The lone pilgrim was making his way south from Tulpetlac, across the dusty desert trail, past the western side of Tepeyac hill. Baptized under the Christian name of Juan Diego by one of the early Franciscan missionaries, he was a recent convert to the Catholic faith.
Juan Diego was born around the year 1474 and given the name Cuauhtlatoatzin, which means ‘eagle that speaks.’ His indigenous people were the Chichimecas, a people that had assumed Toltec culture, part of the Texcoco kingdom in a triple alliance with the Aztec empire.
Now a confirmed Catholic, Juan Diego’s faith was made possible by Spain’s conquest of the area just 10 years earlier, when Hernan Cortes and his men conquered the great Aztec empire. During the campaign, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and its main temple were laid waste, proud symbols of a culture campaigning for empire with religious practices that included human sacrifices to sustain their gods in an effort to maintain balance in the cosmos.
It was Saturday, December 9, 1531. Juan Diego had just arrived in the Tepeyac area when the easy silence of his rhythmic walk and prayerful meditations were suddenly interupted by an extraordinary singing. A little bit like marvelous bird song, but so much more, the sound had Juan Diego so completely struck he was confused as to whether he was dreaming or had found ‘the land of the flowers, the land of corn, of our flesh, of our sustenance, perhaps in the land of heaven?’ Mostly, he felt unworthy.
The singing suddenly stopped and he heard a woman gently call out to him, “Juanito, Juan Diego.” At the top of a hill, he saw the most beautiful woman that ‘shone like the sun,’ and the ‘earth seemed to shine with the brilliance of a rainbow’ all around her.
“Where are you going, Juanito?”
Juan replied, “I am going to your little house in Mexico, to follow the things of God.”
The woman then introduced herself to Juan Diego, addressing him in the native language of Nahuatl: “My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the Ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains existence. He created all things. He is in all places. He is Lord of Heaven and Earth.”
Our Mother continued, “I want you to go to the head of the Church in Mexico City, and tell Friar Juan de Zumarraga that I want very much to have them build my sacred little house here. I will exalt God upon making Him manifest, by giving Him to all people in all my personal love, Him that is my compassionate gaze. Him that is my help. Him that is my salvation. I am truly your compassionate Mother, for you and all people that live together in this land, and also all the other many lineages of men. Those who love me. Those who cry to me. Those who look for me, and those who trust me.”
Our Mother then explained how Juan Diego, who was a very simple local native, how he was to set about on this important mission for God and the Church.
THE SECOND APPARITION
It took a great deal of pleading and patience for Juan Diego to finally get an audience with Friar Zumarraga. Though attentive, the bishop was clearly skeptical of Juan Diego’s accounting of the apparition and Our Mother’s request to erect a church on the hill –– the same spot where an ancient temple to the pagan goddess Coatlicue had been demolished. The bishop listened patiently, but eventually dismissed Juan Diego with the promise that he would listen in more detail at a later date.
A dejected Juan Diego then returned to the same hill to plead with Our Mother to assign this mission to someone more important than himself.
“I am really nothing, you can plainly see… I myself need to be led, carried on someone’s back… My Lady, please excuse me. I will fail in this mission, fall into you anger, into your displeasure…”
Our Mother listened patiently before answering him, “My little son, you must understand that I have no lack of servants and messengers who I can give this and other tasks to. But I assure you that it is necessary that you go personally, and plead on my behalf, so that by your intercession my wish will be carried out. My humble child, go see the bishop in my name, and get him to understand my wish, so that he may build my sacred house. Be patient and persevere. Tell him again that I, personally, the Ever-Virgin Holy Mary, the Mother of God have sent you as my messenger.”
THE THIRD APPARITION
Juan returned to the bishop the next day to deliver Our Mother’s message. Friar Zumarraga questioned him at greater length about the apparitions this time, and also requested some evidence from Our Mother that would confirm the truth of Juan’s claims.
