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The Apparitions on Tepeyac Hill

On July 31, 2002, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Pope John Paul II solemnly canonized the Indian Juan Diego, to whom, in the dawn hours of December 9, 1531, Our Lady appeared on the hill of Tepeyac. Saint Juan Diego was born in 1474. His given name in the language of the Aztecs meant Singing Eagle. He was baptized in 1525 along with his maternal uncle, Juan Bernardino, whom he regarded as his adopted father. They were among the first Indians to be converted to Christianity by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries.

Jan Diego was married, but his wife, Maria Lucia, died without leaving him children. He was an ardent Christian. On December 9, 1531, then the feast of the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother Mary, Juan left his house before dawn to hear Holy Mass at the Church of Santiago located a good distance away. It was still dark and exceptionally cold. Following his Indian habit he made his way at a run along a ridge of rocky hills sparsely overgrown with bushes. Suddenly, from among the shrubs that grew on one of these hills, he heard choirs of birds break forth into marvelous caroling. On this hill, called Tepeyac, stood the ruins of a pagan temple dedicated to the Mother of the Gods. Abruptly the birdsong died down and the astonished Indian saw standing before him a lovely woman bathed in sunlight. She was calling him by name. “Juan Diego! Juanito!” She was incredibly beautiful and seemed to be about 16 years old. With extraordinary tenderness and sweetness she asked, “Where are you going, Juan, smallest and dearest of my children?” Juan replied, “I am hurrying to get to Mass to hear the homily.” Then he heard, “I love you, my dear little son. I am Mary, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the True God, who gives life and protects it. He is the Creator of all, Lord of heaven and earth. He is all present. I desire that a church be built on this place, since I wish to show my love and compassion to your people and to all people who sincerely ask for my help. Here I will wipe away tears, provide solace and comfort. Run now to the Bishop and tell him what you have seen and heard.” On hearing these words, Juan fell at Mary’s feet saying, “Noble Lady, I will carry out your wish.”

On reaching the Bishop’s house, he soon became convinced that the errand entrusted to him by Mary was quite beyond his abilities. True, Bishop Zumarraga proved to be very kind and patient. He listened to Juan’s account of Our Lady’s apparition, but he dismissed as unrealistic the idea of building a church in such a desolate spot. Tired out and disappointed with the failure of his errand, Juan returned to the site of the apparition. On reaching the hill, he found the Immaculate Virgin waiting for him. With great meekness he told her, “Alas, the Bishop did not believe me. Forgive me if I make so bold as to give you a piece of advice. I am not worthy to be entrusted with such an important errand. Please send someone more suitable, since I do not count for anything. Our Lady replied, “My dear little son, I could send others, but I chose you. Do not be discouraged. Tomorrow morning go to the Bishop and tell him that the Virgin Mary sent you and that she very much desires that a church be built on this site. Strengthened by this meeting, Juan Diego set about his errand with renewed enthusiasm. The following day he had to show great persistence in order to gain entrance into the Bishop’s house again. Once again the Bishop heard him out patiently. Finally he told Juan that he would take concrete steps in the matter of the church only if Mary presented him with a visible sign.

After this interview, Juan Diego returned once more to Tepeyac to report to Mary. Kneeling at her feet, he told her that the Bishop required a sign. She replied, “You have had much trouble on my account. Go now in peace and rest. I will come here tomorrow at dawn and give you a sign that you will convey to the Bishop.”

