The first apparition of Our Lady to Juan Diego at Tepeyac, which is now a suburb of Mexico City, occurred on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on Saturday 9th December 1531 [the feast was celebrated on the 9th in Spain and its colonies]. The last apparition occurred on the 12th and is the date that Mexico and the whole world honour Our Lady as the Queen of Mexico, Mother of the Americas and Protectress of the Unborn Child. The Blessed Virgin appeared as an Indian girl, speaking Juan’s native language, offering her help to the oppressed native people. She is also known as ‘the little Indian lady’ and ‘the dark lady of Tepeyac’.
From the 13th century onwards the Aztec tribe had attacked their neighbours and by 1502, when Montezuma II became Emperor, he ruled over a huge empire. The conquered tribes were treated harshly and enslaved by the Aztec who worshipped many gods and made human sacrifice. When they tried to expand their empire, the Mixtec tribes twice defeated Montezuma’s troops, which resulted in an increase in human sacrifice to the angry gods. Aztec astrologers predicted that the god Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent) would come to end the bloodshed of war and sacrifice. When Hernan Cortez, and his 900 Spanish Conquistadors, landed in 1519 he was taken to be the Plumed Serpent and was not opposed by the conquered tribes but received as a deliverer from the oppression of the Aztec. However, the bloodshed continued with the Spanish being just as oppressive as they plundered the riches of the New World and treated the indigenous people as subhuman.
Queen Isabella of Spain held a council with clergymen, theologians and lawyers when they concluded that the indigenous natives of ‘New Spain’ did have souls and should be converted to the Catholic faith. The Franciscans and Dominicans, who were vowed to poverty, were mainly responsible for this task. They educated the natives and built hospitals, also introducing agricultural techniques and new crops. Their austere and simple lifestyle contrasted sharply with that of the Spanish colonists who were flocking to New Spain. The friars showed immense courage in defying the abusive colonists who were feared and despised by the native people. Impressed by the missionaries, hundreds of thousands of the indigenous people converted to Catholicism.
Juan Diego was a 57 years old convert whose wife had died two years previously and they did not have any children. He lived with his old uncle, Juan Bernardino, who was also a convert and they had taken their names on conversion. Because his uncle was in poor health, Juan walked to Mass on the 9th by himself. On the way he heard music and a choir singing an unearthly song followed by a voice calling his name. Juan climbed a hill to find out who it was and found a radiant young woman of about 16 years age. The sun had not risen but she was bathed in light. She revealed herself as Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. She told him that she wanted to help his people and all who sincerely turned to her for help. She wished a church to be built on the spot where they stood, a hill called Tepeyac where there had previously been a temple to the goddess Tonantzin. He was told to go to the Bishop which he did. Bishop Zummarraga received his request with some doubt and dismissed Juan, telling him that he would think about it.
Juan reached the hill at sunset on his homeward journey where Mary was waiting for him. Begging her forgiveness for having failed he asked her to choose someone else who would be more capable. Our Lady said, “My son, it is you I have chosen. Go back to the Bishop tomorrow, say you have seen me again, and repeat my request”. The next day being Sunday, Juan went to Mass following which he walked into the City. The Bishop was still uncertain and told Juan to ask for a direct and unmistakeable sign, and then he would build the church. Juan returned to the hill at Tepeyac where Mary was waiting for him. She told him to come back the next day at dawn when she would give him the sign to take to the Bishop.
When he returned home he found his uncle very ill with fever and he sat up with him all night. He didn’t feel able to leave his uncle and meet with Mary as promised. All through the next day and night he cared for his uncle. On the Tuesday morning Juan Bernardino fearing that his end was near asked his nephew to fetch the priest. On his way to the priest, Mary appeared to him again and Juan explained what had happened. She told him that he had nothing to worry about as his uncle had already been cured.
Mary asked him to go to the top of the hill and gather the roses that were growing there. He was confused because roses did not usually grow on the top of a hill, especially in December when there would not be roses anywhere. When he reached the top he found dozens of beautiful red roses growing among the frost covered cactus and rocks. He filled his tilma [an apron] with the roses and took them back to Mary who rearranged them with her own hands. She tied the lower corners of the tilma behind Juan’s neck to cover the roses. Mary said, “My son, this is my sign for the Bishop. Don’t let anyone see what you have in the tilma until you are before the Bishop himself. Tell him I made your uncle well again and that I myself arranged the roses like this. He will believe you, you will see”. Bishop Zummarraga received Juan in anticipation of receiving the sign and in addition to his interpreter [Father Juan Gonzalez translated all their conversations and later testified to all he had seen and heard] he called in other witnesses.
