According to Internet lore, Hillary Clinton once visited Mexico City and the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. During her visit, as she examined the image, she asked, “Who painted this?” The priest with her said, “God, of course.” It’s impossible to know how much further that conversation went, or if the priest explained some of the amazing qualities of the image. How many of us actually know the details involved in the miraculous image which in many respects equals The Shroud of Turin in its baffling qualities that defy any natural explanation? And how many of us have reflected upon the circumstances which led to the revelation of the image and its amazing impact on evangelization and the cause of life in the Americas today?
The Beginning at Guadalupe
On December 9, 1531, an older native Mexican man named Juan Diego encountered a beautiful young woman dressed as an Aztec Princess on his way to daily Mass. She identified herself as the Virgin Mary and said, “I vividly desire that a church be built on this site, so that in it I can be present and give my love, compassion, help, and defense, for I am your most devoted mother… to hear your laments and to remedy all your miseries, pains, and sufferings.” She sent him to Bishop Juan de Zummaraga to ask that a church be built there on Tepyac Hill where Juan Diego had met her. After a series of exchanges, the bishop asked for a sign that this was indeed the Virgin Mary. On December 12, he got that sign.
What the Virgin Said to Bishop Zummaraga
What nobody knew at the time is that Bishop Zummaraga, a native of Castille, had been praying for Our Lady to intervene to prevent an uprising, to reconcile the Spanish and the natives and to bring peace. He asked that he would receive roses native to his homeland of Castille as a sign that his prayer would be answered. Not only did Our Lady provide dozens of beautiful Castilian Roses (which didn’t grow in Mexico, and were out of season) for Juan Diego to take to the bishop inside his cloak, but when he opened the cloak to drop the roses, there on the rough cactus fiber of the tilma was the miraculous image we know and love. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
What the Virgin Said to the Aztecs
The grand miracles of healing and symbols associated with the image were the catalyst for the conversion of the Aztec people to Christianity and an end to thousands of years of bloody human sacrifice. As the news spread like wildfire among the natives, it became clear that God was reaching out to these people directly. The Virgin Mary appeared as an Aztec Princess, and spoke with an Aztec native in his own native tongue. Because she appeared at Tepyac, a place of sacred significance for their pagan religion, Mary was sending a message that she was the mother of the true God, and that Christianity would replace the Aztec religion. And she appeared in a year predicted by the Aztec calendar to be the end of the world. The symbols that were a part of the image she left behind spoke to the native people and revealed to them the beauty and truth of the Christian religion. More information on the symbols represented can be found here.
What the Virgin Said to the Spanish and the Muslims
Bishop Zummarega, having been a native of Castille, would have been fully aware that before this New World Guadalupe, there was an Old World Guadalupe about 700 years prior to events in Mexico. The Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe was the most important Marian shrine in the medieval kingdom of Castile. There is a tradition that St. Luke the Evangelist was also a painter. It is said that he carved a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin holding a child in one hand, and a scepter in the other, thought to signify her royal motherhood. The statue is said to have been venerated by Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604), and given by him to the Bishop of Seville, St. Leander. When the Muslims invaded Spain in 711, many treasures of the Church were hidden to shield them from plunder. The ancient statue was said to have been buried near the Guadiana River, also known as the Wolf River (lupe). When the area was controlled by the Muslims, the river was referred to as an oasis, or awadi, which lead to the area being known as the wadi lupe, or Guadalupe. Because those that hid the treasures were ultimately killed by the invading forces, the treasures, including the statue, were lost for centuries.
Fast forward to 1326. By this time, the Moors had been driven out of Spain. Gil Cordero, a herdsman looking for a lost cow, is said to have found the image after being directed by a radiant lady in the forest who told him where to dig. She requested that a chapel be built there. (Sound familiar?) Inside the cave, with authenticating documents, was found the statue of Our Lady and Jesus, made of unpainted wood from the Orient! Francis Johnston in The Wonder of Guadalupe relates that in 1340, King Alphonso XI of Castille had a monastery built for the statue which became “the most celebrated shrine in Spain,” attracting a great numbers of pilgrims, one of whom was Columbus after his first voyage to the New World and his discovery of America.
