The Story of Our Lady of Guadalupe
A Finding Near a Little River in Spain
There was a statue of the Black Madonna reputed to have been carved by Saint Luke the Evangelist. The statue came to be in the possession of Pope Gregory the Great. Upon the Gregory’s death the statue was given to Saint Leander, archbishop of Seville, with whom Gregory had become great friends years prior in Constantinople. When Seville was taken by the Moors in 711, a group of priests fled northward and buried the statue in the hills near the Guadalupe River in Extremadura. In 1326, Gil Cordero, a humble herder in an area near the Guadalupe River, went looking for one of his cows. When he found the animal dead, he began to skin it for the leather. Gil made the first cross-shaped incision, and the cow sprang back to life. At that moment, the Virgin Mary appeared to Gil. She instructed him to go home and tell the local clerics of his vision and to have them return to the place where the cow had lain. The men were to dig there, find an image of the Virgin, and build a shrine on the spot to house the image. When Gil went home, he found that one of his sons had died. Gil prayed to the Virgin Mary and the boy came back to life. This helped convince the clerics that Gil’s story of the apparition was true, and they dug up an iron casket with a perfectly preserved statue of the Black Madonna, along with documents attesting her origins, in other words, evidence of the statue’s provenance. They then built a small sanctuary for her on the spot. In 1340, Alfonso XI had a Hieronymite monastery built there after his victory over the Moors at the Battle of Salado, which he attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The monastery has been a popular pilgrimage destination ever since, and the Virgin of Guadalupe has come to be one of the most important religious figures in Spain.
Columbus and Our Lady of Guadalupe
It was at the monastery that the Spanish monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand signed documents that authorized the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. Isabella had prayed at the foot of the Black Madonna for guidance on whether to finance Columbus’s journey. Columbus went to the monastery to pray for a safe voyage. He named his ship the Santa Maria in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe. When Columbus returned to Spain, he traveled to the monastery to thank the Virgin for her help and protection. He also took with him Native Americans whom he had brought back to Spain. In the public square of the town of Guadalupe, with water from the public fountain, these first visitors from the New World were baptized. In 1494, Christopher Columbus brought paprika back to Spain discovered during his second voyage and served it to Ferdinand and Isabella in Extremadura and even though it was a bit hot and spicy for the king and queen, the monks of the monastery in Guadalupe passed it along to other brothers and it was spread from Extremadura all over Spain.
The Vision in the New World
The Miraculous Appearance in the New World is long-standing and constant in tradition, and in sources both oral and written, Indian and Spanish, the account is unwavering. The Blessed Virgin appeared on Saturday 9 December 1531 to a 55 year old neophyte named Juan Diego, who was hurrying down Tepeyac hill to hear Mass in Mexico City. She sent him to Bishop Zumárraga to have a temple built where she stood. She was at the same place that evening and Sunday evening to get the bishop’s answer. The bishop did not immediately believe the messenger, had him cross-examined and watched, and he finally told him to ask the lady who said she was the mother of the true God for a sign. The neophyte agreed readily to ask for sign desired, and the bishop released him.
Juan was occupied all Monday with Bernardino, an uncle, who was dying of fever. Indian medicine had failed, and Bernardino seemed at death’s door. At daybreak on Tuesday 12 December 1531, Juan ran to the nearby Saint James convent for a priest. To avoid the apparition and the untimely message to the bishop, he slipped around where the well chapel now stands. But the Blessed Virgin crossed down to meet him and said, “What road is this thou takest son?” A tender dialogue ensued. She reassured Juan about his uncle, to whom she also briefly appeared and instantly cured. Calling herself Holy Mary of Guadalupe she told Juan to return to the bishop. He asked Mary for the sign he required. She told him to go to the rocks and gather roses. Juan knew it was neither the time nor the place for roses, but he went and found them. Gathering many into the lap of his tilma, a long cloak or wrapper used by Mexican Indians, he came back. The Holy Mother rearranged the roses, and told him to keep them untouched and unseen until he reached the bishop. When he met with Bishop Zumárraga, Juan offered the sign to the bishop. As he unfolded his cloak the roses, fresh and wet with dew, fell out. Juan was startled to see the bishop and his attendants kneeling before him. The life size figure of the Virgin Mother, just as Juan had described her, was glowing on the tilma. The picture was venerated, guarded in the bishop’s chapel, and soon after carried in procession to the preliminary shrine.
St. Juan Diego
Juan Diego was born in 1474 in Cuauhtlatoatzin. He is the first Roman Catholic indigenous American saint.
The Nican Mopohua, the apparition narrative, describes him as a ‘macehualli’ or “poor Indian”, one who did not belong to any of the social categories of the Empire, as priests, warriors, merchants,…but not a slave; a member of the lowest and largest class in the Aztec Empire. When talking to Our Lady he calls himself “a nobody”, and refers to it as the source of his lack of credibility before the Bishop. He devoted himself to hard work in the fields and manufacturing mats. He owned a piece of land and a small house. He was happily married but had no children. Between 1524 and 1525 he and his wife were converted and baptized, receiving the Christian names Juan Diego and his wife the name Maria Lucia. He was baptized by one of the first Franciscan missionary priests, Fr Peter da Gand. According to the first formal investigation by the Church about the events, the Informaciones Guadalupanas of 1666, Juan Diego seems to have been a very devoted, religious man, even before his conversion. He was a solitary, mystical character, prone to spells of silence and frequent penance and used to walk from his village to Tenochtitlan, 14 miles away, to receive instruction on the doctrine. His wife Maria Lucia became sick and died in 1529. Juan Diego then moved to live with his uncle Juan Bernardino in Tolpetlac, which was closer (9 miles) to the church. He walked every Saturday and Sunday many miles to church, departing in the early morning, before dawn, to be on time for Mass and religious instruction classes. He walked on naked feet, as all the people of his class, the macehualli. Only the higher social classes of the Aztecs wore cactlis, or sandals, made with vegetal fibers or leather. He used to wear in those chilly mornings a coarse-woven cactus cloth as a mantle, a tilma or ayate made with fibers from the maguey cactus. Cotton was only used by the upper Aztec classes. During one of this walks to Tenochtitlan, which used to take about three and a half hours between villages and mountains, the First apparition occurred in a place that is now known as the “Capilla del Cerrito”, where the Blessed Virgin Mary talked to him in his language, Nahuatl. She called him “Juanito, Juan Dieguito” , “the most humble of my sons”, “my son the least”, “my little dear”. He was 57 years old, certainly an old age in a time and place where the male life expectancy was barely above 40. After the miracle of Guadalupe and with the Bishop’s permission, Juan Diego moved to a room attached to the chapel that housed the sacred image, after having given his business and property to his uncle, spending the rest of his life as a hermit. There he cared for the church and the first pilgrims who came to pray to the Mother of Jesus, and propagating the account of the apparitions to his countrymen.
Pope John Paul II praised Juan Diego for his simple faith nourished by catechesis and pictured him (who said to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf”) as a model of humility for all of us.