Confident that Our Mother would supply the necessary proof, Juan Diego set off at once for the hill. Still wary of the extraordinary claims, the bishop dispatched two men to trail Juan Diego to ensure that there would be no trickery, but this extra measure proved to be fruitless. Having shadowed Juan for many miles, the two men eventually lost him altogether when he crossed the ravine near the bridge to Tepeyac. They were infuriated at not being able to find him again, so they returned to the bishop and tried to discredit Juan as a sorcerer and a fraud who deserved to be severely punished.
Meanwhile, Juan arrived at Tepeyac hill and was delighted to see that Our Mother was waiting for him. He immediately kneeled down and gave her a simple report of his latest conversation with the bishop. Our Mother thanked Juan for his faithful service and reassured him that he would be successful in this mission.
“Return here tomorrow and I will give you a sign to take to Friar Zumarraga.”
THE FOURTH APPARITION
Juan returned home and was saddened to discover that his uncle had become gravely ill. Rather than return to the hill the next day, Juan wrapped himself in his tilma and set off at once in search of a doctor to help his dying uncle. Along his way, Juan caught a glimpse of Tepeyac hill and suddenly remembered his promise to Our Mother. Distraught, he veered away from the path that led to the meeting place with the Virgin, fearing that any delay in finding a doctor might result in his uncle’s death.
As he rounded the hill, Juan suddenly saw Our Mother descending from the hill to meet him. “My dearest son, where are you going?”
Fearful and embarrassed, Juan told Our Mother that he was looking for a doctor for his dying uncle and he promised her that he would return as soon as he was able. “Forgive me, be patient with me a little longer, because I am not telling a lie… tomorrow I will return as fast as I can and without fail.”
When Juan had finished explaining the situation, Our Mother said, “My dear little son, let nothing frighten you, afflict you or disturb you. Do not fear this sickness nor any other sickness, nor any other hurtful thing. Am I not your Mother? Are you not in my shadow and under my protection? Do I not bring you joy? Are you not in the safety and comfort of my motherly love? Do you need anything more?”
“Don’t worry about your uncle’s illness, because he will not die of it for now and you can rest assured that he is already healed.” (Later, Juan Diego would learn that Our Mother had also appeared to his uncle at that very moment and healed him.)
The Virgin gave Juan instructions to walk up Tepeyac hill and cut a variety of flowers that he would find there. Upon reaching the top, Juan was amazed to find a spectacular variety of flowers growing in the arid desert soil in the middle of the frosty winter season. When he returned with the flowers, Our Mother carefully arranged them in Juan’s tilma with her own hands and said, “My youngest son, these many flowers are the proof, the sign that you will take to the bishop. You will tell him for me that in them he is to see my wish and that therefore he is to carry out my wish. You are my dear little messenger and I trust you.”
THE MIRACULOUS TILMA
With the tilma full of flowers in his arms, Juan Diego immediately set out and arrived at the bishop’s residence, only to be denied access by the doorman who refused to let him enter. Undaunted, Juan Diego waited patiently by the door, and it wasn’t long before the servants became curious about the contents of his tilma.
Eventually, the servants approached him and Juan gave them just a slight peak at the flowers wrapped in his tilma. When a couple of them reached out to touch the contents, the flowers suddenly appeared as if painted on the surface of the tilma. Astonished, they took him immediately to Friar Zumarraga where Juan Diego kneeled and related all that the Virgin had told him.
When he finished, Juan unfurled the tilma until the flowers spilled out onto the floor. Everyone looked in stunned silence at the tilma that had the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary on its rough surface. They all knelt, and the bishop broke out into tears, imploring the Virgin’s forgiveness for not having accepted Juan Diego’s story and for not acting on her wish.
Friar Zumarrago gently untied the tilma from around Juan Diego’s neck and took it into his private chapel where he welcomed Juan Diego to spend the rest of the day. The next day, they set out under the guidance of Juan Diego to visit the site where Our Mother had requested the chapel to be built. It was a barren, inhospitable stretch of desert, but the neighboring people almost immediately set about construction on the chapel that was completed on December 26, 1531.