Fast forward to 1571, just 30 years after Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego. Pope Pius V, a Dominican with a dedication to the Rosary, had just been elected. Once again, Europe was being menaced by Turkish Muslims. (Can you see a pattern here?) A massive invasion force with a huge fleet of ships was poised to invade Italy and crush Rome. Unlike previous conflicts with the Muslims since the 600s when Spain and parts of France were captured, Europe was now split thanks to the division created by the Protestant Reformation. Almost the entirety of Northern Europe was in open rebellion against the Catholic Church, which now stood alone against the pending Muslim invasion. The rest of Europe wanted to be neutral because the Turks had already captured a large swath of land along the Danube, and they were afraid to provoke the enemy further.
Pius V was able to convince Spain and Venice, the only two willing and able countries, to mount a defense: a relatively small fleet of 200 ships to attempt to stop the coming invasion. Within the cabin of one of the three principal admirals of the fleet, Andrea Doria, was an exact copy of the Holy Image of Guadalupe that had been sent as a gift to King Philip II from the Archbishop of Mexico. And when the armada went to war on the morning of October 7, 1571, the blue standard of Our Lady of Guadalupe was also flying from the masthead of Don Juan’s flagship. These signs, along with the Rosary that was being prayed all over Europe, are believed to be the decisive blow in defeating the much larger Turkish fleet that day. From that great victory came the devotion to Our Lady of Victories, later renamed Our Lady of the Rosary, which is still celebrated in the Church calendar on October 7 of every year.
(Note: It’s also interesting to note that two other major European Marian apparitions have connections to the Muslims. Our Lady of Lourdes, in France, happened at the location where a Muslim prince (Lourdes) miraculously surrendered and converted after a siege involving Charles Martel. Our Lady of Fatima, appearing in Portugal, also appeared in a place related to the Muslims. Fatima, of course, is the name of the daughter of Mohammed. Why shouldn’t this be? A devotion to the Blessed Virgin is one important thing we have in common with Muslims. Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once wrote about this fascinating connection.)
The Image and Science
The image continues to speak to us through the discoveries that have been made by modern science. Juan Diego’s tilma, made of fibers of the agave plant, should have disintegrated after about 30 years. Today it remains fully intact after nearly 500 years! While the image has had some paint added around the edges over the years (such as the darkening and enlargement of the original moon shape), the original surfaces of the image–the face, the gown, hands, and moon–are totally unexplained by science. Kodak of Mexico has examined the image and it is made of no known pigment and has the smoothness of a photograph, despite being applied in some unknown way to the rough fibers of the tilma. In the original areas, the color is physical–that is, created as an optical effect of the physical structure of the material there–like a butterfly wing. Another inexplicable feature of the image, one that would have been completely unknown to the people at the time, is the position of the stars on The Virgin’s cloak. The presence of the stars speak to the Aztecs, but the presence of European-style constellations speak to us. The constellations of both the northern and southern hemisphere in their exact positions on December 12, 1531 are depicted on the cloak – and they are shown as if the viewer were looking down from heaven to earth from beyond the stars!
Guadalupe and the Call of the New Evangelization
Today, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe attracts more than ten million visitors per year and is the most popular Marian shrine in the world. It rivals only the Vatican as the top attraction for Catholic pilgrimage. Countless miracles have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady through the image. Altogether 24 Popes have honored Our Lady of Guadalupe. Pope St. John Paul II, on his first apostolic visit outside of Rome, came to Our Lady’s sanctuary in 1979, and again in 1990, 1999, and 2002. In 1999, during his third visit, Pope St. John Paul II declared December 12 as a feast day on the liturgical calendar and entrusted the cause of life, especially the unborn, to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Empress of All the Americas.
Later in his 1999 Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America (the Church in America), Pope St. John Paul II wrote:
With the passage of time, pastors and faithful alike have grown increasingly conscious of the role of the Virgin Mary in the evangelization of America. In the prayer composed for the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops, Holy Mary of Guadalupe is invoked as ‘Patroness of all America and Star of the first and new evangelization’.
The cause that was taken up by St. Juan Diego, whose indigenous name is “Cuauhtlatoatzin,” or “the eagle who speaks,” in humble service to Our Lady brought the Gospel to the Americas as a “messenger eagle,” has now been taken up by the Church anew under the same mantle of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is a stirring call to us to reflect upon so great a movement of the New Evangelization to have been started by a single, humble uneducated man working in complete cooperation with Our Lady in service of Jesus and the Gospel.