Who is Our Lady of Guadalupe?

The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrates an appearance of the Virgin Mary at Tepayac, a hill northwest of Mexico City. For evidence we have both a story and a painting.

The story tells of an Indian convert to Christianity around 50 years of age. His Aztec name had been Cuauhtlatohuac, but at his baptism he was given the name Juan Diego. While walking in the hills he heard music and saw a bright light. This led him to a beautiful lady at Tepayac, on December 9, 1531. She had the features and the dress of a young Indian woman. She wore a blue mantle covered with stars. She spoke to Juan Diego in her own Nahuatl language and called herself “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and “the Mother of the True God through whom one lives.” She told Juan Diego to visit the Bishop of that area,the Franciscan missionary Juan de Zumarraga, and ask him to build a church on the site where she had appeared. Juan Diego did not know Spanish and Bishop Zumarraga did not know the Indian language, so an interpreter was appointed who kept a brief written account of the meeting. When the Bishop responded to Juan Diego’s request with skepticism, the Lady appeared to him again, on December 12. She directed him to a field of blooming roses, although it was not the season for roses. She asked him to pick the roses and carry them to the Bishop in his “tilma” (mantle). When he placed the roses before the Bishop, an image of the Lady was painted on the tilma.

Up to this time Christianity had held little attraction to the Indian people. It was the religion of the Spanish who had conquered them, decimating their numbers, only a decade before. The first missionaries from Spain had preached mostly about punishment and eternal damnation, but the Lady’s words to Juan Diego had been of love, compassion, and hospitality. Within six years of the apparition six million Indians were baptized. They understood that the Lady had identified herself with the poor and with a compassionate God. In a special way, she belonged to them.

This might be simply a beautiful story except for the fact that the image actually exists. It has been venerated for many years in a basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. This basilica replaced a small parish church that was built on the spot of the apparition as the Lady had directed. So many pilgrims came to express their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe that the basilica, built in the 18th century, was enlarged twice before a modern shrine was constructed in the 20th century. Millions of pilgrims each year visit this shrine, and reproductions of the image are common and popular throughout North and South America. The feast of Our Lady of Guadlupe takes place on December 12 and is often observed with a novena, or nine evenings of special prayers. Another popular devotion is a service that begins in the early morning hours and includes candlelight, prayers, and the singing of a special serenade, “Las mañanitas.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the city of Mexico, of Latin America, and the Philippines. In 1999 Pope John Paul II declared her the patroness of the Americas. This past year John Paul declared Juan Diego to be a saint.