A SIGN FROM GOD DEFIES THE NATURAL LAWS TO THIS DAY
The miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe speaks to us as profoundly today as it did to the people of Juan Diego’s time. A miracle in itself, the survival of the image has defied explanation from skeptics and the scientific community for nearly five centuries.
Enshrined in the Basilica of Guadalupe, the miraculous tilma of Juan Diego survives to this day with the vivid image of Our Mother still intact as it is shown at left. For nearly 500 years, this beautiful image of Our Mother has survived a bombing that destroyed its surroundings including the main altar, a direct acid spill that was sufficient to destroy the area being cleaned but did not, harmful conditions for 116 years with absolutely no covering, corrosive saltpeter from the nearby lake, the blackening effects of dust and incense in the Hermitage, hands-on devotion from throngs of pilgrims… all this and more in a constant assault on the simple tilma constructed of natural plant fibers that typically deteriorate in a comparatively short span of around 10 – 30 years.
Scientific examinations over the centuries have been incapable of answering any of the numerous mysteries surrounding its origin. Teams of some of the most skilled artists in the world have been repeatedly baffled as to how it was produced with such detail and clarity on a surface so rough. Even today’s advances in science and technology have only been able to add to the mystery.
Numerous scientific studies of Our Lady’s eyes from as early as 1929 have revealed the kind of natural reflections in the corneas of both eyes that reveal human figures in the precise locations one would expect, with the normal distortions created by the human eye. This represents scientific evidence that Our Lady’s eyes on the tilma present the triple reflection (Samson-Purkinje effect) characteristic of all live human eyes. The resulting images are located precisely where they are supposed to be according to such effect with the distortion of the images in full agreement with the curvature of the cornea. Does it seem possible that all of this was concocted nearly 500 years ago?
Recent studies using today’s advanced technology have revealed new aspects in Our Lady’s eyes that provide important hidden messages in our day, such as the image of a family in the center of the Virgin’s eye. It’s an important revelation for our world in a time when families are suffering evil attacks on so many fronts.
AN ARTISTRY OF BEAUTY, MESSAGE AND ENDLESS COMPEXITIES
There is a seamless blending of two distinct styles in the image of the Virgin including colors and shading reminiscent of many European techniques as well as simple two-dimensional elements more characteristic of ancient Indian codices. We can at once recognize the woman ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet’ as described in Revelation 12:1. Upon further examination, a wealth of symbols begin to unfold that would have had great significance for the indigenous people of Juan Diego’s day. Examples include the ribbon around her waste that denotes Mary is with Child, her mantle adorned with the stars (positioned in agreement with the constellations of the very day that Juan Diego received the miracle), and various intricate floral designs and patterns rife with meaning to their culture.
Perhaps Mary’s posture would have been the most significant for the people. In it they would recognize prayer expressed not only in thought and words, but in movement and solemn dance.
There are some very good sources illuminating the symbolism expressed in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, from a wealth of experts who are certainly more knowledgeable than I am. For further information on that subject I recommend Our Lady of Guadalupe – Mother of the Civilization of Love (Carl Anderson & Msgr. Eduardo Chavez). You can ORDER IT HERE.
In the meantime, I would invite you to simply contemplate this beautiful work of God.
A ‘SACRED LITTLE HOUSE’ FROM 1531 TO TODAY
With the future of Christianity on the American continent very much in doubt following Spain’s conquest of Mexico, the Church was confronted by a native people who were wary of converting to the faith, a situation complicated by a hostile colonial government. It was under these circumstances that the newly-appointed bishop of Mexico wrote a letter to the king of Spain lamenting that the continent would probably be lost, short of a miracle. Obviously, that miracle occurred from December 9 – 12, 1531.
The appearance of Mary to the native Juan Diego on the hill in Tepeyac in 1531 had a decisive effect on evangelization. Its influence greatly overflows the boundaries of Mexico, spreading to the whole continent… [which] has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac, in Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, and impressive example of perfectly enculturated evangelization.
