Guadalupe, Mexico, 1531
During the sixteenth century in Mexico, tensions between the Spanish invaders and local Aztecs were fierce. By 1531, the Aztecs were so outraged by the abuses they experienced that they threatened to kill every Spaniard in the country. Although Spanish missionaries were simultaneously working to bring Catholicism to the native Aztecs, the political tensions between the two groups created an impossible climate for missionary work.
This tense situation set the stage for the most dramatic apparitionrelated mass conversion in the history of the world. Juan Diego was a fifty-seven-year-old Aztec peasant and a convert to Catholicism. One day while he was walking to Mass, he heard birds singing. The song sounded like it was coming from a nearby hill.
As he drew closer to the hill, the song stopped and he heard a female voice calling to him. “Juan, Juan Diego, Juanito,” she said. Juan Diego climbed the hill and saw a stunning fourteen-year-old Aztec girl. Speaking in his own language, she told him that she was the Virgin Mary. She wanted a church to be built on that hill where she stood. She asked Juan Diego to go to Mexico City and inform the bishop of her request.
A Request Denied
Juan Diego went immediately to the bishop to make his request, but the request was denied. Although the Bishop believed that Juan Diego was sincere, he struggled to believe Juan Diego's extraordinary account. Defeated, Juan Diego returned to the Virgin Mary and told her that if she wanted to get her message across, she should have chosen somebody more important to deliver it.
To this, the Virgin Mary replied that she knew what she was doing; she reassured Juan Diego that she wanted him to deliver the message. She urged him to go back and try again with the bishop.
When Juan Diego returned to the bishop, the bishop requested a sign. Juan Diego returned to the Virgin Mary again, who told him to come back at daybreak. When Juan Diego arrived home that day, he discovered that his uncle was fatally ill with a fever. Juan Diego nursed him all night long and through the following day, and he was unable to meet with the Virgin Mary at sunrise.
As Juan Diego rushed into town seeking a priest, he attempted to sneak around the East side of the hill, hoping that he wouldn't be interrupted by the Virgin Mary. Although on other occasions she had appeared on the West side of the hill, she came down the East side of the hill just as he tried to rush by.
When Juan Diego told the Virgin Mary about his uncle, the Virgin Mary said, “Am I not your mother?” Then she told him that his uncle was being healed even as they spoke.
The Virgin Mary spoke many consoling words to Juan Diego. She said, “Hear me, my littlest son: Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance. Do not fear any illness, anxiety, or pain. Am I not your mother? Are you not under the protection of my mantle? Am I not your fountain of life? Is there anything else that you need?”
She then asked Juan Diego to climb the hill and pick flowers, and these flowers would be her sign. Juan Diego obediently climbed the hill, although he could not imagine flowers growing during the coldest month of the year. To his astonishment, he found that the hill was covered with Castilian roses.
The Tilma of Guadalupe
Juan Diego picked several roses and carried them back to the Virgin Mary. She took the roses from him and arranged them in his tilma (a cloak made of cactus fibers that was worn by the Aztecs of the time). She handed Juan Diego the roses bundled in the tilma and instructed him to not let anyone other than the bishop see them.
When Juan Diego arrived at the bishop's residence, servants tried to take the tilma from him, but he refused. When he finally met with the bishop, he unrolled the tilma and the roses fell to the floor. Juan Diego was confused and amazed as the bishop and those who surrounded him dropped to their knees before his tilma.
On his tilma, there was a luminescent image of the Virgin Mary appearing as an Aztec, just as she had in the apparitions. Her image also bore a striking resemblance to the woman from Revelation 12. The image on the tilma convinced the bishop that the apparition was authentic.
The Tilma of Guadalupe is one of a few images that many Christians believe was actually created by Mary. This image almost perfectly mirrors imagery from Revelation. On the tilma, Mary stands on the moon, and rays of light emanate from her body. Her outer cloak is blue, covered with gold stars — a constant theme in images of Mary.
The bishop immediately traveled with Juan Diego to see the hill where the chapel was to be built, and then the bishop's assistants traveled with Juan to visit his uncle. They found his uncle in perfect health. He explained that the Virgin Mary had also come to him and told him that the image on the tilma was to be called Santa Maria de Guadalupe.
This event transformed the practices of the over 8 million Aztecs who converted to Christianity in the wake of the apparition. According to Roy Abraham Varghese in his book
The spiritual dimensions of the apparition, however, are just one aspect of the larger phenomenon. The events that occurred at Guadalupe also have political and social implications: the conversion of the Aztecs saved the lives of thousands of Spaniards, who would have likely been killed had not the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego.
Likewise, some contemporary writers have focused on the way that this apparition marked a Biblical reversal of order — a peasant member of an oppressed people was chosen to bear a message that would change the history of his country, and by extension, the lives and beliefs of millions of Latin Americans. As Megan McKenna wrote in her book
Although historically it has been believed that the tilma was made of cactus fibers, a recent scientific inquiry has cast some doubt on this theory. In 1999, when two fibers of the tilma were tested by Professor John J. Chiment from the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, he determined that the fibers are not from native cactus plants, nor are they made of wool or cotton. Instead, he believes that they are actually made of hemp, an extremely durable fiber that could account for the long lifespan of the cloak.
To this day, the tilma and image remain intact. Scientists have been unable to identify the source of the pigments in the image. One of the most mysterious aspects of this image is the Virgin Mary's eyes, which reflect the images of three people, as if she is looking at them still — Juan Diego, the bishop and his interpreter. The tilma remains on display at the Basilica of Guadalupe and is visited by five to ten million people annually.