Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
There exist two miraculous images of Our Lady of Guadalupe: one in Spain, the older, and one in Mexico, the more famous. Both are known by the same name because of some linguistic confusion.
The original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spain is an unpainted wooden statue carved in an Oriental style. It was presented to Bishop Leander of Seville in 580 by Pope Gregory the Great. This statue was widely revered by the people of Spain until the invasion by the Moors in 771. At that time it was hidden for safekeeping along with some historical documents explaining its special identity.
Those who had preserved and documented the statue died in the conquest and knowledge of its whereabouts was lost for 600 years. In 1326 Gil Cordero, a poor cowherd, was searching for a lost cow when he saw the radiant figure of a lady appear at the edge of the woods. The lady told him about a buried treasure and showed him where to dig to find it. She requested that a chapel be built at that location. Gil reported the apparition to the local clergy and brought them to the place where the lady said the treasure lay. Both the statue and its historical documents were found in perfect condition in an underground cave.
King Alfonso built the chapel, and the statue named for the nearby town of Guadalupe was enshrined. Soon miracles were attributed to the veneration of the statue, and the shrine became one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in Spain. Tradition holds that Christopher Columbus visited the shrine before making his first voyage to the New World, and carried a likeness of the statue on his voyages. The conquistadors also carried a replica of the statue with them while on their conquests in America.
In 1531 on December 9, only 39 years after Columbus discovered the western hemisphere, an Indian convert to Christianity, Juan Diego, was crossing Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City on his way to Mass. As he paused he heard celestial music which he said sounded like a "choir of birds." When looking up he saw a golden cloud arched by a rainbow. Affectionately a voice called to him: "Juanito, Juan Diegito," and out of the cloud a beautiful young girl, about 16 years old and of Mexican appearance, stood before him. She spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native dialect, and asked where he was going. He replied that he was going to Mass and religious instruction.
The young woman told him that she was the "Mother of the true God who gives life." She explained that she wanted to help the poor native Indians and that she would like to have a chapel built on the hill so that the Indians would have a place to come to her. At one time that hill had been the site of a shrine to the Aztec goddess of the earth and harvest, Tonantzin. The pagan shrine had been destroyed by the Christian conquerors.
The Lady asked Juan to take her message to Bishop Juan
Zumarraga in Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico City. Although 57 years old, Juan had lived his entire life in or near his native village of Tolpetlac. He had never been to Tenochtital which was only about five miles from his home. However he agreed to undertake the Lady's mission, even though it meant venturing into unfamiliar territory to see a person he had never met.
At the bishop's residence the servants were amazed that a lowly Indian would request a meeting with the bishop. They kept Juan waiting for hours before informing the bishop that Juan was waiting. When Juan finally spoke with the bishop, matters did not go well. The bishop was polite, but he was clearly skeptical of what Juan told him. As a conciliatory gesture, the bishop told Juan he was welcome to come again to visit, if he wished.
A disappointed Juan Diego returned to the hill and reported his failure to the Lady. He asked that she select another messenger because he was a "nobody." However the Lady told Juan there were others she could have sent, but she chose him. Then she asked him to try again the following day, a Sunday. The next day Juan returned to the bishop's residence, and again he was made to wait for hours before he was admitted. Again the bishop listened patiently but remained incredulous. He asked Juan to bring him a sign and then he would seriously consider seriously the request to build a chapel.
After Juan reported another failure and the bishop's insistence on a sign, the Lady asked him to meet her again on Monday and she would give him a sign for the bishop. However Juan did not keep the appointment. His uncle, Juan Bernardino, who had raised him from early childhood, was seriously ill. Juan remained at home on Monday to care for his uncle. Juan Bernardino was near death and on Tuesday asked his nephew to bring him a priest. Upset because he had not kept his appointment with the Lady the day before, Juan chose another path to avoid the hill en route to the village. But the Lady was aware of this and blocked his path. She assured him that his uncle would be fine and not to worry. She then instructed him to ascend the hill and gather the flowers he would find there. Very little vegetation grew on that desolate hill at any time of year let alone flowers in December. But Juan did as he was told. There Juan found Castilian roses, which had not yet been brought to Mexico, but would be familiar to the Spanish bishop. Using his tilma, or cloak, as an apron he gathered as many of the blooms as he could carry and took them to the Lady. She arranged them in Juan's tilma. Holding the edges of the tilma close to his chest, Juan proceeded to visit Bishop Zumarraga again.
