December 12th is her Feast Day
Image: Wikimedia Commons
THREE MINUTES WITH THE SAINTS by Paul Combs
It’s hard to top Christmas in terms of December pageantry, but today in Mexico, much of Latin America, and many parts of the U.S. and Canada churches will come close. That’s because today is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas. Thus, in today’s installment of “Three Minutes With the Saints” we take a closer look at Our Lady of Guadalupe and her appearance to St. Juan Diego 500 years ago.
On December 9, 1531, ten years after the Spanish conquistadors had defeated the Aztec Empire, an Indian peasant named Juan Diego was walking to Mass when he came upon an apparition of a woman whom he soon came to recognize as the Virgin Mary. She had the appearance of a young Native American maiden and was dressed like an Aztec princess. She spoke to Juan in his native language, instructing him to go to the archbishop of Mexico City, a Franciscan named Juan de Zumarraga; she wanted the bishop to build a chapel in the place where she had appeared.
Juan Diego obediently tried to convince the archbishop of what he had seen, but the archbishop was understandably skeptical and asked for a sign to prove Juan’s account. Juan returned to Mary and shared this with her. She told him to climb to the top of the hill and gather flowers to bring back to the bishop. When he reached the top Juan discovered Castilian roses, which were neither in season nor native to the region. This happened on December 12, 1531.
The Blessed Mother herself arranged to flowers in Juan’s tilma, a burlap-type cloak made out of cactus fibers, and instructed him to open the cloak only in the presence of the archbishop. Upon arriving at the bishop’s residence, Juan opened his cloak and the roses fell to the floor, causing the archbishop to fall to his knees; on the surface of the tilma was the image of who we have come to know as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The appearance of Mary and the image on the tilma sparked a conversion in Mexico not seen before or since anywhere in the world. In less than ten years, nine million people became Christians following Juan Diego’s encounter with the Blessed Virgin. A shrine was indeed built on the spot, and the original tilma can still be seen at what remains one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the world to this day.
There are some interesting facts about the tilma itself as well. Despite extensive investigation, analysis, and research, scientists have been unable to explain how the image got there at all. For example, experts in infrared photography determined in the late 1970s that there were no brush strokes, as if the image had just been pasted onto the surface all at once (unlikely now and impossible in the 1500s). The surface bearing the image is reportedly very silky to the touch, while the part without the image remains coarse because of the fibers.
Furthermore, by all rights the tilma should have disintegrated by now, as cloth made from woven cactus fibers should only have lasted for 15 to 20 years at most. In 1789, a copy was made for comparison; it was painted on the same type of surface and used the best techniques of the time, then encased in glass and stored next to the actual tilma. After only eight years in the hot and humid climate of Mexico this copy began to fade and fray and was ultimately discarded. After almost 500 years there has been no disintegration of the original tilma, which was completely exposed to the elements until 1647 when it was finally put behind glass.
But we should not focus on the image alone, which was after all sent simply as confirmation that the Virgin had indeed appeared to Juan Diego; there are several important lessons to be learned from her appearance. The fact that she spoke to Juan Diego in his own language and appeared as a young Native American maiden (she is often referred to as “la Virgen Morena” or “the brown-skinned virgin”) shows concern for all of her children, regardless of race or ethnicity. The fact that she appeared to a peasant rather than directly to the archbishop showed her concern (and as the Bible show’s continuously, God’s concern) for the poor. Perhaps most importantly, it showed the people of that time that Christianity was not just a European religion, but that it was for everyone.
On October 12, 1945, Pope Pius XII named Our Lady of Guadalupe “Patroness of all the Americas.” On July 31, 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized St. Juan Diego at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, making him the first indigenous American saint. The image below shows Pope Francis at the tilma in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2016.
Image: Vatican News
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.