The Virgin of Guadalupe was honored with a Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C. In Phoenix, thousands celebrated her apparition in a two-day event. Large festivities were also held in Albuquerque, Tucson, Houston, and many other midwestern cities that have seen their Hispanic populations explode in recent years.
Perhaps the largest celebration in the United States took place in Los Angeles. Following a procession through the city’s streets, Cardinal Roger Mahony celebrated a Mass for nearly 20,000 who gathered on the football field in the Cal State Los Angeles Stadium.
Before Mass, thousands stood in line to pay homage to a reproduction of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Before the image, some prayed, some lit candles, still others pressed roses to its glass frame, believing this will bring blessings to their families.
To outsiders, this must seem a puzzling, even strange, phenomenon. For Catholics, though, revering an image of Our Lady is as natural as venerating someone whose entire being is devoted to her children’s welfare. It is like honoring a loving and saintly mother.
Because that’s exactly what she is.
One cannot understand the mind of the Catholic Church without understanding Mary’s high place within it. Mother of the Savior, Immaculate Heart, symbol of purity and mercy, perfect example of submission to God’s will, her apparitions in Fatima, Lourdes, Knock and other places have deeply affected the lives of millions.
But of all the Blessed Mother’s appearances, the most profound is Our Lady of Guadalupe.
On December 9, 1531, a poor Indian named Juan Diego traveled the hills of Tepeyac, near Mexico City, to attend Mass. Suddenly, a voice called to him. Among the rocks, he saw the vision of a young, beautiful Indian woman in radiant clothes, her brilliance bathing the nearby cactus and stones in color.
The woman announced herself to be “the Virgin Mary, Mother of God,” who desired that a church be built at Tepeyac, where “I will show my compassion to all who ask my help.” She told Juan to inform the local Bishop of her request.
Obediently, Juan went to the Bishop, who was skeptical and asked that the Lady provide a sign rare Castillian roses before he’d build a church for her. Returning to the Virgin, she told Juan to come back the next day.
Wondering where to find such exotic roses, Juan climbed Tepeyac. Amazingly, the beautiful flowers were there, dripping with dew. Gathering them in his apron, or tilma, Juan brought them to the Virgin Mary. She rearranged them, tied the tilma behind his neck, and sent him off to see the Bishop.
Before the Bishop and several witnesses, Juan untied his tilma, the roses falling to the floor. Even more wonderful was what was imprinted on the tilma – the vision of the Blessed Mother in all her glory. The Bishop fell to his knees, now convinced of the truth of the apparition. Later, a great basilica was built on Tepeyac in her honor.
Modern science – its explanatory powers limited by the bounds of human rationality – stands mute before this great sacred image, like a baffled schoolboy stumped by his teacher’s questioning. After nearly 500 years, the tilma’s image hasn’t faded, still as glorious and radiant as when first unfurled. The image has no brushstrokes, the colors of the Virgin’s garments change at different angles as is found in nature, and – incredibly – a microscopic reflection in her eyes shows Juan Diego presenting flowers to the Bishop.
Finally, Our Lady’s face is so sublime, her expression so tender and compassionate that art experts believe it beyond the capacity of human artists. The prominent Mexican painter Ibarra wrote, “No painter has ever been capable of sketching or copying Our Lady of Guadalupe.” So great is the artistry that if the image were considered simply as a work of art, it would be the greatest painting ever made – greater even than the Mona Lisa, the only work remotely comparable.
How is this possible? The only reasonable explanation is the Church’s: the tilma’s image is a miraculous portrait of the Blessed Mother, made by the very hand of God.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is beloved by Catholics everywhere, but she is especially dear to the hearts of Hispanics and rightfully so, for through her, they became a chosen people. “Rejoice,” Holy Mary tells them in effect, “God has sent me to say you have found favor with Him. Come into your Father’s house and receive His love and mercy.”
And come they did – by the millions. Over nine million Aztecs entered the Church in the next 10 years, the greatest mass conversion in history. “The Mother of God is one of us!” they joyously proclaim when celebrating the apparition. To this day, for most people in Mexico, the Catholic Church is in their homes – and the Virgin of Guadalupe in their hearts.
As our nation’s Hispanic population continues to rise, the prominence of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and protector of the unborn, will rise along with them. For she is the new millennial hope for everyone in this country who seeks refuge, whether from persecution, poverty, or the ravages of sin. Like the tilma’s image, the Virgin’s presence hasn’t faded a bit over these many years.
Indeed, her tender words to Juan Diego still echo down the ages, “Do not fear,” she said, “Am I not here who is your mother? Are you not under my protection? Are you not happily within my fold? Is there anything else you need?”
The answer for millions, then as now, from the rocky hills of Tepeyac to the grassy fields of California: “No, Blessed Mother, except for your Divine Son and you, there is nothing else we need.”