Our Lady of Guadalupe: The one who crushes the serpent

May 14, 2013

Traditionally, Catholics reflect on the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December, the month in which she appeared near modern Mexico City to the Chichimec native St. Juan Diego and when the Church celebrates her feast day on the 12th. 

But the historical account of the miraculous apparition of “La Morenita,” whose image emblazoned on the cloak of the indigenous saint in one of the most famous portraits in history, takes on added significance as Catholics seek her special intercession as the star of the new evangelization.

In a December conference on the state of the Church in the Americas held in Rome, Supreme Knight of Columbus Carl A. Anderson called Our Lady of Guadalupe a perfect example of evangelization. 

“Her message of reconciliation, unity and love brought forth the great evangelization of an entire hemisphere,” Anderson said. “By her very presence, Our Lady of Guadalupe became the first and great model of Christian unity presented to all peoples and rising above national and ethnic partisanship.” 

The focus of the new evangelization calls all Catholics first to be evangelized and then to go forth to proclaim the Gospel. It is focused on re-proposing the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith, and promoting an authentic conversion in Christ which can be shared with others.

There is no doubt that much of what is now Mexico was mired in a crisis of faith and of culture in 1531, the year when, in the attire of an Aztec princess, our lady appeared to Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac. Only 10 years earlier, the thriving and bellicose Aztec culture, with its terrifying custom of human sacrifice, had been defeated by the Spaniards. 

The world of the indigenous people was shattered. Their rulers had been toppled and their temples razed. They were no longer an Aztec nation, but neither were they Spaniards. Brutality and injustice by the triumphant Spaniards was widespread. 

In the cultural chaos, there were few missionaries to share the faith with the millions who had never heard of Jesus Christ. The native people were understandably suspicious and resentful. The faith was that of their conquerors and not authentically their own. 

It’s against this backdrop that the apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Tepeyac, the bearer of the Christian message to a non-Christian people, reveal their full evangelical significance. 

In the 15 years between her apparitions and the death of Juan Diego, approximately 9 million people were baptized. Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe only grew, despite centuries of suffering, hardship and injustice, some of which, history attests, was caused by the Church.

The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe comes from manuscripts written in Nahuatl in the mid-16th century by Antonio Valeriano, who was a native person and a scholar who took the direct testimony of Juan Diego himself. An early partial manuscript copy dating to 1556 is kept at the Public Library of New York. 

One of the few Indians to be baptized at the time, Juan Diego, born Cuauhtlatohuac in 1474, was 57 years old when Our Lady appeared to him one morning as he walked to Mass and catechism. As he passed over the summit of Tepeyac hill, he heard birds burst into song and saw a lovely young indigenous girl appear before a dazzling cloud. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl.

“You must know and be very certain in your heart, my son, that I am truly the perpetual and perfect Virgin Mary, holy mother of the true God through whom everything lives, the Creator and Master of heaven and earth,” she said. 

She revealed her desire to have a church built on the site and that Juan Diego should go to the bishop to make her wishes known. In the sanctuary, she said she would show her love, compassion and protection to the people of the land. 

Juan Diego went to the Spanish archbishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, who dismissed his story. On the way back, again he was intercepted by the young maiden. He asked the virgin to send someone distinguished to bear the message, but she refused, insisting he was integral to her purpose. 

Juan Diego returned the next day where he was received with more dubious reluctance, but the bishop was intrigued with his descriptions of the young lady on Tepeyac. He asked him to return with a sign. 

The virgin appeared to him for a third time and asked him to come the following day for the sign. But when he got home, he found that his sick uncle, Juan Bernadino, had taken a turn for the worst. Juan Diego hurried for a priest, avoiding the hill and the virgin, but she stopped him saying these famous words, “Am I not here, who am your Mother, and is not my help a refuge? Am I not of your kind?” 

She sent him to the top of the hill where he found beautiful roses in full bloom. He gathered them up with the virgin arranging them in his tilma, or cloak. When he later unfurled the tilma in the presence of the bishop, the cloak was adorned with the image of the virgin. 

News of the apparitions and of the miraculous image on the cloak spread like a wild fire. Millions embraced the faith after hearing Juan Diego’s story. 

How the virgin came to be known as de Guadalupe, a Spanish word, is disputed, but the account states that she revealed her name to Juan Bernadino, whom she cured, using the Nahuatl word coatlaxopeuh, which is pronounced “quatlasupe” and means “the one who crushes the serpent.”