This past week, Msgr. Eduardo Chávez Sánchez told an audience gathered at the Marian Congress, that the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe was a “salvation event” specifically directed to evangelize of all of the Americas.
Msgr. Chavez, who holds a doctorate in Church history, has published more than 28 books and articles and was recently the postulator for the cause for the canonization of Juan Diego. He addressed a crowd gathered in Phoenix, Arizona last Thursday and remarked that Mary’s apparition in Mexico in 1531 was more powerful than most realize.
The monsignor began by noting that after the Spanish had defeated the Indians in Mexico and ended their ritual human sacrifices, a small group of Franciscan missionaries began to evangelize the new world.
He explained that there were complex tensions between the missionaries and Spanish that complicated the missionaries’ evangelization effort. Not only did the missionaries not know the native language, but they also struggled to try and protect the Indians from exploitation by the Spanish. The conflict grew so serious that the local bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, was almost assassinated by the Spanish.
Historians do not “doubt that during the first evangelizing effort in Mexico, the work of the missionaries was extraordinary,” Msgr. Chavez said, but “the task was more than they could handle.”
The situation grew more difficult for the missionaries as they tried a “thousand different ways to make themselves understood,” but had little success. Bishop Zumárraga became so concerned that he told some of the missionaries, “If God does not intervene to provide an instant remedy, this land is on the verge of being lost forever...”
“And God intervened through the being He loves the most, His own Mother, who chooses a simple and humble Indian to be her faithful messenger, her completely trustworthy intercessor: Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin,” Chavez remarked.
In 1524, soon after the first Franciscan missionaries arrived in Mexico, Juan Diego accepted the Catholic faith and was baptized.
Chavez recounted that “on Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan Diego was on his way to Tlatelolco to attend catechism when the Mother of God appeared to him. She asked him to be her messenger.”
She asked Juan Diego to go to Bishop Zumárraga and ask for a little temple to be built in dedication to her in the valley of Tepyac. Zumárraga received Juan Diego, but asked for a sign from the Virgin Mary to prove her message.
Juan Diego, whose uncle had been sick, tried to avoid their next meeting, but the Blessed Mother still appeared to him. Msgr. Chavez said, “The Virgin asked him to go to the top of the hill, where he would find beautiful flowers to cut and put in his tilma (cloak). Just as she said, Juan Diego found on that dry and rocky hilltop, a place of death, the most beautiful and extraordinary flowers.”
He filled his tilma and brought the roses to the bishop as was requested. When he approached the bishop, he opened his tilma to reveal the beautiful image of the Virgin Mother as a “mestiza” (a woman of mixed race), wrapped in the sun with the moon at her feet, her robe studded with stars. “Her message and will is the spreading of the love of God and that is why she asked for a temple, to offer His love to persons of every lineage who trust in Her.”
She told Juan Diego that her name was “Santa Maria de Guadalupe.” Chavez explained that “Guadalupe” is a name of Arabic origin that means “the river bed,” “the one that carries the water;” it can also be translated as “river of light.” She takes us to the living water.)
Finally, Msgr. Chavez argued that Juan Diego’s humble tilma had four essential meanings to the Indians: First, the tilma was used as cover for protection against inclement weather. It was also used to carry things, thus contributed to the support of the family.
Thirdly, within the Indian society, the tilma was an indication of the status and social condition of a person. Only noblemen could have their garments decorated. And lastly, the tilma was so important that during Indian weddings the man’s tilma was tied into a knot with the huipil, the woman’s dress, as a symbol that their lives were united.
The image, Chavez argued, is a code that the Indians understood perfectly.
Soon after the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, “conversions began occurring at an astounding rate.” The missionaries were in awe of what was happening: “the Indians were coming from everywhere, from far away lands asking for the sacraments.”
Chavez said that by 1539, only eight years after the apparition, almost nine million Indians had converted with the help of a small group of Franciscans.
The message for us today, Msgr. Chavez concluded, is that “God intervenes by means of his own Mother…to allow every human being to become a participating part of [her Son]. She is the first disciple and missionary who manifests and delivers to us the message of salvation.”