On December 12, the Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Across the Americas, millions mark the day with pilgrimages, especially to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, with songs and festivities at their local parishes, and, of course, with the Holy Mass.
At the beginning of the 16
century, central Mexico was dominated by the Aztecs. The Aztec supreme being, Ometéotl, was thought to be the only stable and permanent entity and so, for the Aztecs, the rest of the universe was fragile and constantly threatened with disappearance. Consequently, they understood their duties to include waging war, dying for the gods, and offering human blood in sacrifice for the conservation of the world.
Of course, this obsession with blood sacrifice made the Aztecs very unpopular with the other people of Mexico. So when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in 1519, they found willing allies in their war against the Aztecs. By 1521, the entire Aztec culture was overthrown forever.
Then on Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a Christian Indian, encountered a lady of “glowing beauty,” who announced herself as the “ever holy Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God” on the hill of Tepeyac, in present-day Mexico City. She conveyed to him that a temple was to be built so that she could show she was loving mother “to all the inhabitants of this land and to all who love me, call upon me, and trust in me.”
Juan Diego was instructed to go to the palace of the bishop and make her desire known. However, the bishop did not believe him. Saddened, Juan Diego asked the Lady to entrust the mission to one more important as he was a “nobody.”
The Lady insisted that Juan Diego was to bear the message and instructed him to return to the bishop. The next day, the bishop told Juan Diego he needed a sign. When the bishop’s request was relayed to the Lady, she explained that Juan Diego was to return to the hill the next day to receive the sign.
Juan Diego did not return to the hill because his uncle had fallen gravely ill. As he went to find a priest for his uncle on December 12
, he tried to avoid the Lady. His efforts failed as the Lady appeared to him, assured him that his uncle was healthy, and instructed him to go to the top of the hill and gather the flowers he found there.
Of course, he was stunned by what he found in mid- December: exquisite roses from Castille. He gave them to the Lady who arranged them in his
. She told him to go to the bishop and unfold his mantle only in the bishop’s presence and show him the flowers. When he did this, the image of Mary appeared on the
causing the bishop and all present to fall to their knees.
The Guadalupe event represented a new beginning for the Mexican people. There was an immediate explosion of faith as the news of the apparition was spread by the people themselves and nine million were brought to the Church within six years of the event. While volumes have been written on the richness of the symbolism of Guadalupe, it is sufficient to say that the power of the image rested in its ability to communicate to all the different populations in Mexico from within their own values and ideals.
The image of Guadalupe, according to author Virgilio Elizondo in his
La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas
, is what was born in the new “American” synthesis resulting from the racial, social, ethnic, religious, political, artistic, and economic confrontation between Spain and Mexico that began in 1519. She was the foundation upon which the pride of the
would grow. She was the basis for the spiritual emancipation of the Mexican nation that would give rise to their political independence from Spain.
She has come to stand for the unity and reconciliation, the personal and collective emancipation, and the liberation of Mexico. Furthermore, her importance has continued to grow beyond the borders of Mexico. For example, more than 20 popes have officially honored Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1945, Pope Pius XII declared her “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas.” In 1999, St. Pope John Paul II declared December 12 a Liturgical Holy Day for the whole continent and entrusted the cause of life to her loving protection. She is also the “Patroness of the Americas” and the “Patroness of the Philippines.”