Pope Pius XII gave Our Lady of Guadalupe the title of “Empress of the Americas” in 1945. Since December 12 is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it seems like a propitious moment to recall how she reigns over our nation from Heaven, protecting and guiding us with motherly solicitude and tenderness. The constant miracle memorialized on Saint Juan Diego’s tilma and the context of the apparitions remind us that Our Lady is victorious over the serpent, she intervenes in history and is eager to intercede for those who seek her intersession in this vale of tears.
How Our Lady Intervened in History
The oldest reliable source of the apparitions of the Mother of God to Saint Juan Diego was written in Náhuatl by Antonio Valeriano. He was a contemporary of Juan Diego and Bishop Frey Juan de Zumárraga. Mr. Valeriano’s account was published in 1649 and is known as the Nican Mopohua.
On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego was on his way to attend Mass in what is today Mexico City. It was dawn as he approached Tepeyac Hill, a few miles from his destination. Juan Diego was no ordinary Indian, but the grandson of King Netzahualcoyotl,1 and the son to King Netzahualpilic and Queen Tlacayehuatzin, who was a descendant of Moctezuma I.
As Juan Diego neared the hill’s summit, something extraordinary happened. Unseen birds began to sing in a supernatural way. The birds would pause while others responded, forming a heavenly duet. He thought he was perhaps dreaming and pondered how unworthy he was to witness something so extraordinary.
The author brought a rose to the Basilica on behalf of his family.
The heavenly symphony stopped and a sweet voice called him from the hilltop, “Juanito. Juan Diegito.” Hearing this, he happily ascended the hill. What he found upon reaching the source of the voice changed his life forever. There, on a rock, stood a beautiful lady. Everything around her was transformed. Her clothing was radiant as the sun. The rock she stood on seemed to emit rays of light. She was surrounded with the splendors of the rainbow. Cacti and other plant life nearby looked like emeralds. Their leaves were like fine turquoise and their thorns sparkled like gold.
Juan Diego bowed before her in ceremonious respect. A tender dialogue between Our Lady and Juan Diego followed, “Listen, xocoyote2 mio, Juan, where are you going?”
Rejoicing, he happily responded, “My Holy One, my Lady, my Damsel, I am on my way to your house at Mexico-Tlatilulco; I go in pursuit of the holy things that our priests teach us.”
The celestial lady revealed to him that she was indeed the Mother of God, telling him of her desire to have a church built, where she might bestow all her love, mercy, help and protection. She showed overflowing love to Juan Diego, “and to all the other people dear to me who call upon me, who search for me, who confide in me; here I will hear their sorrow, their words, so that I may make perfect and cure their illnesses, their labors and theirs calamities.”
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe was given the basilica status by Saint Pius X in 1904.
Then Our Beloved Lady, respecting the authority established by God, sends the noble Juan Diego with this message to the bishop elect of Mexico. She tells him to accomplish the mission diligently, promising to reward his services. He bows, telling her that he will go straightaway to fulfill her wishes, and departs.
Frey Juan de Zumárraga was one of the first twelve Franciscan missionaries to go to Mexico and the first bishop of that new land. When Juan Diego reached the bishop’s palace, he promptly announced he wished to deliver a message for the bishop. The servants made Juan Diego wait before allowing the audience. Obediently, and with great enthusiasm, he told the bishop what he had seen and heard. Bishop Zumarraga listened attentively, but told Juan Diego to return when they could discuss the matter at greater length. After all, how did he know the story was true?
Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac Hill. As he approached the hill, Our Lady was waiting for him. He drew near and knelt. With sadness, he told Our Lady that he failed in his mission. The marvelous dialogue continues, “My Holy One, most noble of persons, my Lady, my xocoyota, my Damsel . . . .”
Juan Diego explained why he failed, how unworthy he was for such a mission and how the bishop was suspicious. Our Lady listened tenderly and patiently as he suggested she send one of the well-known and respected lords of the land. Then, he thought, her message would be believed.
Our Lady was not persuaded. She wanted him to accomplish the mission, and said, “I pray you, my xocoyote, and advise you with much care, that you go again tomorrow to see the bishop and represent me; give him an understanding of my desire, my will, that he build the church that I ask . . . .”
The Basilica viewed from the hill where Our Lady appeared to Saint Juan Diego.
Juan Diego did not fear the difficulties of the mission, he was only afraid the mission would not be accomplished. However, he told Our Lady he would fulfill her command and return the following evening with the bishop’s reply.
