One day, back when we lived in California, I went to Catholic church with my spouse (I’m Baptist, so I have an excuse not to go all the time). As soon as I walked in the first door, I detected that sweet and yet overpowering scent of roses. Upon entering the second door, the freshness of greenery hit me – even over the scent of the incense – and my eyes feasted upon a mountain of flowers unlike anything I’d ever seen before (and I’ve been to true Southern funerals!). The mountain flowed from the bottom of a painting of the Virgin Mary. From beneath a statue of the Lady’s feet spilled another mountain of lush blooms, and the floral collection tumbled all the way across the dais on which the altar sat.
Being the shocked protestant I was, I leaned over to my husband and asked, “What is THAT?”
“It’s the Feast of Guadalupe. It’s very popular in Mexico.”
From that, I’ve learned a bit more about the feast and the story behind it. So pull up a chair, smell the flowers, and let’s dig in.
A Quick Rundown on Mary, Mariology, and Marian Apparitions
Mary: Mother of God.
If you ask me, that’s a pretty big job, and that should make Mary pretty important to religious folks. There’s not many details about Mary, however, present in the Bible. How do we study someone who, other than the details presented mostly in Luke, has mostly been erased?
The study of Mary is known as “Mariology”. Catholics and Orthodox parishioners include things such as Sacred Tradition and other, post-biblical doctrines as part of the information to be studied as part of Mariology. From this, aspects of Mary and her life have been more fully derived and defined for the faithful. As a protestant, I was most surprised to find out about the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is part of Catholic tradition.
Other sources of information are something called Marian Apparitions. These are times that Mary has allegedly appeared to people and sometimes given them help or direction. Through Mary’s continued actions, thoughts on what she supports have also built. These apparitions are often named “Our Lady of [Insert Location Apparition Was Seen Here]”. Our Lady of Fatima, for instance, was seen in Fatima, Spain.
And, most importantly, Our Lady of Guadalupe was seen in Guadalupe, a suburb of Mexico City.
Juan Diego Builds a Church
Our Lady of Guadalupe is based on a series of five apparitions, four to Juan Diego and one to his uncle, Juan Bernadino.
On December 9th, 1531, Juan Diego followed a call coming from Tepeyac hill. Once he reached the site, he discovered a radiant Indian woman dressed in Aztec finery. There the visage told him she was the Mother of God and all humanity, and she ordered him to build a house for her on the site. In order to fulfill her demands, he needed to ask the Bishop for help.
Juan Diego asked Bishop Juan de Zumárraga to build the temple, but he was dismissed. There are a few religious speculations as to why, but what I’ve seen points to a bishop that is ultimately blameless (if wrong). I think it likely that the bishop didn’t pay attention to a poor convert. As a Spanish conquerer, it makes sense the bishop would have (racistly and wrongly) ignored an Indian peasant. The humility, origins, and economic station of Juan Diego makes his story all the more important.
After having failed to obtain Bishop Juan de Zumárraga’s blessing and help, Juan Diego returned to the hill where the Lady told him to try a second time the next day. At the second telling, the Bishop found him bold and wondered why the man insisted a second Marian Apparition has appeared. He demanded a sign that Juan Diego is telling the truth.
Later that night, Juan Diego returned home to find his only family – uncle Juan Bernadino – so sick and ailing that he was surely dying. Juan Diego remained at his uncle’s bedside, caring for him for two days, but the man did not recover. He tells his uncle that he must leave to get a priest to prepare for death.
On his way, he runs into the Lady again. She rebuked him for not having the faith to return to her, but Juan Diego bravely asked her to give him the sign requested by the bishop. She told him to return to Tepeyac hill and pick flowers.
Juan Diego was confused because of the wintery season, but he followed through. At the top of the hill, the Lady of Guadalupe helped him pick the miracle flowers and placed them in his tilma. She told him to bring the flowers to the Bishop.
Upon giving the tilma to the bishop, the flowers tumbled out and reveal the image of the virgin.
At the same time that Juan Diego showed his faith to the Lady, she appeared to the uncle Juan Bernadino and healed him. After her church is built, it became known for its healing properties.
This last apparition, on December 12th, marks the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
A Travel Destination and Symbol of Mexico
The tilma (cloak) of Juan Diego was only supposed to last for a short time, but preservation of the image and a combination of miracles means that you can still visit it. While 2020 was of course an aberration due to the pandemic, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is otherwise one of the most visited religious sites on the planet (only behind the Meiji temple or the Kashi Vishwanath temple). People travel to this site for healing, to inspect the miraculous cloak, and to celebrate the December 12th feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The tilma and apparition has come to represent much more than a single set of events that took place during Spanish colonialism. It has come to represent Mexican heritage, social justice, healing, and hope for the poor and indigenous. As Mary appeared to a poor Indian, dressed in both clothes and skin of an Aztec, even the Church has declared her the patron saint of Mexico (even if there was controversy surrounding the authenticity of the story).
In addition to being a symbol for the downtrodden, she has become a symbol, rallying point, and part of Mexico itself. Starting with the war for Mexican independence from Spain, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla encouraged untrained peasants and common people to throw off the Spanish colonists. Because Mary, as the Lady of Guadalupe, symbolized hope and belief in the downtrodden, this helped in his rallying call and brought her image into politics as well as religion.
Since then, people of Mexican heritage have carried her image and importance all across the globe. She has seen Mexico through civil wars, popular uprisings, and battles concerning the separation of church and state. White, protestant Americans may not know much about the Lady of Guadalupe beyond her symbolism of Mexico, but she is important throughout all of the Americas and is an essential part of the world.
For More Information
I hope you enjoyed reading this – it ended up WAY longer than I’d intended! I also worry that people probably know more about this than I realize. I did, after all, grow up in a super-sheltered fundamentalist protestant household.
As I was reading up on this, I found that many sites included several details about the story that others did not. The main story in the “Juan Diego Builds a Church” section was my summary that took information from all of these sources. Be careful and discerning – a lot of sources are religious, so they have a certain agenda to fulfill.
And, of course, Wikipedia has a great summary.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.