— John Paul II, Ecclesia in America
Following Our Mother’s requests, Bishop Zumarraga, Juan Diego and the people in the area around Tepeyac hill immediately set about constructing the first shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a small chapel that took only two weeks to complete. In the broader sense, it seems clear that Our Mother’s request encompassed something infinitely greater than this humble little building, as one can easily see from the earliest fruits in the conversion of some 9,000,000 Aztecs to the Catholic faith.
Juan Diego continued to remain a part of this vibrant community throughout his lifetime, at the heart of Our Mother’s mission to bring Eucharistic communion to all her children. To bring people to her Son, Jesus Christ.
IN HONOR OF OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE, PATRONESS OF THE AMERICAS
This Novena can be said throughout the year and it is especially prayed starting December 4 and ending on her Feast Day of December 12.
Dearest Lady of Guadalupe, fruitful Mother of holiness, teach me your ways of gentleness and strength. Hear my humble prayer offered with heartfelt confidence to beg this favor [mention your intention/request]. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
O Mary, conceived without sin, I come to your throne of grace to share the fervent devotion of your faithful Mexican children who call to you under the glorious title of Guadalupe. Obtain for me a lively faith to do your Son’s holy will always: May His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
O Mary, whose Immaculate Heart was pierced by seven swords of grief, help me to walk valiantly amid the sharp thorns strewn across my pathway. Obtain for me the strength to be a true imitator of you. This I ask you, my dear Mother. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
Dearest Mother of Guadalupe, I beg you for a fortified will to imitate your divine Son’s charity, to always seek the good of others in need. Grant me this, I humbly ask of you. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
O most holy Mother, I beg you to obtain for me pardon of all my sins, abundant graces to serve your Son more faithfully from now on, and lastly, the grace to praise Him with you forever in heaven. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
Mary, Mother of vocations, multiply priestly vocations and fill the earth with religious houses which will be light and warmth for the world, safety in stormy nights. Beg your Son to send us many priests and religious. This we ask of you, O Mother. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
O Lady of Guadalupe, we beg you that parents live a holy life and educate their children in a Christian manner; that children obey and follow the directions of their parents; that all members of the family pray and worship together. This we ask of you, O Mother. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
With my heart full of the most sincere veneration, I prostrate myself before you, O Mother, to ask you to obtain for me the grace to fulfill the duties of my state in life with faithfulness and constancy. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
O God, You have been pleased to bestow upon us unceasing favors by having placed us under the special protection of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Grant us, your humble servants, who rejoice in honoring her today upon earth, the happiness of seeing her face to face in heaven. [End with the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be…]
DECEMBER 12, 1999 – FEAST OF OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE
Pope John Paul II declared the date as a Liturgical Holy Day for the whole continent at a Solemn Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. During the same visit, he also entrusted all sacred life to her loving protection by placing the innocent lives of children, especially those who are in danger of not being born, under her motherly care.
A chronological listing of some other important events related to Our Lady of Guadalupe:
A formal investigation and inquiry was conducted by the Church to give authority to the tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Clement IX institutes the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12.
Our Lady of Guadalupe was chosen as the Patroness of Mexico City.
Pope Benedict XV authorizes King Ferdinand VII to use the offices and Masses of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Spanish territories.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is proclaimed Patroness of all Mexico.
The pontifically authorized coronation of Our Lady of Guadalupe is attended by bishops throughout the Americas.
Pope Leo XIII proclaims the offices and Masses of Our Lady of Guadalupe should be celebrated in perpetuity. 1935 Pope Pius XI names Our Lady of Guadalupe Patroness of the Phillipines.
A petition from Archbishop Cantwell is submitted to name Our Lady of Guadalupe as Patroness of the United States.
Pope Pius XII declares Our Lady of Guadalupe as Patroness of the Americas.
Pope John XXIII prays to Our Lady of Guadalupe as Mother of the Americas and refers to her as Teacher of the Faith to the peoples of the Americas. 1988 The liturgical celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12 is raised to a Catholic feast day in all U.S. dioceses.