“And now I leave you, my xocoyota, my Damsel, my Lady; meanwhile, you rest.” Juan Diego suggested that Our Lady rest a little! It is impressive that she not only allowed him to treat her this way, but also loved his candidness.
The next day, he traveled to Mexico for Mass. Afterwards, he went directly to the bishop’s palace, fell on his knees and repeated all that Our Lady had told him to the bishop, who asked questions about the lady. Not entirely convinced, however, the bishop told Juan Diego that he could not affirm that the apparition was Our Lady and asked for a sign of reassurance from Our Lady to build a church.
Juan Diego confidently stated he would ask Our Lady for a sign. The bishop agreed, and sent a few servants to follow Juan Diego and report on everything he did. But they lost him and could not find him. They returned annoyed, speaking poorly of him to the bishop. They even resolved to seize and punish Juan Diego when he appeared again.
Juan Diego should have returned with the sign on Monday, but when he returned home, his uncle Juan Bernadino was seriously ill. His health worsened throughout Monday night, and on early Tuesday asked Juan Diego to call a priest. The nephew obediently went, making sure his route did not pass near Tepeyac Hill as he feared Our Lady would see him and persuade him to continue the mission she entrusted to him. So he took a shortcut he thought concealed him from Our Lady.
Stealthily advancing along, he was discovered by Our Lady, who descended the slope and asked, “Xocoyote mio, where are you going? What road is this you are taking?”
Caught red-handed, Juan Diego replied diplomatically, “My daughter, my xocoyota, God keep you, Lady. How did you waken? And is your most pure body well, perchance?” Then he explained his predicament, “My Virgin, my Lady, forgive me, be patient with me until I do my duty, and then tomorrow I will come back to you.” One cannot help but smile while imagining Juan Diego, in his simplicity, asking Our Lady to wait until he returned the next day after helping his dying uncle.
The Mother of God responded affectionately, “Do not be frightened or grieve, 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?”
A painting in the Basilica of Saint Juan Diego receiving the roses from Our Lady.
She told him his uncle was already cured. Juan Diego rejoiced, and asked her to give him the sign that the bishop wanted. She told him to go to the hilltop and cut the flowers he would find. Then, he was to bring them back to her. It was December, and only cacti and a few other sparse plants grew on the hill. However, Juan Diego found Castilian roses in abundance there and delighted in their fragrance. He carefully cut several, wrapping them in his tilma or cloak made of cactus fiber. He returned to Our Lady and she tenderly arranged them inside his tilma with her own hands, and commanded him to go to the bishop and show him the sign he was waiting for. She also told him not to open his tilma for anyone but the bishop.
He made haste to Bishop Zumárraga, confident now that he would accomplish Our Lady’s designs. Along the way, the wonderful fragrance of the roses pleased him. At the bishop’s palace, he was left waiting for a long time. The servants saw him as a nuisance and made him wait until it was very late, and even demanded to see what was in his tilma. Because he refused to show them, they pushed and knocked him about. When he perceived he would not see the bishop unless he showed them something, he let them peek in the tilma. Seeing and smelling the celestial roses, the servants made three attempts to take some. At each attempt, the roses miraculously became part of the tilma as if they were painted. With this, they ushered Our Lady’s ambassador in to see the bishop. Juan Diego knelt down and began to explain all he saw and heard from Our Lady. The bishop listened intently. To prove what he said was true, he untied his tilma and let the roses fall to the ground. Those watching fell to their knees in silent amazement. Miraculously imprinted on the tilma was Our Lady’s perfect image. Recalling their disbelief and mistreatment of the Blessed Mother’s ambassador, the servants were filled with shame.
Bishop Zumarraga tearfully took the tilma from Juan Diego, placed it in his private chapel, and entreated the saint to stay with him for the night in the palace. The next day, with a crowd following behind them, the two went to the site where Our Lady wanted her church built. Juan Diego gave a detailed account of the apparitions. Then they went to see Juan Bernadino and check on the state of his health.
She Who Smashes the Serpent
Juan Bernadino was surprised to see his nephew accompanied by the bishop and a crowd of admirers. Naturally, he asked what was happening. The miracle was told again and Uncle Juan acknowledged that he was cured. Our Lady appeared to him and cured him. She told him of her desire to be called Santa María de Guadalupe. Guadalupe in Spanish corresponds phonetically to Coatlaxopeuh in Náhuatl, which means “I smashed the serpent with the foot.”
