Guadalupe 2, December 1531, by Donal Anthony Foley
In the previous article, we saw how Juan Diego was commissioned by Our Lady to tell Bishop Zumárraga that she wanted a “little house” erected for her, and that she was the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Zumárraga had treated him kindly, but said that he would need a sign of some sort, and with that Juan Diego had agreed to ask the Lady for a sign.
When he reached Tepeyac hill, Juan Diego again met the beautiful Lady, who was enveloped in a luminous mist on the hill top, and after telling her what had happened, begged for a sign so that he would be believed. She spoke to reassure him, telling him that she would indeed give him a sign, and that she would wait for him at that spot. Juan Diego returned to his village to find his uncle seriously ill with a fever, and so had to stay and nurse him all that night and the following day. By evening it was clear that the old man was dying, and he urged his nephew to go back to Mexico City and bring a priest who could administer the last sacraments and hear his confession. Juan Diego set off in the early hours, anxious about his uncle, but also somewhat embarrassed that he had not been able to keep his appointment with the Lady. In his worry and confusion he decided to try and avoid her by passing by on the other side of the hill, but she descended to meet him and asked him where he was going. He told her about his sick uncle and his important mission to fetch a priest, promising to deliver the expected sign the next day.
She replied to him with the following beautiful and consoling words: “Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you. Do not let your uncle’s illness worry you, because he will not die now. You may be certain that he is already well.”
Juan Diego was overjoyed with this news, and immediately volunteered to take the promised sign to the bishop. The Lady told him to climb back to the top of the hill and gather flowers that he would find growing there and bring them back to her. He complied and must have been amazed, on that December morning, to find beautiful flowers, including roses, with an almost heavenly appearance, blooming completely out of season. He spread out his rough outer garment or tilma, made of ayate or cactus fiber, and scooped up the flowers before returning to the Lady and presenting them to her. She rearranged them with her own hands, saying to Juan Diego: “My youngest and dearest son, these different kinds of flowers are the proof, the sign that you will take to the Bishop. ... I strictly order you not to unfold your tilma or reveal its contents until you are in his presence. You will relate to him everything very carefully. ... so that my house of God which I requested will be made, will be built.”
Juan Diego came to the Bishop’s residence, and it happened that Bishop Zumárraga was just then with some important people, including the new governor of Mexico. Juan Diego entered and described what had happened to him at Tepeyac, as he released the ends of the tilma and allowed the flowers to fall to the floor. All present must have been amazed at the unexpected sight, but they were in for a further surprise as they saw the beautiful and glorious image of Mary, just as she had been described by him, imprinted on the coarse fabric of his tilma. At the sight of this prodigy, they reverently sank to their knees; they were the first people to see the miraculous Image of Guadalupe, which has now been preserved in Mexico for over four and a half centuries.
At length Bishop Zumárraga rose, apologized to Juan Diego for having doubted his word, and invited him to stay, while the tilma was removed to the bishop’s private oratory. News of the marvel quickly spread, and the next day the sacred Image of Mary was taken in procession to the cathedral. Later on, Juan Diego led the way to the site of the apparitions, while plans were made for the erection of a small chapel as a temporary measure. This site was to become doubly significant for the Indians, since it was the place where Tonantzin, the “mother of the gods,” was traditionally worshipped. Juan Diego then returned to his village with a guard of honor, to find that his uncle had recovered. He related to the older man all that had happened, and in turn was told by his uncle that it must have been the same beautiful Lady who had appeared and cured him. She had also told Juan Diego’s uncle the name by which she wished to be known.
This information was later related to the bishop by an interpreter, who thought that the old man had been trying to say; “The Ever Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe,” although the interpreter was probably mistaken in this. Bishop Zumárraga was surprised because Guadalupe was the name of an ancient Spanish shrine to Mary. Although it might have seemed inappropriate, this was the name eventually adopted for the shrine; but it is more likely, though, that this represented the phonetic equivalent of what Juan Diego’s uncle was trying to say. It is not surprising that Bishop Zumárraga, a Franciscan, and the Spaniards with him, should have related the Image to the Guadalupe shrine in Spain, considering that the Franciscans were responsible for that shrine. In addition, there was also some similarity between the Image on the tilma and a statue of Mary, as the Immaculate Conception, at the Spanish shrine. There have been a number of attempts to establish an exact rendering of the Nahuatl word originally translated “Guadalupe,” but the most likely answer is that it was the interpreter’s attempt to render the Nahuatl title for Mary, Coatlaxopeuh, a word that means, “She who breaks, stamps or crushes the serpent.” This meaning was extremely relevant given the diabolical nature of the Aztec religion of human sacrifice, which Catholicism would replace.
Juan Diego himself lived on until 1548, and spent his time in charge of the little shrine which had been built to house the Image, explaining its significance to the many thousands of pilgrims who visited the site of the apparitions. Those numbers have grown and now every year millions of people visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1999, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the Our Lady of Guadalupe Patroness of the Americas, and in 2002 he canonized Juan Diego.
This article appeared initially in the Wanderer.