The History Behind Our Lady of Guadalupe
Ask any high school student and they will tell you that history is only a bunch of dates and facts. But we all know that high school students don't always see the whole picture when contemplating the world around them. Sometimes we find a historical happening that makes us pause and take a deeper look.
Sometimes we look at the historical record and realize something special happened here.
When the New World – the North American continent – opened to the influx of European explorers, those seeking fame and fortune mingled with adventurers. Along with these treasure seekers were religious men who felt called to convert the native populations to the Christian faith. One of these converts resulted in the construction of a large cathedral that has been, and still is, the most popular site for Christian pilgrimages found in the Western Hemisphere.
The Story of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The cathedral that draws so many to pilgrimage was built as a result of a miraculous event that took place in December 1531. It began with Juan Diego, a local Aztec Indian. While journeying to his local chapel, Juan Diego encountered a beautiful woman surrounded by a light that rivaled the sun. She spoke in his native language and identified herself as the Virgin Mary.
Juan was instructed to go to the local bishop of Tenochtitlan and tell him that the Virgin Mary wanted a church built on the spot near the Tepayac hill where she appeared. Juan did as he was instructed, but the Bishop was reluctant to believe him. He wanted a sign to verify that Juan was telling the truth.
When told of the Bishop's doubt, the Virgin Mary instructed Juan to gather Castilian roses (in December, when the roses were not growing or in bloom) and wrap them in his tilma, a poncho-style cape made of cactus fiber. She instructed him to show the flowers to the Bishop, and assured Juan that the Bishop would believe him. Juan returned to the Bishop and when he unrolled the flowers from his tilma, the Bishop and his advisors fell to their knees when they saw the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary that appeared on the tilma.
Juan showed the Bishop the spot where the Blessed Virgin had appeared to him. Juan returned to his village, to an uncle that was gravely ill, to find his uncle completely cured. Juan's uncle told him that a beautiful young woman had appeared to him. She told him that Juan was meeting with the Bishop in Tenochtitlan to show him a picture of herself. She told the uncle to call her and her picture, "Santa Maria de Guadalupe."
In the aftermath of the Virgin Mary's appearances, the Bishop kept Juan Diego's tilma. At first he secured it in his private chapel, and then he placed it on public display in the church. Within a few weeks, the Bishop formed a procession that would take the miraculous image on the tilma back to the Tepayac hills. There it would be placed in a small chapel that had been hurriedly erected. A cathedral remains there today as an important part of the area, now a suburb of Mexico City.
Santa Maria de Guadalupe
Some scholars who have studied the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe believe that the word Guadalupe was actually mistranslated from the local Aztec dialect. Many believe that the Blessed Virgin probably used the word Coatlallope, which translates to "one who treads on snakes."
Whether or not there was a mistranslation seems irrelevant, however, in the 20/20 hindsight of history. In the span of six short years following the Virgin Mary's appearances, approximately 6 million Aztecs had converted to Catholicism.
In May 1754, New Spain consisted of Spanish Central and North America. Pope Benedict XIV declared Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of New Spain that year.
Pope Pius X proclaimed Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of Latin America in 1910. In July 1935, Pope Pius XI declared Our Lady "Heavenly Patroness of the Philippines." Pope Pius XII bestowed on her the title "Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas" in 1945, followed in 1946 by "Patroness of the Americas."
In January 1979, Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and returned again in May 1990 when he beatified Juan Diego. A chapel within the Vatican, inside of Saint Peter's Basilica, was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1992.
Juan Diego's Tilma
Since the time Juan Diego unrolled his tilma to reveal the image of the Mother of God, it has endured a variety of environmental hazards. It has been exposed to smoke from fires and candles, and was not protected behind glass for the first 115 years. It has been assaulted by water from floods and horrific downpours.
In 1921, a bomb exploded on the altar beneath it. At the time the bomb was planted and detonated by anti-clerical secularists, there was a cast-iron cross next to the tilma. This cross was twisted out of shape when the bomb exploded. Although the marble railing on the altar was heavily damaged, the tilma was undamaged. Despite a large part of the altar and surrounding structures being damaged, no one in the cathedral at the time was injured.
In 1977, scientists used infrared photography, along with digital enhancement procedures, to examine the tilma. They found that the image shows no sketching or outline drawing that would indicate an artist had produced a painting there. The exact technique used to create the image is unknown.
Juan Diego's tilma can be seen today in a cathedral that was built to house up to 10 thousand of Our Lady of Guadalupe's faithful. It is, without a question, the most popular site for religious pilgrimage in the Western Hemisphere.
History has shown us that something special happened here. A visit to the cathedral shows us that something special is still happening here.