Pope John Paul II dedicates a chapel in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Pope John Paul II proclaims Our Lady of Guadalupe as Patroness of the whole American continent.
St. Juan Diego
“JUANITO, JUAN DIEGO. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”
Not a great deal is known about Juan Diego prior to his conversion to the Catholic faith, but traditional sources including ‘El Nican Mopohua’, the oldest existing document concerning his life, provide some reliable insights.
Juan Diego was born in 1474 with the name ‘Cuauhtlatoatzin’ (‘the talking eagle’) of the Chimichimeca people in the area of Cuautlitlan, part of Mexico City today. His people were culturally advanced and it appears that Juan was a gifted member of the community. He was a farm worker, field laborer and mat maker.
At the age of 50, Juan and his wife were baptized by a Franciscan priest, Father Peter da Gand. They were among the first Catholic married couples in the New World. His wife, Maria Lucia, died five years later leaving him alone with his elderly uncle, Juan Bernardin, who was later visited by Our Lady of Guadalupe and healed of a life-threatening illness.
Following Our Lady of Guadalupe’s final apparition on December 12, 1531, and having gained Friar Zumarraga’s approval to complete the new chapel in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Juan Diego and the locals joyfully finished the task in a mere two weeks. Once complete, Juan Diego continued to ‘follow the things of God’ by endeavoring to build a vibrant center of the Catholic life. With the approval of the bishop, he lived on-site until his death in a small hut at the hermitage. Many of his days were spent recounting the story of the apparitions and the miraculous tilma to the steady throng of pilgrims that visited the shrine.
More important than the testimony of his exterior graces received, Juan’s humility and his personal relationship with Christ served as a dramatic example for others to follow on the path to holiness. Many people also came to him with personal needs and problems, and Juan Diego endeavored to faithfully serve Our Mother in this role as a little intercessor, with the grace of interior enlightenment growing from the moment of his first encounter with Our Mother.
As a layman, Juan Diego was in a unique position to serve potential converts and the faithful as a witness. A heroic witness to the love of God for all His children, communicated through the powerful testimony of his simple and holy life, and practiced in the virtue of boundless love of God and neighbor. He was a simple convert among the masses of indigenous peoples. A person that many could relate to.
Our Lady of Guadalupe had come to the little Juan Diego and his life was completed transformed in the love of Christ. Regardless of his human faults and imperfections prior to the experience, these were nothing in comparison to God’s gift of himself, the Christ Child hidden in the Virgin Womb of Mary, Jesus Our Savior in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
“Blessed Juan Diego, a good, Christian Indian, whom simple people have always considered a saint! We ask you to accompany the Church on her pilgrimage in Mexico, so that she may be more evangelizing and more missionary each day. Encourage the Bishops, support the priests, inspire new and holy vocations, help all those who give their lives to the cause of Christ and the spread of his Kingdom.
Happy Juan Diego, true and faithful man! We entrust to you our lay brothers and sisters so that, feeling the call to holiness, they may imbue every area of social life with the spirit of the Gospel. Bless families, strengthen spouses in their marriage, sustain the efforts of parents to give their children a Christian upbringing. Look with favor upon the pain of those who are suffering in body or in spirit, on those afflicted by poverty, loneliness, marginalization or ignorance. May all people, civic leaders and ordinary citizens, always act in accordance with the demands of justice and with respect for the dignity of each person, so that in this way peace may be reinforced.
Beloved Juan Diego, ‘the talking eagle’! Show us the way that leads to the ‘Dark Virgin’ of Tepeyac, that she may receive us in the depths of her heart, for she is the loving, compassionate Mother who guides us to the true God. Amen.”
— Pope John Paul II, Prayer from the Homily at the Canonization of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin
Juan Diego died in 1548 and was buried in the first chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. He was beatified on May 6, 1990 and canonized on July 31, 2002 by Pope John Paul II in the Basilica of Guadalupe.