Truly heaven-sent

Great art has contributed to the culture of the Church. But once in a rare while, another kind of sacred image appears that does not seem to be the work of human hands. The Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Veronica are examples. In the Western Hemisphere, the greatest and most potent image attributed to heavenly intervention is that of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Miraculous vision

It appeared in 1531 on the cactus-fiber cloak, or tilma, of a native Mexican who had been baptized and given the name Juan Diego. It had been 10 years since Hernando Cortez had overtaken the Aztec Empire and subjugated the land that he called New Spain. With great difficulty, the missionaries tried to make converts among the native peoples.

Juan Diego's conversion had been sincere, and he was on his way to Mass one cold December morning when Our Lady appeared to him on a hill called Tepeyac and spoke to him in his native tongue. She ordered him to tell Bishop Juan Zumarraga of Mexico City to build a church there in her honor. When he finally gained an audience with Bishop Zumarraga, the good bishop hesitated, not knowing whether to believe the native's astonishing story. He asked Juan Diego to have the lady give him a sign in order to assist him in his decision.

On his return home, Juan Diego again encountered the Virgin, who bid him to return to the bishop with the same message the next day. She would provide him with a sign. Upon returning to his village, however, Juan learned that his beloved uncle was near death and urgently bid him to find a priest to assist him in his final hours. Now burdened with two urgent requests, Juan Diego opted to first aid his uncle by finding a priest.

He purposefully took another route around Tepeyac in order to avoid the Virgin. But she intercepted him, assuring him that his uncle would be cured. She ordered him to climb the barren hill and gather the roses he would find on its summit and take them to the bishop who had requested a sign. Juan Diego did so and before departing on his journey the Virgin herself arranged the miraculous blooms in the folds of his cloak. This time Juan Diego encountered even more difficulty in gaining admittance to the bishop, but he persisted, and when he was finally ushered in and opened up his tilma to the cascade of unseasonable flowers he was surprised to watch the prelate fall to his knees.

Image's power

The roses alone were not what had astonished the bishop. Juan Diego soon discovered that Our Lady had provided an even more marvelous sign. It was a portrait of her as he had seen her, an image that has become the most powerful and beloved likeness of the Virgin in all of human history.

She had dark skin and hair like the native peoples who were soon attracted to her image and persuaded by what they saw. Though she would seem to be a goddess, wearing a cloak of stars and blocking the sun's rays while standing on the moon held aloft by an attendant angel, her head was bowed in humility. Something greater was coming through her. Beneath her folded hands a maternity sash was tied. She was pregnant. A new beginning was about to unfold.

A shrine was immediately built on Tepeyac where Juan Diego spent the rest of his days as caretaker and guardian of the indelible portrait. The power of that image soon became evident. In the next decade between 8 million and 10 million natives were converted to the faith. Not since apostolic times had so many conversions taken place. The vast number more than made up for the losses suffered in a Europe that was now divided by the Reformation.

Dual meanings

When asked under what name the Virgin had appeared to him, Juan Diego responded with a phrase that seemed to the Spanish chronicler's ear to sound like "Guadalupe," the site of a venerated cult of the Virgin back in his native country. But some scholars believe that Juan Diego was actually saying in his native tongue a phrase that phonetically sounds like Guadalupe but actually means one "who treads upon the serpent." Since the serpent god had been the very foundation of the Aztec religion that demanded human sacrifice atop stone pyramids erected in his honor, Our Lady's description of herself in his native tongue has a more profound meaning. It was she who would overcome the serpent by bringing forth the one true God whose own sacrifice would take place in the ritual of the Mass celebrated in churches built atop the ruins of the pagan temples. The dual meanings in the word Guadalupe in effect united two peoples, the Spaniard and the native, forging a new culture whose identity is forever marked by this miraculous image.

The tilma should have disintegrated long ago, but it remains intact. Centuries of veneration, of touching, of kissing, of candle smoke and incense have not dulled its color. It has survived the ravages of flood, plague, fire and even an exploding bomb planted underneath it by agents of an anti-clerical and Masonic government. It has been the source of numerous miracles, the cause of much healing and a consolation to multitudes. Millions of pilgrims visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year.

Painted copies of the tilma have been reverently produced over the centuries. New versions were customarily touched to the original in order to transmit its miraculous properties. This derivative copy has the Virgin crowned and flanked by angels. Four cartouches in the corners of the painting recount the apparitions made to the sainted Juan Diego and his presentation to the bishop. And at the bottom the artist has included an image of the shrine that was built at Tepeyac.

When such a copy was presented to Pope Benedict XIV in 1754, he wept and uttered words derived from Psalm 147 that underscore the divine gift that has become the glory of Mexico: "He has not dealt in like manner with any other nation."

Queen of all America

Venerations of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast day is Dec. 12, is not limited to Catholics of Hispanic heritage. Indeed, she is the patroness of all America -- North, Central and South -- as Pope Pius XII designated in 1945.

In the 1999 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, Pope John Paul II stressed the Blessed Mother's important role in spreading the message of her son throughout the land:

"The appearance of Mary to the native Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531 had a decisive effect on evangelization. Its influence greatly overflows the boundaries of Mexico, spreading to the whole continent. America, which historically has been, and still is, a melting pot of peoples, has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac, 'in Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization' " (No. 11).

Father Michael Morris writes from California.