In 1519, when the Spanish explorer Cortes came ashore near present day Vera Cruz, Mexico, he discovered volcanoes reaching into the clouds, armies that stretched beyond sight and rituals of bloody human sacrifice. Pagan worship was the central elements of Aztec life and there were many deities being worshipped. Human sacrifice was one of the main religious duties and expressions of the Aztecs. The killings sometimes reached thousands in a single day.
The almost universal symbol of the Mexican religion was the serpent. As Warren Carrols said in his book Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness: “Nowhere in history has Satan so formalized and institutionalized his worship with so many of his own actual titles and symbols.” The mightiest god was Quetzelcoatl, the stone serpent, and the temple of the great mother god Tonantzin stood on the summit of a small hill called Tepeyac. It is recorded that twenty thousand people lost their hearts to the war god Hultzilopochti in 1487 according to the library records of Mexico.
Cortes had two banner standards made for his expedition to Mexico, one displayed the royal arms of Spain and the other displayed the Cross. After many violent battles the Mexican empire began to fall to the Spanish conquerors in 1521. In 1531 a team of Franciscan friars traveled from Spain to found a Christian mission in Mexico. The deeply rooted pagan traditions made conversions to Christianity difficult and few.
Enter the Virgin Mary! The year was 1531, twelve years after Cortes landed in Mexico.
Know for certain, dearest of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God, through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things who is Master of heaven and earth. I ardently desire a temple to be built here for me where I will show and offer all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people.
I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all who live united in this land, and of all mankind, and of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who have confidence in me. Here, I will hear their weeping and their sorrows and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, necessities and misfortunes. Therefore, in order to realize my intentions, go to the house of the Bishop of Mexico City and tell him that I sent you and that it is my desire to have a temple built here. Tell him all that you have seen and heard.” (Professor Courtney Bartholomew, M.D., A Scientist Researches Mary)
On Tepeyac Hill, the Virgin Mary spoke these words to a humble Aztec Indian, Juan Diego, who was newly converted to Christianity by the Franciscan evangelists. It is recorded that Juan Diego saw a most beautiful young woman clothed in a light brighter than the sun, and dressed in the robes of a royal Aztec princess. This was the start of the most extraordinary events of Marian apparitions in Mexico between December 7 and December 12, 1531. Juan Diego nervously but obediently relayed the message to Bishop Zumarraga who was incredulous of the story and requested him to ask the apparition for a sign to prove her authenticity. On December 12, the Virgin said to Juan Diego:
Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?
The Virgin then told Diego to climb to the summit of Tepeyac where she appeared previously, and there he would find a profusion of Castillian roses which were neither grown nor known in Mexico at the time. Also it would be quite impossible for the roses to grow on such stony terrain. Diego spread out his Tilma like an apron and filled it with the roses, and he showed them to the Virgin Mary who waited for him. The Lady sent him back to the bishop with the flowers.
The bishop was more than awe-struck not only by the flowers, but also by the miraculous phenomena that he saw—inside the tilma of Juan Diego appeared (painted) the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This was the beginning of the greatest mass conversions in religious history. Nine million Aztec Indians were converted to Christianity in a few years time!
The miraculous image on the tilma of St. Juan Diego remains one of the greatest Marian miracles in history. The Aztec Indians were able to read and understand the miraculous pictograph. The Lady stood in front of the sun and this signified to them that she was greater than the dreaded sun-god Huitzilopochti. Her foot rested on the crescent moon which signified one of their foremost deities, Coyolxauhqui, the goddess of the moon. This was a sign that God had given her power over all of nature. The hue of her mantle was the blue-green color worn by Aztec royalty signifying that she was a Queen. The stars on her mantle told them that she was greater than the stars of heaven which they also worshipped as gods. Because her hands were folded in prayer, and her head was bowed in reverence, she could not be a god since her posture revered One greater than herself. The sash around her waist with tassels signified that she was pregnant, and her right foot stood on the head of the serpent. She was mightier than the dreaded serpent god!
Pope Benedict XIV issued a bull on April 25, 1754, approving Our Lady of Guadalupe as Patroness of Mexico. In 1900, the beginning of the twentieth century, Our Lady of Guadalupe was proclaimed Patroness of the Americas, both North and South. Pope John Paul II, in “Ecclesia in America, (11)” referred to Our Lady of Guadalupe as “Patroness of all America and Star of the first and new evangelization”.
In Rome from December 10-12, 2012, the Knights of Columbus sponsored an international congress on Ecclesia in America wherein clergy, laity and Vatican representatives discussed the indispensible role of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the new evangelization. On the eve of the congress, the feast of St. Juan Diego, Pope Benedict XVI said this to the participants, “Dear friends, the love of Christ impels us…to proclaim his name throughout America.” He then invoked Our Lady of Guadalupe “as a model of openness to God’s grace and of perfect concern for others.”
A year later, when hundreds of clergy and lay leaders from across the Americas meet in Mexico City, November 16-19, 2013, for a meeting titled, “Our Lady of Guadalupe: Star of the New Evangelization on the American Continent”, Pope Francis greeted participants in a video message that urged them to make “missionary outreach the paradigm of all pastoral activity.” In reference to the miraculous roses that filled Juan Diego’s tilma, Pope Francis added, “If you do this, do not be surprised if roses bloom in the middle of winter. Because, you know, both Jesus and we have the same mother!”
The heart of the message of Mary in 1531 was “Yahweh is God, not Baal.” She called people to return to the one true God. In Francis Johnston’s book The Wonder of Guadalupe published in 1981, 450 years after the apparitions he states, “There is a striking parallel between our age and that of the Aztec civilization, immediately before the apparitions of 1531. Now, as then, society is dominated by godlessness, pagan excesses and immorality. Countless innocents are sacrificed on the altar of abortion, false deities abound everywhere, and Aztec polygamy and depravity are more than matched by today’s moral collapse. A decisive collision seems inevitable and imminent, as it was in 1531. But all is not lost. The darkest hour will inevitably melt away in the radiant dawn of Our Lady’s triumph over the serpent.”
In September 2014, for the first time in my life, I was about to set foot into the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City when my cell phone rang. Seeing that it was my physician brother calling, I took the call. He reported that our mother appeared to have suffered a heart attack and would need a heart procedure. I offered to return home immediately. But he put my mother on the phone and she said, “You can do more for me there, stay and pray for me before the Tilma please.” I was conflicted but I entered the Shrine to pray as mother had asked. A few days later when I arrived home, I was informed that my mother did not need the heart procedure; she was well and could go home.
O Virgin of Guadalupe, please help us to worship and serve only your Son, Jesus Christ. We implore your help to defeat the work of the evil one in our lives and to crush any false idol that we may have erected. We, your children, long to hear your words spoken to St. Juan Diego, Am I not here? Thank you, Virgin of Guadalupe, for your loving concern for all people.
Photo by Edgar Henríquez, LC on Unsplash