In 1531, the Aztec’s of Mexico were practicing human sacrifice to such a degree that the bishop wrote that if God Himself did not intervene with a miracle, the entire continent would be lost. To this desperate plea, God responded not with military force, but by sending His mother with the transforming power of maternal love. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego, a humble peasant man, leaving her image on his tilma. In the ten years following the apparition, he brutal pagan practices ceased, and over ten million people were baptized and converted to Christ. Her miraculous image hangs in the Basilica in Mexico City and is visited by more than six million pilgrims a year.
An elder Mexican man makes his way to Mass in the early morning twilight of December 9, 1531. He is a peasant, a simple farmer and laborer, and he has no education. Born under Aztec rule, he is a convert to Catholicism, and each step he takes this morning is a step into history.
The morning quiet is broken by a strange music that he will later describe as the beautiful sound of birds. Diverting his path to investigate the sound, Juan Diego comes face to face with a radiant apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Juan Diego is 57 years old. He has just encountered the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill, the site of a former Aztec Temple. His wife has died two years earlier, and he lives with his elder uncle, scratching his living from the earth as a humble peasant farmer. Why should this unlearned, man be chosen by Our Lady to carry a message to the Bishop? Perhaps because she would find none other as humble as Juan Diego.
Juan Diego is dazzled by the incredible beauty and miraculous nature of Our Lady’s appearance. She appears as a native princess to him, and her words sound more beautiful than the sweetest music ever made.
Our Lady calms the startled traveler, and assures him of who she is. She instructs Juan Diego to visit his bishop and ask that a church be built on the site of her appearance, so that she will have a place to hear petitions and to heal the suffering of the Mexican people. “Now go and put forth your best effort,” Our Lady instructs.
Visibly shaken, Juan Diego approaches the Bishop who is initially very skeptical of his account. What did this peasant truly want? Does he merely seek attention? Notoriety? Money? Or is he possessed by demons? Has Juan Diego been tricked by the Devil?
The Bishop patiently listens to Juan Diego’s accounts and dismisses him. The humble farmer has failed.
Juan Diego begins to doubt himself. He returns to Tepeyac Hill where he hopes for some confirmation of what he’s experienced. Indeed, Our Lady does not disappoint, for she appears again, as radiant as before. Juan Diego tells Our Lady what she already knows, that the Bishop did not believe him. She instructs him to return the next morning and ask again.
The Bishop is beside himself. Why did this peasant insist on telling this story? How could he know if the peasant was lying or perhaps insane? At their second meeting, the Bishop asks for a sign. Juan Diego makes a promise he won’t keep, saying he will return the very next morning with a sign from Our Lady.
But that evening, Juan Diego returns home to find his uncle, Juan Bernadino, who is 68 years old, and suddenly, terribly ill. The illness is known to the people there and it brings a burning fever so hot, it’s almost always fatal. Juan Diego cannot leave his uncle’s bedside to keep his pledge to the Bishop. He spends two days with his uncle, trying to save him. When it becomes apparent his uncle is about to die, he leaves to find a priest who can prepare him for death.
Frightened and saddened, Juan Diego sets off in a great hurry, time is running out, and Juan Diego is afraid his uncle will die without a last confession. On the road, in his way, Our Lady appears for a third time. Upset and afraid, Juan explains himself. Our Lady replies, “Am I not your mother? … Are you not in the crossing of my arms?” she asks.
Shamed by the admonishment, but emboldened by Our Lady’s presence, Juan Diego asks for the sign he promised to the Bishop. He knows he is wrong to doubt Our Lady. Juan Diego is instructed to climb to the top of Tepeyac Hill where he will find flowers. He is to pick the flowers there, which are unlike any he has seen before, and he is to keep them hidden in his tilma until he reaches the Bishop.
Juan Diego is skeptical again. It’s December, what flowers could grow on the summit of the hill in this cold?
Nevertheless, he obeys and atop the hill he finds a great number of flowering roses which he picks and hastily gathers into his cloak.
For the third time, Juan Diego is ushered in to see the Bishop. The skeptical cleric has waited for two days to see what sign Our Lady has for him. Juan opens his tilma, letting the roses cascade to the floor. But more than the roses, both men are astonished to see what is painted on his humble tilma – an exquisite image of Our Lady.
In the image, she stands as she appeared, a native princess with high cheekbones. Her head is bowed and her hands are folded in prayer to God. On her blue cloak, the stars are arranged as they appeared in the morning darkness at the hour of her first apparition.
Under her feet, is a great crescent moon, a symbol of the old Aztec religion. The message is clear, she is more powerful than the Aztec gods, yet she herself is not God.
