now and put forth your best effort.”
Juan Diego agreed to do what the Lady asked him, setting off for the city as day dawned to see the Bishop. He was told to wait by a servant, but after an hour, was summoned to meet the Bishop Zumárraga, who questioned him through an interpreter. Juan Diego knelt before Zumárraga and told him what had happened and the words of the Lady; the bishop was impressed by the Mexican’s humble and sincere demeanor, but said that he needed time to consider the matter, and with that Juan Diego was dismissed. He trudged back towards Tepeyac hill and the route home, to find the Lady waiting for him. He recounted his meeting with the bishop and what he had said to him, before asking the “noble Lady” to entrust this mission to someone more important. She, though, just smiled and told him that she had specially chosen him to deliver her message, that he should return to the bishop and ask in her name for the erection of a teocalli or “temple,” and that he should emphasize that she really was the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
Encouraged and reassured, Juan Diego agreed to go and speak to the bishop the next day, which he did, after the Sunday morning Mass. Bishop Zumárraga received him courteously, although he was probably surprised to see him again so soon. Juan Diego began to recount his story and the Lady’s request, answering all the bishop’s questions, although Zumárraga was understandably reluctant to build a chapel on such apparently slender testimony. He told him that really he would need something more, such as a sign from heaven, and Juan Diego agreed to put this request to the Lady. With that he left the house, discreetly followed by two of the bishop’s aides, who shadowed him to the vicinity of Tepeyac hill before losing sight of him. After a lengthy and fruitless search, they finally returned to the bishop, urging him to punish Juan Diego for wasting their time. Zumárraga, though, decided to await the outcome of his request for a sign.
In the next article we will see what happened when Juan Diego returned with the promised sign.
This article appeared initially in the Wanderer.