His spirits bolstered by this meeting with Our Lady, Juan Diego decided to pay his dear Uncle Juan Bernardino a visit. Great was his distress when he found him lying in bed, stricken with a grave illness. Unable to leave his uncle alone, Juan stayed with him all night and all of the following day, preparing meals and herbal remedies for him. For this reason Juan was unable to make his rendezvous with Our Lady. Meanwhile, his illness worsening, Juan Bernardino asked his nephew to fetch a priest, as he wished to make his last confession and receive Holy Communion. Early in the morning on December 12th, Juan Diego ran to the parish church to fetch the priest. His way led him over Tepeyac. In his naivete, he imagined that he could avoid Mary if he crossed the hill on its eastern flank; but, on finding himself there, what was his amazement when Our Lady stood suddenly before him. “What happened, my dear child?” Mary asked him. Trying to hide his embarrassment, the Indian replied, “My Lady, why did you rise so early? Is anything the matter? Forgive me for not coming yesterday morning to pick up the sign you wished me take to the Bishop. I did not disregard my promise, but my uncle is gravely ill and wants me to fetch the priest before he dies.” Mary replied, “Do not fear, my son. Am I not your Mother who takes care of you? Your uncle will recover. But now I am sending you on my errand. Go to the top of the hill, pick the flowers you see growing there, and bring them to me here.” When Juan reached the hilltop, he found beautiful Castilian roses growing there. Clearly they could not have grown by themselves — in mid-winter, on this frozen waste of hoar-dusted rocks. Jan quickly wrapped the flowers in his Indian cloak, or tilma, which was worn down at the front like a cape, with the rear flap tied down. Juan ran back to Mary. With her own hands she arranged the flowers in the tilma and tied up the lower ends under his chin, thereby enabling him to carry them safely to the Bishop. “This is the promised sign I am sending to the Bishop,” she said. “When he receives them, he will agree to carry out my wish to have a church built on this spot. Do not show the flowers to anyone and do not lower the corners of the tilma until you stand before the Bishop. This time I am sure the Bishop will believe everything you tell him.” 

When Juan Diego entered the Bishop’s house, everyone was struck by the marvelous scent that emanated from the poor Indian. Some tried to open up the tilma and see what was inside. Though he tried hard to prevent them, some managed to catch a glimpse of the hidden roses. Some even tried to grab the flowers, but no sooner did they touch them than they became of a piece with the designs embroidered on Juan Diego’s cloak. When at last he stood before Bishop Zumarraga, he raised his hands and untied the corners of his coarse cloak. An armful of marvelous Castilian roses cascaded to floor before the astonished Bishop. These faded after a while; but what equally astonished the Bishop was the resplendent image of Our Lady imprinted on the tilma.

Springing up from his chair, the Bishop, together with his household staff, knelt down at the Indian’s feet and did homage to the miraculous image. After a long time of earnest prayer, the Bishop rose to his feet, carefully removed the tilma from Juan Diego’s shoulders, and carried it to the main altar of his chapel. News of the miracle spread through the town with the speed of lightning. On the following day, the miraculous image was transferred to the cathedral in a solemn procession. The joyous singing of great throngs of people accompanied the event.

In the morning of December 12th, Our Lady also appeared to Juan Diego’s dying uncle, Juan Bernardino. After restoring him to complete health, she told him not to worry about his nephew as she had sent him to the Bishop with the miraculous image stamped on his cloak. She also told him by what title she wished to be honored in the future. The interpreter, who conveyed Juan Bernardino’s message to the Bishop, rendered Mary’s title as “Ever Virgin, Blessed Mary of Guadalupe.” The Spaniards immediately associated it with the famous Marian shrine in their distant homeland. But the Aztec Indians understood the name as “de Guatlasjupe,” or “tetlcoatlaxopeuh,” which means in their tongue, “The Stone Snake Crushed.” (“Te” means stone; “coa” snake; “tla” is a noun suffix; and “xopeuh” means crushing or defeating.) Most likely, the interpreter incorrectly translated the Nahuati word, which sounded phonetically similar to “Guadalupe.” The letters D and G do not exist in the Aztec language. Recent research confirms that word was “tetlcoatlaxopeuh,” which was pronounced “de Guadlashupe.” Thus did Our Lady declare that she had conquered the terrifying god Quetzalcoatla (worshiped in the form of a feathered snake) along with other gods serving as masks for Satan himself. The Aztecs had sacrificed countless numbers of people to him. News spread quickly among the Indians about the name chosen by the Woman who had appeared to Juan Bernardino and Juan Diego. Her miraculous image, which contains numerous symbols — clouds, stars, the sun, a half-moon, and a small black cross on a gold broach — attest to the fact that in crushing the head of the bloodthirsty serpent she had defeated the Devil, since she was the Mother of Jesus Christ. In the miraculous image the two tails of her cloak are tied together in a bow with a black ribbon (to the Aztecs this meant that the woman was pregnant). Below was a flower consisting of four petals, which was a symbol of divinity. This meant that the child in Mary’s womb was God. Studies conducted in 1981 by a team of astronomers showed that the configuration of the stars on Our Lady’s cloak conformed to the stellar system during the time of the apparitions in 1531. For the Aztecs this was an extraordinarily powerful sign telling them to abandon paganism and convert to the Christian faith, for the sun, moon and stars were not gods at all but creatures made by God the Creator of heaven and earth. Gazing on the miraculous image, every Indian could easily read from the rich symbolism that the Woman was with child, and that child to whom she gave birth was divine.

