“Am I Not Your Mother?”

St. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe

“Am I Not Your Mother?”

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Thousands of cheers—and a few jeers—greeted the news that Juan Diego, the humble visionary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was proclaimed a saint by Pope John Paul II on July 31, 2002. As with many canonizations, there were challenges. In this case, the challenge involved both the person and the miraculous image connected with his story.

Pope Pius XII declared Our Lady of Guadalupe patroness of all the Americas in 1945. The celebration of her day, December 12, was raised to the rank of feast for all the Americas in 1999. Even so, many Catholics do not know the story of Mary’s apparitions near Mexico City. The event gave rise to no special devotions; it involved no attention-getting warnings or special instructions. Here there is only the pure and simple love of a mother. The Virgin of Guadalupe appeals to those who have a simple faith in God and a strong love for his mother.

The Lady and Her Message. In 1531, the geographic center of the New World became the site of the first great evangelization in the Americas. Early on the morning of December 9, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a humble Aztec Indian in his late fifties and a convert to the Catholic faith, was on his way to Mass.

As he neared the rocky, barren hill of Tepeyac, he heard music and a woman’s voice calling him affectionately by name, “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” The beautiful lady said she was “the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God.” She indicated that she wished a church to be built there for the people, where “I will hear their weeping, their complaints, and heal all their sorrows, hardships, and sufferings.” She told Juan to carry her message to Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, a devout and zealous Spanish Franciscan.

Juan Diego carried out the request, but when, after much delay, he was granted an audience, Zumarraga refused it. The saintly bishop feared the story was just a new convert’s daydream.

A second time, Mary appeared to Juan Diego. Again her request was refused, but now the bishop asked Juan for a confirming sign. In a third apparition, Mary told Juan to return the following day, when she would provide the requested sign.

The next morning, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, also a recent convert, was very ill. Juan spent the day looking for a doctor and missed his appointment with the Lady. The doctor’s efforts were in vain, so early the following morning, Juan hurried off toward Mexico City to bring a priest to the dying man. Afraid of being delayed, Juan attempted to avoid the Lady at Tepeyac by taking a different path.

Your Mother Who Loves You. But Juan couldn’t hide. The beautiful Lady appeared before him on his alternate path. She assured Juan Diego that he need not fear for his uncle. “Am I not here, I who am your Mother? Are you not under my care? Do I not hold you as a dear child in the folds of my garments? Am I not your hope and salvation? Is there anything more you need?”

Then, Mary directed him to climb Tepeyac Hill and gather the roses he would find there. Juan knew full well that roses did not grow in Mexico in December and, furthermore, that nothing at all grew on Tepeyac’s barren rocks, but he faithfully followed her instructions. To his amazement, he discovered beautiful Castilian roses blooming there, and he gathered them in his tilma, or cloak. He returned to the Lady, who arranged the roses, tied his tilma at the shoulder, and sent him at once to the bishop.

Again Juan Diego met with delays and difficulties, but once inside the bishop’s house, he announced to Zumarraga that he had brought the requested sign. Juan untied his tilma, and the roses spilled out on the floor. The bishop and the others in the room immediately fell to their knees, praising God. It was not just the miracle of the out-of-season roses that had inspired their awe, Juan Diego discovered. There, on the humble Indian’s cloak, was the image of the beautiful Lady!

Juan returned home to find his uncle well and happy. The Lady had appeared to him, and he was healed. This is one reason why Our Lady of Guadalupe is frequently invoked as “Health of the Sick.”

The bishop enthroned the image in his chapel. Within a short time, the requested church was built, and the image was eventually moved there for the veneration of all the people. In 1976, it was moved to a new basilica, where millions of pilgrims venerate it annually.

In the image, Mary is depicted as a young, dark-complected maiden. In Mexico, she is often called affectionately “La Morenita, “The Little Brown One.” She is shown as a pregnant woman, as indicated by the position of her sash, which is tied high.

The Miracle of Conversion. The effects of Guadalupe are both factual and tremendous. By the time Hernán Cortéz arrived in the New World in 1519, blood had flowed for centuries in Mexico from human sacrifice to the Aztec god of the stone serpent. The Aztec empire fell in 1521, but a decade later, blood sacrifice continued, the Indian peoples were on the verge of revolt, and attempts by the Spanish missionaries to evangelize the Aztecs had brought only minimal results.

But then the “Mother of the true God” appeared and revealed herself with a name that in the local Nahuatl language means “she who crushes the stone serpent.” She imprinted her image not only on an Indian’s cloak but also on the hearts of the people. Through her appearance to Juan Diego, Christianity took hold, and millions were rapidly converted. Mary came as a loving mother, and her presence alone brought an end to human sacrifice. For this reason, Our Lady of Guadalupe is now also invoked as patroness of pro-life efforts.

Such a massive number of conversions testifies to the fact that at the heart of Guadalupe is the reality that honor to the “Mother of the true God” is ultimately directed toward her Son. True devotion to Mary, in the liturgy and in popular devotion, always has the effect of leading people to glorify and worship Jesus. As Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mary shows herself to be our Mother who loves us very much and leads us to the one true God.

In 1979, John Paul II’s first visit as pope outside of Italy was to Mexico where, like any other pilgrim, he laid his prayers at the feet of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He returned to Mexico in 1990 to beatify Juan Diego, and in 1999 to close the Synod of American Bishops at the Basilica. On that occasion he remarked that the face of Mary of Guadalupe is “an impressive example of perfectly inculturated evangelization,” and he invoked her as “Patroness of all America and Star of the first and the new evangelization.” He returned in 2002 to canonize her humble visionary.

Saint Juan Diego. To the end of his life in 1548, Juan Diego worked at the chapel built in Our Lady’s honor, serving as the guardian of the tilma. Time and again he told the story of the merciful Mother who wished to lead all peoples to her divine Son.

The oldest known document in existence regarding Guadalupe contains the simple inscription in the Nahuatl language: “Cuauhtlatoatzin died with dignity.”

Juan Diego died with dignity, and today the humble visionary has attained the dignity of being acclaimed a saint.

Ann Ball, now deceased, was a well-known writer on the saints and frequent contributor to The Word Among Us.