Five centuries ago, St. Juan Diego was the first believer to meet the Virgin Mary under the title and appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Today, millions continue to encounter and embrace her motherly presence, especially on her feast day of Dec. 12.
The story of the Virgin Mary's appearance in Mexico is well-known to many devotees. On Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego –a recently-baptized indigenous Mexican convert to Catholicism– was hurrying to Mass, to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But the woman he was heading to church to celebrate, came to him instead.
Regally attired, and speaking the native Aztec dialect, the radiant woman announced herself as the “ever-perfect holy Mary, who has the honor to be the mother of the true God.”
“I am your compassionate Mother, yours and that of all the people that live together in this land,” she continued, “and also of all the other various lineages of men.” She asked Juan Diego to make a request of the local bishop.
“I want very much that they build my sacred little house here” – a house dedicated to her son Jesus Christ, on the site of a former pagan temple, that would “show Him” to all Mexicans and “exalt Him” throughout the world.
She was asking a great deal of the newly-baptized Mexican peasant. Not surprisingly, his bold request met with skepticism from Bishop Juan de Zumárraga. But Juan Diego said he would produce unquestionable proof of the apparition– just as soon as he was finished tending to his dying uncle, whose death seemed immanent.
Once again making his way to church on Dec. 12, this time to summon a priest to his uncle's deathbed, Juan Diego again encountered the radiant woman. She promised to cure his uncle, and to give him a sign to display for the bishop. On the hill where they had first met, she said he would find roses and other flowers, although it was the middle of winter.
Doing as she asked, he found the flowers and brought them back to her. The Virgin Mary then placed the flowers inside his tilma, the traditional winter garment he had been wearing, for their storage. She instructed him not to unwrap the tilma containing the flowers, until he had reached the bishop.
When he did, Bishop Zumárraga had his own encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe, through the image of her that he found miraculously imprinted on the flower-filled tilma. The Mexico City basilica that now houses that tilma has become, by some estimates, the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world.
The outlook for the Catholic Church in Mexico, where European religious orders had struggled to convey the faith to the native Mexicans, changed suddenly and dramatically once the tilma appeared. As many as nine-million native Mexicans are said to have become Catholic, between 1532 and 1538.
In 1999, three years before Pope John Paul II canonized St. Juan Diego, he summed up the significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe for Catholics throughout the Americas, describing her as the “mother and evangelizer of America.” The Pope also noted that “in the next millennium … (North and South) America will be the continent with the largest number of Catholics.”
Just as other Catholics might describe their faith as having a “Franciscan” or “Dominican” emphasis, some Catholics deeply identify with a “Guadalupan” Catholicism. That sensibility tends to emphasize the Virgin Mary's maternal care for all peoples, her identification with the humble and oppressed, and her call for all cultures to receive the Gospel message while preserving their own gifts.
Although the Virgin of Guadalupe announced herself to Juan Diego as the mother of all peoples, devotion to her is understandably strongest in Mexico and its former territories within the U.S., and among Latino Catholics everywhere. The image left for posterity on Juan Diego's tilma has also been imprinted on their culture and outlook.
For Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, Texas, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe began before he was even born. As he explained to CNA on Dec. 10, his mother made a pilgrimage with his father to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe while she was pregnant with him.
“When I was in the womb of my mother, my father and my mother went on a pilgrimage to Mexico City,” about 300 miles from his birthplace in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. “They took me there, and they prayed for me.”
“They asked Mary to help raise me as a good kid, and a good Catholic,” the future archbishop recalled. He and his 14 siblings later made “many, many pilgrimages” to the shrine. Like many Mexican and other Latino Catholics, Archbishop Garcia-Siller remembers the Guadalupe image as a constant part of his home life, closely associated with the daily family Rosary and novena prayers for particular needs.
“My faith in Jesus Christ, and in the Church, has a lot to do with her,” he reflected.
Many Latino Catholics celebrating their faith and culture on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe would agree with his statement. His archdiocese's Cathedral of San Fernando, the oldest active cathedral in the U.S., has been a center for devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe for almost 300 years. And while the city has variously belonged to four different nations during that time, devotion to her has never changed.
“The devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is very festive,” he explained. “In the midst of tragic situations that people go through, (celebrating) Our Lady is an occasion to be festive– because of the hope that she brings.”
They'll celebrate that hope at Mass, and with processions and prayers– but also by singing and dancing, eating and drinking, wearing costumes or watching plays in which children re-enact the story of Juan Diego. Even those who may not grasp or acknowledge it as a holy day, can celebrate it as a holiday– and perhaps, Archbishop Garcia-Siller speculated, they may hear what the image wordlessly conveys.
At San Fernando Cathedral, mariachi musicians and other devotees will gather “to serenade Our Lady for an hour,” expressing their love in a variety of songs many know by heart. Some are traditional hymns of the Church– but “also, there are songs that are popular,” expressing childlike or chivalrous affection toward “a mother who loves her children.”
For Catholics of other backgrounds, the experience might be a foreign one, at least on the surface. But Archbishop Garcia-Siller noted that Our Lady of Guadalupe, as a universal mother, can draw together communities that may not understand their own interconnections.
“Her presence, her message, is for all those who follow Jesus, who want to have a relationship with him,” he said.