Just about all that one needs to know about the Lady of Guadalupe is found in the superb children’s book of that name by Tomie dePaola – how Our Lady appeared to a humble Chichimecan man, Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatoatzin), on Tepeyac hill, as he was making miles-long journeys over arduous terrain to daily Mass at the Franciscan mission.
Appearing as an expectant Chichimecan princess, she pledged her tender maternal love:
“I will give God to the people, in all my personal love, in my compassion, in my help, in my protection: because I am truly your merciful Mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all other people of different ancestries, my lovers, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their complaints and heal all their sorrows, hardships and sufferings.”
She had a task for Juan Diego: to convey to the bishop that she wanted a shrine built on that spot. He naturally was reluctant, but as a token she instructed him to bring flowers from the hill –which he found, even though it was not the season for flowers, gathering them up in his coarse outer garment, or tilma.
When this simple man was finally granted an audience with the bishop, he let the flowers fall out of his tilma, which then revealed a startling beautiful image imprinted on the garment, of the lovely princess who had appeared to him. (The earliest chronicles say Juan Diego had gathered not only roses but flowers of different sorts, and that the colors in the image reflected those in the flowers.)
DePaola’s book is just about complete, but does not give all of the beautiful quotations of Our Lady. Nor when it appeared in 1980, could it give several facts important to personal piety: such as that the Church recognizes Juan Diego now as a canonized saint; and that today, December 12, is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe for all of the Americas, by the proclamation of the St. Pope John Paul II, the Great.
The fabric of a tilma is a bit like burlap; without “sizing” one could not paint any kind of picture on it, and the fabric normally deteriorates quickly in the heat and humidity of the Mexican climate. But the image on display in “La Villa” in Mexico City, now almost 500 years old, is as fresh as ever. There is no sizing, no pigment, and there are no brush strokes – the colors apparently arise by some kind of unexplained iridescent effect. The tilma was not damaged even when acid was mistakenly spilled on it, or when a bomb with twenty-seven sticks of dynamite blew up right next to it.
An estimated 20 million visitors per year makes it the most popular pilgrimage site for Catholics in the world. When I went there on pilgrimage with my family, a son who had read the dePaola book with me many times, saw the image and said aloud, thoughtfully, “Ah, so this is true.”
Yes, we are so much tempted to “disbelieve for joy” (Luke 24:41) that it helps us to go there and see, concretely, something that looks “too good to be true.”
Our whole faith is like that. As if to prove the point yet again, consider the miracle God worked for Juan Diego’s canonization. First, in the months leading up to the beatification (1990), various scholars came forward and argued that there was no solid evidence that Juan Diego had ever existed.
These scholars, representing a minority view, were given prominence in the media, even though the Church had carried out a responsible and exhaustive investigation, concluding that the tradition was trustworthy.
For the record, the main argument against was that written chronicles from the time are silent about the image and miracle, until about 100 years after the event. But there is still plenty of corroborative evidence. Moreover, the silence has an explanation, since the bishop and missionaries were grappling with the serious difficulty of how to tell when conversions were real. The Chichimecan religion was not all sweetness and light, and some practitioners liked to use Christian images as a cover. Caution was justified.
But God provided an effective counter-argument to these skeptics. A man of 20 in Queretaro, Mexico, a drug addict named Juan José Barragán Silva, was having a quarrel with his mother, Esperanza, and threatening to commit suicide. He stabbed himself and then tried to hurl himself off a building. She grabbed his feet but could not hold on. The man fell almost 40 feet directly on his head (at a 70-degree angle, the records say), hitting pavement.
As he fell the mother prayed to Juan Diego and Our Lady, “Give me a proof . . . save this son of mine! And you, my Mother, listen to Juan Diego.” He was rushed to Durango hospital with a broken skull and crushed vertebrae, on the point of death. Yet his body inexplicably and spontaneously healed. He walked out the hospital, healthy, three days later.
His fall, and the mother’s prayer, took place on May 6, 1990, at the very time when Pope John Paul II was celebrating the Mass of beatification of Juan Diego in the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. An extraordinary miracle, too good to be true? Yes, but true.
“O Mother,” Pope John Paul prayed in his first visit to the shrine in 1979, with subtle reference to liberation theology, “strengthen the faith of our brothers and sisters in the laity, so that in every field of social, professional, cultural and political life they may act in accordance with the truth and the law brought by your Son to mankind, in order to lead everyone to eternal salvation and, at the same time, to make life on earth more human, more worthy of man.” Amen.
*Image: The Virgin of Guadalupe by Miguel González, c. 1698, [Los Angeles County Museum of Art]
Below: The tilma today at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.