Did you know that among Christians, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited pilgrimage site in the world? It is estimated there are 20 million visitors to the shrine every year. To put this in perspective, Rome is the second most visited site with approximately 7-9 million visitors a year.
Several weeks ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit Mexico City and the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The sheer number of visitors to the site of the Marian apparitions to Juan Diego and to the shrine displaying her gift of the miraculous image is a witness to the wonder of this place. After learning more about the history of the Aztec people, the Marian apparitions, and the shrine, I can attest to the fact that God is continuing to send us many graces through Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Mexico and the Aztec People
During my visit, I learned that Mexico has been inhabited for over 7,000 years. In the early 14th century AD, a small wandering tribe of people known as the Culhua-Mexica people (known more commonly as the Aztecs) migrated south and, in the span of one century, became a powerful empire that stretched over most of present-day Mexico.
Through commerce and conquest, the Aztecs became the dominant power in central Mexico. By the early 16th century, the capital city of Technotitlan (what we now call Mexico City) likely had 200,000 people with the population of the empire being around 11 million.
The Aztecs worshiped multiple gods and offered sacrifices to these gods. Aztec rituals even included human sacrifices and cannibalism, Such rituals were not uncommon in the region, but the scale of human sacrifices made by the Aztecs was far larger than any other civilization. Victims were most often prisoners of war, but citizens of their empire – including children – were not excluded. Most scholars say the number of human sacrifices in the empire ranged from 20,000 to 250,000 per year.
The dominance of the Aztecs in the region changed in 1518, when a soldier and explorer from Spain named Hernan Cortes traveled to the New World. He initially landed in Cuba before making his way to the mainland. Upon arriving on the mainland, he founded the city of Veracruz in Mexico. He then formed a town council which formally empowered him, in the name of King Charles I of Spain, to make the arduous journey to Technotitlan.
On arrival in the capital, he met the ninth Aztec king, Montezuma II. At first, the Aztecs welcomed the Spanish. They thought Cortes might be a god coming to fulfill a prophecy. But eventually relations deteriorated. Knowing the reputation of the Aztecs, Cortes took Montezuma II hostage as a precaution.
Cortes tried to avoid war but one day, while he was away, a fight ensued between the Spanish and the Aztecs, and the Spanish fled the city. When Cortes returned he reorganized his forces and recruited some of the surrounding tribes (which was not difficult due to their hatred of the Aztecs). He then led an attack on Technotitlan. After a three month siege the Spanish were victorious, taking the city in 1521.
Christ and Evangelization
Many modern history books express disdain for Cortes saying he was motivated by gold and glory, that he acted unjustly at times, and that he was a womanizer. There is no denying he is guilty of immorality but there was much more to the man. Cortes was deeply religious.
Cortes went to confession regularly, had Mass said whenever possible, and always carried medals of St. James the Apostle and Mary with him. He was also motivated by a mission to evangelize the New World, leaving his job as a lawyer and spending his own fortunes to try to achieve this.
When Cortes arrived on the mainland on Good Friday in 1519, he named the first city he established Vera Cruz (“True Cross”) in honor of Christ. Everywhere his men went, the cross went with them. It was on their steel helmets, their breastplates and their banners. Horrified by not only the worship of false gods but even more so by the human sacrifices in Mesoamerica, the Spanish were determined to bring Christ to the region.
After Cortes’ conquest of Technotitlan, Spain sent Franciscans to begin evangelizing the people. In 1524, twelve friars arrived to the city – sometimes called “The Twelve Apostles of Mexico.” Their goal was to evangelize, baptize and integrate. However, due to language and cultural barriers, by 1531, their efforts had not met with much success. But this was soon to change, and in a very big way, thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
One of the first Aztec converts was a man named Cuauhtlatoatzin – better known by his Christian name Juan Diego. He became very devout, never hesitating to walk long distances for Mass and to attend catechism classes. On December 9, 1531, he was walking to Mass and passed Tepeyac Hill. As he walked by the hill he heard celestial music and saw a woman glowing with dazzling light. She spoke to him in his native tongue and asked him to go to his bishop to ask that a shrine be built in her honor in the spot where they were standing.