The apparitions of Our Lady on the hill of Tepeyac proved to be a turning point in the evangelization of the Americas. It marked the beginning of the mass conversion of the Indians. Until the apparitions, missionaries had baptized mostly infants and the dying. In the immediate aftermath of the apparitions, thousands of Indians began flocking every day to the missionary centers seeking baptism. Some priests had to christen as many as six thousand people a day. The missionary Torbio de Benavento records that at the convent of Quecholac he baptized 14,200 Indians in the course of five days. The Flemish Franciscan Father, Peter Ghent, testifies that during his missionary assignment in Mexico, he alone baptized around one million Indians. The Christianization of the whole of Mexico occurred in the span of a few short years — between 1532 and 1538. About nine million people voluntarily received baptism and other sacraments of the Church. This fact is without precedent in history. The entire population of the country that had until then been largely suspicious of and often hostile to Christianity suddenly converted en masse in the most spontaneous manner. The Reformation in Europe resulted in five million people leaving the Universal Church; and yet, following the apparitions at Guadalupe, nine million Aztecs were received into the community of the Catholic Church. European missionaries began arriving in Mexico in great numbers. Everywhere they undertook the task of building schools, hospitals, workshops, churches and monasteries. In 1552, by papal and royal decree, the first university was founded in Mexico. It received a rank similar to that of the University of Salamanca in Spain.

Construction of the first chapel on the hill of Tepeyac began soon after the apparitions. It was completed in thirteen days, just before Christmas. On December 26, 1531, in a solemn procession, Bishop Zumarraga transferred the miraculous image from the cathedral to the chapel at Tepeyac. The entire population of the city took part. With great joy the Indians sang and danced, firing salutes of arrows into the air. By accident one of these arrows struck a man in the neck and killed him. The dead man was placed under the image of Our Lady, while all the people began praying with child-like faith for a miracle. A short time afterwards the Indian opened his eyes, looked up at the image of the Immaculate One, and rose to his feet unassisted. He was completely healed. On seeing the Indian miraculously restored to life, the Indians began all the more earnestly to sing their Aztec hymns of thanksgiving to God.

Bishop Zumarraga placed Juan Diego in charge of the new chapel with the miraculous image of Our Lady. By special dispensation he was allowed to receive Jesus in Holy Communion three times a week. Every day throngs of pilgrims came to visit the new shrine. Keeping her promise, Our Lady comforted the distressed, restoring their joy in as well as healing their bodies and souls. Juan Diego never stopped relating the history of the apparitions to the visiting Indians in his native tongue. He explained the truths of the Christian faith, preparing them for the reception of baptism. Then he sent them off to the missionaries, in order that, through the administering of the sacraments, they might finish the work of evangelization.

Juan Diego died on May 30, 1548, and was buried on Tepeyac Hill. Pope John Paul II beatified him in Guadalupe on May 6, 1990, then canonized him, again in Mexico, on July 31, 2002. As we gaze on the figure of this Indian saint, let us ask for his intercession, that he might help us attain the spirit of heroic faith and meek love. Saint Juan Diego, pray for us! 

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