Encountering Juan Diego again at the bishop's residence, the bishop's servants tried to persuade him to leave. But Juan Diego held his ground and expressed his determination to stay as long as necessary. Eventually some of the bishop's staff became curious about what was in his tilma. Juan refused to show them, and they threatened force. Reluctantly Juan opened one corner to allow them a glimpse of the flowers and sniff their fragrance. Immediately one of the servants rushed to tell the bishop. The bishop asked that Juan be brought to him at once.
Juan Diego explained to Bishop Zumarraga that the Mother of God directed him to bring the flowers to the bishop as a sign. Juan opened his tilma and roses cascaded to the floor. The bishop fell to his knees in reverence of the image that appeared on the cloak. Juan also was astonished at the picture. The bishop invited Juan Diego to stay the night, and the bishop took the tilma to his quarters to be alone with it.
News of the miracle spread quickly . By morning the entire city was clamoring to see the miraculous image. The tilma was taken to the cathedral so that all could venerate it.
Though Juan Diego believed the Lady when she told him his uncle was fine, he was still anxious to see for himself. After showing Bishop Zumarrga where the apparitions occurred on Tepeyac Hill, the two were joined by a throng of followers as they returned to his village.
Indeed Juan Bernardino was fine and had an amazing story of his own to tell. After Juan Diego had left on Tuesday morning to find a priest, and as Juan Bernardino felt his life ebbing, a beautiful young Mexican woman appeared to him. Immediately he felt his strength return, and he knelt before her. The Lady told him not to worry about his nephew because she had sent him to the bishop with her image imprinted in his tilma. She also told Juan Bernardino the name by which she wished to be remembered.
The Spanish image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Mexican image became entwined in the popular understanding. Neither Juan Diego nor Juan Bernardino spoke Spanish. Their conversations and dealings with Bishop Zumarraga were conducted through an interpreter. When the name by which the Lady wished to be called was heard by the bishop, he thought Juan Diego was trying to say "the Ever Virgin Holy Mary of Guadalupe," a name familiar to him. Consequently that is what he called her image on the tilma. Since the Lady spoke to these two men in their native language, it is dubious that she used the word "Guadalupe," since Guadalupe can neither be spoken nor spelled in Nahuatl because this Aztec language contains neither the letter "d" nor "g." No Indian writings about the miracle use the word Guadalupe; they prefer Tonantizen, the name of the former pagan shrine at that spot, or other pagan names. While the bishop never offered a correction, he was most likely aware of his error because he referred to the image as the Immaculate Conception when writing to Cortez to invite him to join the procession to the first chapel built to house it. Some thought the bishop made a mistake and that Juan Bernardino used a word that sounded like Guadalupe. Earlier scholars speculated the Lady said Tequantlaxopeuh, pronounced Tequetalope, which means "Who saves us from the Devourer." Devourer is Satan and the dreaded pagan serpent-god Quetzalcoatl to whom 2,000 Aztecs were sacrificed each year. Some think the word the Virgin used was more likely Coatlaxopeuh, pronounced Coatallope which means "she who breaks, stamps, or crushes the serpent. This is reminiscent of both the winged serpent Quetzalcoatl and Satan, and recalls Genesis 3:15.
The Indians were treated cruelly by their Spanish conquerors under the leadership of Don Nune de Guzman, who believed the Indians were not truly human and therefore unworthy of evangelization. To him the Indians were soulless and deserved to be exploited. Neither did Bishop Zumarraga and his associates have a high appreciation of the Indians, but they did believe that because the Indians had the ability to reason they could attain salvation through baptism. For this the Indians were accorded a degree of respect. On the other hand, most Indians had no interest or desire to give up their own gods in favor of the God offered by the Spaniards. Juan Diego and Juan Bernardino were clearly exceptions. Fearing an Indian rebellion, the bishop sent a message to Charles V begging that Guzman be replaced. Charles agreed with Zumarraga, but the distance between Spain and Mexico delayed the replacement. The Lady, however, was prompt. Her apparitions and the miracle of the tilma were the turning point in the Christianization of the Indians. The Indians recognized signs and symbols in the picture on the tilma that were meaningless to the Europeans. As a result eight million Indians were converted in the seven years following the apparitions.
The first chapel where the tilma hung took only 13 days to build. Juan Diego was appointed custodian and lived in an adjacent lean-to shelter.
For 17 years until his death in 1548 he greeted pilgrims and explained his experience.