Heeding her request, Juan Diego went to see Bishop Juan de Zumarraga. The bishop was skeptical and sent him away. But Mary appeared to Juan Diego later that same day telling him to be persistent. Juan Diego spoke with the bishop again the following day but the bishop told him he needed proof. On his way home, Mary appeared to Juan Diego telling him to return on December 11 and she would give him a sign for the bishop.
On December 11, Diego’s uncle became very ill. Having to attend to him all day, Diego was not able to leave the house. On the morning of December 12, his uncle’s condition had deteriorated so much that Juan went in search of a priest to administer last rites. As he made his way to the church, Juan avoided Tepeyac Hill not wanting to be delayed in returning with a priest. Nonetheless, Mary appeared to him. She asked why he had not returned to see her. Juan explained the situation with his uncle only to have Mary respond, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?”
The Blessed Virgin assured Juan that his uncle had fully recovered (which Juan would later discover happened as promised) and asked him to go to the bishop immediately. As to the sign he needed, he was to go to the top of Tepeyac hill where, even though normally barren that time of year, he would find roses blooming. He was to collect them and take them to the bishop.
Diego did as instructed, using his tilma to hold the roses. Then, in the presence of Bishop Zumarraga, Juan Diego opened his tilma. The bishop was shocked when he saw the roses. They were Castilian roses from his hometown in Spain, roses that did not grow in that part of Mexico! But then, as the flowers fell, he was more surprised to see an image of the Blessed Virgin imprinted on the tilma.
The Image of Our Lady
The woman on the tilma had native features and the image had symbolism that would be recognized by the Aztecs. She was in a rose-colored dress with a black girdle at her waist which signified to them she was pregnant. The indigenous people would have also recognized this woman had loose, unbraided hair which indicated she was a virgin. She was covered in a mantle that was blue in color, representing royalty, but also decorated with stars to suggest she had come from the heavens.
Even more intriguing, if you impose the night sky from December of 1531 over the image, the positioning of the stars in the sky correlates with the stars on her mantle. And her head would have been covered by the Northern Crown of stars, her heart by the constellation Virgo and her womb by the constellation Leo. With the Aztecs being great astronomers familiar with the movements of the heavenly bodies, such symbolism would not have gone unnoticed.
The woman was surrounded by a radiant sunburst suggesting she had some relationship to the higher powers. She was standing on the moon which indicated she had been given great power. She was also being carried by an angel to suggest she was a queen but her posture was unusual. But her hands were folded in supplication and her eyes were looking down, suggesting humility and compassion. This was never how Aztec gods were portrayed. Finally, the gold-encircled cross brooch at her neck symbolized not only sanctity but also that this woman was somehow connected to the Christians.
In examining her dress further, the flowery designs seem to be depicting the landscape of Mexico and, in particular, some of the active volcanoes at the time. The Aztec people would have been familiar with these landmarks and would have acknowledged this meant the woman was in some way connecting herself to their lands. Additionally, there was a four-petalled flower the Aztecs called the Nahui Ollin over her womb. This flower signified to them the four movements of the sun (North, South, East and West) and the four past eras of the world. The position over the pregnant abdomen would have symbolized this woman is the mother of a God about to be born, the God who was author of life and creation.
Incredible Details of the Image
The details of the image spoke to the Aztec people in a unique way but, since then, even more has been discovered, making this image of Mary more incredible. The tilma of Juan Diego was made with cactus fibers known to deteriorate within 30 years yet it has remained intact for 487 years! In 1789, as an experiment, two replicas were made using the same cactus materials and placed in the same basilica environment as the original. In less than a few decades, both replicas had deteriorated yet the original image remained intact with rich colors.
