This month, a refresher on the Guadalupe story as Pope Francis prepares to visit her shrine in Mexico.
Many scientists and scholars believe that the image of the Blessed Virgin as she appeared almost 500 years ago in Mexico to Juan Diego is a miraculous image — not something any human artist could have painted. But the miracle is not only that God’s mother appeared in the New World; it's that she appeared as a dark-skinned Aztec princess instead of as a light-skinned European Madonna. And she spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, Nahuatl, not in the language of the Spanish conquerors and missionaries. The message of the Lady was immediately understood by even the simplest person: God and his Mother were close to ordinary people and poor people, and God and his Mother would protect them and care for them.
Today, people throughout America have a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Young people proudly wear jewelry and clothing stamped with her image, and their parents display her image in homes and businesses. Each year on December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated in parishes and villages throughout North, Central, and South America with festive processions, special Masses, fireworks, music, dances and food. The Basilica of Guadalupe northeast of Mexico City receives over twenty million visitors annually.
This is the lasting gift of Our Lady of Guadalupe: that even today she brings people together with her tender and transforming message. This is her love story.
Juan Diego was born in 1474 in the district of Cuautlitlan, today part of Mexico City. Juan was a member of the Chichimeca people, one of the more advanced groups living in the Anahuac Valley. He was a hardworking farmer and a deeply spiritual man even before his conversion to the Catholic faith. Juan’s name in Nahuatl was Cuauhtlatoatzin (“the eagle who speaks”), which he changed to Juan Diego when he was baptized at age 50.
To understand the significance of the apparitions of Our Lady, it is helpful to know something of the history of the Mexican people in the sixteenth century.
The arrival in 1519 of Hernando Cortez in Mexico brought two very different ethnicities and cultures together: Spaniards and those indigenous to Mexico. It was not a friendly meeting, and historians have named it la Conquista (“the Conquest”). Those early conquistadores (“conquerors”) oppressed and enslaved the indigenous people. They also brought new diseases from Europe that wiped out huge numbers of people. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, historians estimate that about 25 million indigenous people lived in the regions we now call Mexico and Central America. Less than a century later, less than 3 million remained.
This was the setting in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Juan Diego.
Juan Diego was 57 years old and recently widowed at the time of the first apparition. On Saturday December 9, 1531, just before dawn, he heard singing as he passed a hill known as Tepeyac. He stopped to listen and asked himself: “Am I dreaming?" The song was “very mellow and delightful.”
Suddenly, the singing ceased and he heard a voice calling sweetly, “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” He felt drawn to the voice, and climbed the hill to see who was calling him. He saw a young brown-skinned woman in flowing robes. “Her garments were shining like the sun; the cliff where she rested her feet, pierced with glitter, resembled an anklet of precious stones, and the earth sparkled like the rainbow.”
Juan Diego bowed before the Lady, who spoke to him tenderly in his native language — Nahuatl — not in the Spanish of the European conquerors. She asked him where he was going. He answered that he was going to her church in Tlatilolco to receive instruction from a priest. The woman then identified herself as “Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live.” She asked him to inform Don Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the Bishop of Mexico, that she wanted a “little house” or temple (teocalli) to be constructed on the hill of Tepeyac. “Here I will give all my love, my help and my protection to the people…I am your compassionate mother, and I am the mother of all the people who live as one in this land, and of all the people of different ancestries who cry to me, who seek me, who trust in me.”
Juan Diego was likely in a daze as he made his way to the bishop’s palace. Barefoot and wearing the humble clothes of a countryman, he presented himself to the palace servants and asked if he could see the bishop. After a long wait, he was admitted to the bishop’s quarters. He knelt before the bishop and told him about the beautiful Lady and her message for him. The bishop listened politely, but it was obvious to Juan Diego that the bishop did not believe him.
Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac and found the Lady from heaven waiting for him. He explained that he had done exactly as she had asked, but to no avail. He begged the Lady to entrust her message to a more important person, someone well-known and respected. “I am a nobody,” he said, “I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf…and you send me to a place I would never visit.”
But the Virgin insisted that he was the one chosen to convey her message, even though she could indeed call upon others. She asked him to return to the bishop again the next day. “Tell him again that I, in person, the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God, sent you.”