At the same time Our Lady is appearing to Juan Diego, and directing him to cut the flowers on Tepeyac Hill, she also appears to his uncle, Juan Bernadino who believes he is about to die. As soon as she appears, the fever stops and Juan Bernadino feels well again. She tells Juan Bernadino, she wants to be known as “Santa Maria, de Guadalupe.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe did not appear again, for her mission was complete. The church was built and remains there today, in what is now a suburb of Mexico City. Juan Diego’s tilma, woven from cactus fibers, with a shelf-life of just 30 years at best, remains miraculously preserved.
The symbolism of Our Lady’s dress is obvious to over eight million Native Mexicans, whom all speak different languages. She is brighter than the sun, more powerful than any Aztec god, yet she is not a god herself, and she prays to one greater than her. Her gown is adorned with stars in the correct position as in the night sky, and the gold fringe of her cloak mirrors the surrounding countryside. Millions of natives will convert at the news of what has happened. Millions more will make pilgrimages over the next five centuries to see the miraculous tilma, and to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe. Great miracles continue to occur, even today.
Our Lady of Guadalupe had this to say to Juan Diego:
“Know for certain, least of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near and far, the Master of heaven and earth. It is my earnest wish that a church be built here to my honor. Here I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.”
A Scientific Note About St. Juan Diego’s Tilma
-Brother John M. Samada, S.M.
Various news reports in the past have suggested that the tilma (mantle, cloak) of St. Juan Diego depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe is phony. One opinion was a fake made in Europe and brought to Mexico by Franciscans. Another suggested the tilma was painted over the image of a dark-eyed Aztec goddess. Both conjectures have been proven false. The recent canonization of Juan Diego provides another opportunity to put these erroneous notions to rest for good.
John J. Chiment teaches in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He is a paleontologist who teaches a course about determining the age, materials and place of origin of art works. Four years ago Dr. Gilberto Aquirre, a San Antonio, Texan physician, requested him to join a team to examine St. Juan Diego’s tilma portraying Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Dr. Aquirre invited the team of scientists to examine the eyes of the icon. Professor Chiment’s special task was to comment on the age and composition of the fabric and pigments. He visited the shrine in Mexico City twice, did tests on fibers at Cornell, and reported his findings to Dr. Aquirre, and to the Archbishop of Mexico City and his staff.
European Origin Theory
Those who subscribed to the European origin theory said the tilma could not be a local Mexican product because it has lasted so long. Local cloth made from woven cactus fibers lasts about a decade at most. The tilma is almost five hundred years old, and has been on display in public daily. People behind this theory said the tilma must be woven from European linen or cotton.
Two fibers of the tilma were lent to Professor Chiment for testing. These fibers had been removed from the outer edge of the tilma when it was stored during the Mexican Revolution. The test results showed that the fibers did not come from native cactus plants, nor did they come from cotton, wool, or linen – fibers that might have been used in Europe. Rather, the tilma seems to have been woven from hemp, a plant native to Mexico. Hemp is one of the strongest fibers known, and hempen cloth can last hundreds of years. This could explain the tilma’s remarkable state of preservation.
The Aztec Goddess Theory
Those who proposed the Aztec goddess theory thought that photographs taken in ultraviolet light show an underpainting (pentimento) of a dark-eyed somewhat frightening woman.
Professor Chiment reported that ultraviolet photography does not expose images in paintings. Instead, ultraviolet light shows clearly the application of paint over another image. This shows when an original has been touched up usually with a clear varnish. In this instance it appears that patches of varnish were applied over the eyes of the original image. Conservationists often use these varnish patches to protect a surface. Today ultraviolet photography can help conservators remove the added varnish layer.
To determine if there is really an underpainting on Juan Diego’s tilma, photographs need to be taken with light from the infrared part of the spectrum.
These two theories about the European origin and the Aztec goddess regarding the tilma with Our Lady’s image are simply incorrect. Ordinary scientific tests have disproved them.
Professor Chiment expressed hope that additional testing will be permitted. He recommends an examination using neutron-activation analysis and x-ray influence. This might reveal details about the pigments of the image and the history of the tilma and could guide measures to conserve and safeguard the holy image.
The Real Significance of Juan Diego’s Tilma
The faithful cannot conceive of Our Lady of Guadalupe without St. Juan Diego’s tilma. Because of this tilma she has been present to us for centuries Msgr. Virgilio Ellizondo explains, “In the Indian cultures of that time, the tilma was the exterior expression of the innermost identity of the person. By being visible on Juan Diego’s tilma. Mary because imprinted in the deepest recesses of his heart – and in the hearts of all who come to her.” Our Lady of Guadalupe is not simply an image on the tilma, as miraculous as this is. She has become part of her children’s innermost identity.
This Statue and Meditation Area was donated by Brian and Paul Creitz.
Bench: Dear Father, Through the intercession of Guadalupe, I ask that you strengthen me and fill me with your peace, that as my journey goes forward, I will share your love and grace with others.
I ask that the souls of my children catch the wind of your spirit, that they may accept your promises of eternal life as they follow your will. In Jesus’ name I pray.