Juan told the Bishop what Mary had said before he untied his tilma. The roses fell to the ground and on the front of the tilma was an image of the Mother of Our Lord just as he had seen her. The Bishop accepted the truth of what Juan had told him and fell to his knees along with the others. The tilma was carried into the Bishop’s chapel and attached to the wall. News of the image quickly spread and crowds gathered outside the Bishop’s house. In order to let everyone see the image, it was taken in procession and put on display in the Cathedral of San Francisco. The Bishop wanted to fulfil Mary’s request as soon as possible and asked to be taken to the spot where she wanted the church to be built. After showing the Bishop the hill, they went to see Juan’s uncle who was now cured.
Juan Bernardino had his own story to tell them. He had been in distress with the fever hoping that his nephew would arrive with the priest in time for him to make his peace with God and receive the Sacraments. The room filled with a soft light and he saw a beautiful young woman standing beside him. In his native language she told him of her meeting with his nephew. She also told him that she and her image were to be called – Our Lady of the serpent who is crushed. The Nahuatl word for ‘the serpent who is crushed’ is ‘coatlaxopeuh’, which is pronounced ‘quatlasupe’. Those Spanish present thought that Juan Bernardino had spoken of Our Lady of Guadalupe which was a famous Marian shrine in Spain. Despite the fact that Mary had appeared as a young native girl speaking the native language, they thought that Our Lady of Guadalupe had chosen to appear in New Spain. The interpreter explained the meaning of the word in the Nahuatl language and the obvious reference to the Immaculate Conception. This explanation did not stop the Spanish from using the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the image.
Hundreds of converts flocked to the hill at Tepeyac to help build the church as Our Lady had requested. It was completed in two weeks and on the 26th December the image was brought in procession from the Cathedral to the new church. Hernan Cortes also took part. During the celebrations a young Indian stumbled and fell on his friend’s spear. Losing blood he became unconscious and was near death. Two of his friends carried him to the image of Our Lady and begged for help. The young man opened his eyes, the bleeding stopped and he got to his feet. Our Lady saved his life and more miracles followed.
The other consequence of the apparition was a change of attitude by the Spanish to the indigenous people and a change of attitude by those natives who had stuck to their old beliefs as a result of the poor religious example of the Spanish colonists. With the tales of the apparition and after viewing the miraculous image, many of the indigenous people turned to Catholicism. There were many doubters among the Spanish who continued to follow the Virgin of Los Remedios whose statue had been brought from Spain by the Conquistadors. Following an outbreak of typhoid in the City in 1737, Our Lady’s help was invoked and the epidemic stopped as quickly as it started. Mary was officially proclaimed Patroness of New Spain.
During the fight for Mexican independence from 1810 to 1836 the nationalists seeking independence fought under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, while the royalist fought under the banner of the Virgin of Los Remedios, apparently not realising that they were the same Mother of Our Lord, the Prince of Peace, and how inappropriate it was. Throughout the 19th century there were numerous civil conflicts in Mexico and wars with France, Austria and the United States. The early 20th century saw revolutions lead by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, followed by internal power struggles and political instability resulting in disparity between the wealthy minority and the impoverished majority. Mexico became a strict secular state but the Mexican people remained devoutly Catholic. While restrictions were placed on the clergy and faith schools, fear of uprisings from the devout Mexicans loyal to Our Lady of Guadalupe meant that no government dared to prohibit Catholic worship. In 1921 anti-clerical extremists placed a bomb beneath the image of Our Lady in the Basilica which exploded during High Mass. The image was spared from the blast and there were no injuries. Our Lady of Guadalupe has been the sole unifying force in Mexico throughout this turmoil. She is honoured throughout the Americas and was also declared Patroness of the Philippines in 1935.
The original church had been hurriedly built in 1531 and would not last, but was the resting place of the image until 1709 when a Basilica was built at the foot of the hill to accommodate the huge number of pilgrims. The image was transferred to the Basilica which itself started to sink in loose earth in the 1960s and became the old Basilica when a new replacement Basilica was opened in 1976. This construction of concrete and white marble accommodates 20,000 people but contains no statue or image other than that of Our Lady on Saint Juan Diego’s tilma. Stairs lead from the back of the old Basilica to the top of the hill of Tepeyac and the Chapel of the Hill on the exact spot of the apparition. The image has been on public display since 1531 but its brilliance has not dimmed and it is well preserved. In the 1980s a close study was made of the stars on the cloak worn by Our Lady. Astronomical research concluded that the stars before dawn on the morning of 12th December 1531 were in exactly the same configuration as those shown on the cloak. “It is as though the Queen of Heaven had clothed herself in the firmament itself”.
Abridged from the ‘Message of Guadalupe’ by Gillian Rae – CTS Publications