On Sunday, Juan Diego again set out before dawn to attend Mass in Tlatilolco, then went directly to Bishop Zumárraga’s palace. He repeated his message again and patiently answered the bishop’s questions about the Lady’s appearance and details of the meeting. Still, the bishop was not convinced. The interview ended with the bishop requesting proof of the Lady’s words. Juan Diego agreed to ask the Lady for a sign the next day.
The Miracle of the Tilma
But Juan Diego could not journey to Tlatilolco the following day because his uncle fell seriously ill. Toward nightfall, as his condition deteriorated, his uncle begged him to get a priest so that he could make a final confession.
Early in the morning of Tuesday, December 12, Juan Diego set out to get a priest for his uncle. As he approached Tepeyac, he changed his route so as to avoid meeting the Lady. He did not wish to be distracted from his important errand. But the Lady descended from the hilltop and intercepted him. He apologized to the Lady, explaining that he would come again tomorrow after attending to the spiritual needs of his dying uncle. Mary replied, “Hear me and understand well, my little son: nothing should frighten or grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not be afflicted by the illness of your uncle, who will not die now of it. Be assured that he is now cured.”
She then instructed Juan Diego to climb to the top of the hill and gather the flowers that he would find growing there. It was a strange request since flowers did not grow on the hillside in winter: it was too cold, and even in summer only weeds would grow in the craggy soil.
But upon reaching the summit, Juan was dazzled by the brilliant colors and perfume of a bountiful array of Castilian roses. He cut them and gathered them in his tilma—a rough cloak made of fibers of the maguey cactus—and carefully carried them down the hill to the Lady. The Lady rearranged the flowers in his tilma and gave him final instructions for the bishop.
His confidence restored, Juan Diego returned to Bishop Zumarraga’s palace. He entered the bishop’s quarters and knelt down as he usually did. He said, “Sir, I did what you ordered. I told the Lady from heaven, Holy Mary, precious Mother of God, that you asked for a sign so that you might believe me that you should build a temple where she asked it to be erected. She graciously granted your request.”
He then unfolded his tilma, and the exquisite, fragrant flowers spilled at the feet of the bishop.
This was miracle enough, but it was the second miracle that caused the bishop to fall to his knees: a stunning image of the Lady from heaven appeared on the inside of Juan Diego’s tilma. Overcome with emotion, Bishop Zumarraga prayed and begged Juan Diego to forgive him for not having believed him sooner. Then he rose to this feet, gently untied the tilma from Juan Diego’s neck, and reverently placed it in his private chapel. That evening, Juan Diego stayed in the bishop’s palace. The next day, they visited Tepeyac hill together so the bishop could see the exact place where Mary wanted him to build a temple.
This time, the bishop lost no time answering Mary’s request. He immediately ordered the construction of an adobe chapel atop Tepeyac Hill, which was dedicated on December 26th of that same year. The sacred image was transferred to Tepeyac for public veneration and became known as “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
In fact, the Nahuatl word the Lady had used to identify herself was Coatlaxopeuh, which means, “she who crushes the serpent.” The Spaniards who heard Juan Diego’s story could not understand or say this name, but it sounded vaguely similar to Guadalupe, the name of a town in Spain known for its Marian shrine. Thus, the name Guadalupe was attached to the Virgin’s appearances.
The hill of Tepeyac where Mary appeared, located just outside present-day Mexico City, was once the site of a temple where Aztecs, who practiced human sacrifice, worshiped their goddess Tonantzin. Although the temple had been destroyed in 1521, the indigenous, especially those oppressed by the Aztecs, may have feared Tepeyac. It remained a well-known place; thus the Virgin’s appearance announced the arrival of God in the heart of a people’s history and culture. No part of this new continent, nothing in its own violent past, would be untouched by the divine.
Within a short period of time, six million indigenous people were baptized as Christians.
The canonization of Juan Diego on July 31, 2002, was a powerful moment for the people of Mexico. His canonization affirms the Virgin of Guadalupe and the indigenous people of the Americas as God’s messengers of Good News.