Researchers have also not been able to explain how the image of Mary was imprinted onto the tilma. Using infrared technology and high-resolution images, no brush strokes or sketch marks can be identified and there was no protective varnish, details baffling artistic experts. The image also changes color slightly when viewed from different angles (a phenomenon called iridescence which is not a technique that can be reproduced by human hands). Experts have not found a known source for the pigments and there does not seem to be any trace of paint residue or dyes. Most surprising to investigators is the permanence of the colors – for hundreds of years they have remained vivid, which defies scientific explanation.
In 1979, an ophthalmologist – Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann – took digital images of Our Lady’s eyes and analyzed them in high resolution. He believes one can see human figures in her pupils, speculating these are the people in the room when the tilma was revealed: the bishop, Juan Diego, the translator as well as several others. (Much more about her eyes can be found here.) A mathematician named Professor Ojeda claims to have found a musical pattern on the image. Another mathematician Professor Fernando Llanes says that there is incredible geometric precision to the image that is surprising.
(For more details, I strongly recommend a talk by Christopher Check given for the Institute of Catholic Culture.)
In trying to verify the authenticity of these events, there are some documents we can look to. One of the earliest known accounts of Juan Diego and the multiple apparitions is a document called the Nican Mopohua. Written sometime after 1556, it is attributed to Antonio Valeriano (1521-1605) who either knew Juan Diego personally or heard the accounts of the events from the Franciscans. This became widely published in 1649.
Another early source of documentation about the apparition is the Codex Escalada, which some claim can be dated to around 1548. This piece of parchment has drawings related to the apparition. On it is written: “In this year of 1531 there appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzin our dearly beloved mother Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.”
The Church also conducted a formal investigation of the tilma and apparitions in 1666. The document is called Informaciones Juridicas de 1666. In this process, analyses of the tilma were done by expert painters and physicians and direct testimonies were obtained from Mexican-Indians and Spanish priests about the events. The evidence was reviewed over a long period of time and eventually the Church formally approved the apparition.
Miracles and the Image
There are skeptics who doubt the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe and reject the miraculous nature of the image. It is important to hear their arguments, but, in this case, I have not found them convincing. Even if one rejects the details I have presented so far, there are many miracles associated with this image that one must consider.
There are numerous reports of various miracles starting soon after the apparition. In 1531, the body of a man accidentally killed by a bow and arrow was laid beneath the image. The man came back to life. Over the subsequent decades, reports of other miracles were reported and attributed to Our Lady of Guadalupe, including a person being cured of dropsy, the healing of a cancerous toe, and the healing of a foot damaged by a horse.
There is also a more recent event many see as miraculous. On November 14, 1921, a man named Luciano Perez Carpio, an employee of the government, carried a bouquet of roses into the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and laid them at the foot of the altar just beneath the image of Our Lady. Within these flowers he had placed 29 sticks of dynamite. At 10:30 am they exploded.
Fortunately, no one died in the explosion but the shock wave shattered windows within 500 feet of the blast and it was heard a kilometer away. It significantly damaged the marble flooring, the bronze candlesticks and a large bronze crucifix. (And when you visit the shrine, it is shocking to see how the bronze crucifix was bent completely out of shape.) But despite these damages, the image of Our Lady and the glass encasement were astonishingly unscathed.
The Conversion Phenomenon
One of the most phenomenal aspects surrounding the tilma, however, is the impact on the indigenous people. In less than 10 years after the apparitions, just 22 years after Cortes’s arrival, it is estimated nine million people converted to Christianity. This was unheard of. But what a blessing to see the majority of the Aztec people converting to Christianity from a pagan culture where every year thousands of people were sacrificed in the name of their gods! And this event is even more miraculous when we consider that, at this same time across the Atlantic, Europe was in the midst of the Protestant revolt where the Church would see the loss of around five million people over several decades.
The impact of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the world has not ceased. Today, she continues to draw millions to the shrine, not only with the intention of giving her honor, but, more importantly, to give glory to the one true God who is always calling all people to himself. She draws all people to her Son who, in love, never ceases to offer his saving grace to the world as demonstrated by this example of divine intervention with the Aztec people.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us!