The bishop then displayed the tilma in the Cathedral of Mexico for public veneration and called on all to help in the construction of the new church, which was completed on December 26, 1531. On that day, a great procession was made from the cathedral to the new church. Spaniards and Indians, ecclesiastical and imperial officials alike accompanied Our Lady of Guadalupe to her new shrine. The Indians performed war dances in her honor, and covered the whole path to Tepeyac Hill with flowers.
Amid the festive rejoicing, an overzealous Indian fired an arrow, mortally piercing the throat of another Indian. There were cries and sobs over the dead Indian. Then, inspired by grace, all began to ask that his lifeless body be placed in front of the tilma. As everyone began to invoke Our Lady of Guadalupe’s help, the dead Indian came back to life, his throat instantly healed. Everyone cheered as he rose to his feet. Strengthened by the miracle, the procession resumed and the image was placed in the new shrine.
Miracles That Defy Science
Since the tilma is made of cactus fiber, it should have disintegrated after twenty years. However, it has survived from 1531 until the present day without cracking or fading. Scientists cannot explain how this is possible. In the 18th century, Dr. José Ignácio Bartolache had two copies of the image made and placed where the original was. After several years, the two copies deteriorated.
Over time, the faithful have tried to “embellish” the tilma. A crown was painted on Our Lady’s head and angels in the clouds. However, unlike the tilma, these additions have worn away and are no longer visible. The rays of the sun, for example, were coated with gold and the moon plated with silver. These embellishments also faded away. In fact, the silver-plated moon turned black.
Scientists are baffled how the image was imprinted on the tilma. There are no brush strokes or sketch marks on it. Richard Kuhn, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, ascertained that Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image does not contain natural, animal, or mineral pigments. The tilma defies natural explanation.
If one were to go to the Guadalupe shrine in Mexico City, a stone sail ship monument is visible near the chapel on the hill. The landmark commemorates a miracle that took place in 1565 when General Miguel López de Legazpi was returning from the Philippines and his ship was engulfed by a tempest. On the verge of sinking, the crew in desperation made a vow to Our Lady of Guadalupe; if she saved them, they would carry their last remaining sail to her on pilgrimage. The storm abated and they fulfilled their promise.
Symbolism is found throughout Saint Juan Diego's tilma.
The greatest miracle was that eight million Indians converted in only seven years following the apparitions. The early Franciscan and Dominican missionaries were busy night and day baptizing and administering the Sacraments. On average, over three thousand Indians a day were baptized for the duration of seven years.
Symbolism of the Tilma
The miraculous tilma is like a catechism class for the Mexican Indians. Our Lady, as she appears, eclipses the sun, showing her superiority over the Aztec sun god. She stands on the moon, trampling the Aztec moon god under foot. She is surrounded by clouds and attended by an angel, showing that she is not of this earth. Yet her hands are folded in supplication and her head is tilted in a position of humility, thus showing that while she tramples the pagan gods, she is not God. Around her neck, she wears a brooch with a cross, leading mankind to the Supreme Being, the God of the Christians.
May the goodness and tenderness Our Lady showed Saint Juan Diego encourage our readers to have more devotion to her. Like every good mother, she is also the implacable foe against those who inflict harm on her children. Therefore, she is our special aid in the struggle against evil today. Let our battle cry be “¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” (Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe!)
1. Netzhaulcoyotl is famous in mexican history as a warrior, philosopher and poet. Analyzing the order of nature, he deduced the existence of only one, invisible God, the Creator of all things. Whom he adored by burning incense and in Whose honor he composed sixty psalms of praise similar to those by King David. He disliked human sacrifice and the worship of pagan gods. (cfr. JUAN ANTONIO MONTALVO, “Plática sobre la Virgen de Guadalupe,”, in HISTORICA, órgano del Centro de Estudios Guadalupanos, AC, Colección II, México, Editorial Hombre S. de R.L., 1983, pp. 7, 8. )
2. This Náhuatl word means “smallest of my sons.” Xocoyota is the form for daughter.
Demarest & Taylor, The Dark Virgen: The Book of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Carl Anderson and Monsignor Eduardo Chavez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of a Civilization of Love (Doubleday Religion, August 4, 2009)
Joan Carroll Cruz, Miraculous Images of Our Lady (TAN Books and Publishers, May 1, 2009)
Sister Mary Amatora, O.S.F., The Queen’s Portrait: The Story of Guadalupe (Exposition Press, 4th ed., 1972)