CELEBRATING THE FEAST
Feast Day Traditions
Every December 12, people throughout the Americas celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with music, dancing, and food. Children dress up in traditional clothing – the young girls in beautiful multicolored skirts or dresses with colorful ribbons in their hair; the boys as little “Dieguitos” in serapes, sandals, straw hats and painted mustaches.
Some people decorate their cars or trucks with flowers and process behind a painting of the Virgin to their church. A special Mass is often held at midnight or the break of dawn to serenade Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Traditional Song to Our Lady of Guadalupe
Mañanitas are traditional Mexican songs that people sing early in the morning on birthdays and other special days.
Las Mañanitas Guadalupanas
Traditional Mexican melody (19-20th c.)
of the valley of Anahuac the loveliest maid,
your children come together
to greet you at break of day.
Awaken, dearest Mother,
see, the dawn begins to glow;
Already the birds are singing,
and the moon has gone below.
Mother to us Mexicans
you said you came to be;
just how much we’ve learned to love you,
Dark-skinned One, you now can see.
Awaken, dearest Mother,
see the dawn begin to glow;
see the garlands of our flowers
that today we bring to you.
Yes, waken, little Mother,
see the breaking of the dawn;
see, O Queen, your two volcanos,
tinted red by early sun.
Gently spoke you to Juan Diego:
Where go you, O child of mine?"
while upon his coarse-spun tilma
you impressed your features fine.
Yes, awaken now, O Mother,
and reveal your gentle face,
and upon our hearts imprint
the lasting beauty of your grace.
Hear us, O Guadalupana,
as we sing these morning songs;
your Native People sing them
with a love both deep and strong.
In the chill of early morning,
on the hillside frost still clinging,
from the branches of the cedars
all the birds to you are singing.
O brilliant Morning-star,
when you appeared on Tepeyac,
you shed light on Juan Dieguito
on his humble daily path.
Juan Diego was walking one morning
when you came down from the clouds;
the angels formed a chorus,
cherubs round you sang aloud.
You spoke to Juan Dieguito:
"Gather roses over there
upon the hilltop yonder.
They’ll be fragrant, fresh and fair!"
O brilliant Morning-star...
Juan Diego gathered the roses
with attention and with care;
so fresh were they, he hastened
to the bishop’s house afar.
Yet little did he imagine
that the face of his beloved
was already imprinted
on his cloak so rough and rugged.
O Light so brightly shining,
Virgin-maid of heavenly grace,
shine your light on us, your children,
guide us on our earthly way!
Awaken, dearest Mother,
and hear your people sing;
fervently we sound your praises,
with full hearts our voices ring.
Now the dawn at last has broken,
nightingales their voices raise,
and with love for you, your people
form a choir to sing your praise.
Ah, waken, little Mother,
see how dawn is all aglow,
hear the throbbing teponaztle
which awakes our world below!
[English translation reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1978-2000 Juan Pedro Gaffney, Coro Hispano de San Francisco, 1403 28th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122]
PRAYER TO OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of God,
you blessed Mexico and all the Americas
by your appearance to Juan Diego.
Pray for us, help us always trust God,
and inspire us to be messengers of hope in the world.
Bless our families and hear our prayers,
especially those we make at this moment (mention your request).
We pray all this in the name of your Son Jesus.
MEXICAN CRAFT: PAPEL PICADO
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico there was already a tradition of paper making that was called amatl in Nahuatl. The people of Mexico produced a type of paper by mashing the pulp of the bark of fig and mulberry trees between rocks. Once dry, the paper was then cut with knives made from obsidian.
Making Simple Papel Picado
Fold a rectangular piece of paper in half. In pencil, sketch one half of a design on one of the folded halves. You can use a ruler or other tools and aids to draw your design. Remember that designs must touch and connect to other areas of the paper to create the positive shapes on the paper. You can shade the areas that you will cut away.
Use scissors or a craft knife to carefully cut away negative areas of the design (cut over cardboard if using craft knives). Open slowly, flatten, and glue to a background paper. To create more complex designs, fold the paper more than once. Try using different kinds of paper: butcher paper, fadeless colored paper, origami paper, and colored tissue paper.