More than a million Mexicans and international visitors are headed to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City this week as part of the annual pilgrimage to celebrate the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Friday. The cathedral will overflow not just with pilgrims but also with the scent of thousands of roses, a key element in the legend of the apparitions in 1531.
According to the story, the Virgin Mary appears four times to a humble Aztec Indian, Juan Diego, and leaves an imprint of her image on his cloak.
It is believed that Juan Diego was born in 1474 in the in Cuauhtitlan which is about 20 kilometers north of Tenochtitlan, which is now known as Mexico City. His name was Cuauhtlatoatzin or ‘One Who Talks Like an Eagle’ or ‘Singing Eagle’. In the Nican Mopohua, the earliest writings of the Guadalupan event, he was identified as a ‘Macehualli’, a poor Indian. He did not belong to any of the social catagories of the Aztec Empire such as warriors, merchants or priests yet he was not a slave.
Juan Diego was deeply devoted and upon coverting to Christianity, after the Aztec empire had been overtaken by the Spaniard Hernan Cortez in 1521, received Eucharist 3 times a week by special permission of the Bishop, highly unusual at that time. He walked the 20 kilometers from his village to Tenochtitlan to receive his instructions to become a Christian and later to Mass. He would leave before dawn as the walk through the mountains took about 3.5 hours, barefoot since he was not of the social class allowed shoes or sandals.
When his wife died in 1529, he moved in with his uncle Juan Bernardino in Tolpetlac. He was then only 9 miles from church in Tlatelolco -Tenochtitlan. In the colder months he wore a mantle or ’tilma’. This tilma was a very coarse fabric, woven of Maguey cactus cloth, as cotton was used by the upper classes of the Aztec.
When he was about 57, the Virgin of Guadalupe, first appeared to Juan Diego as he was on his way to Tenochtitlán. She spoke to him in his native Aztec lauguage of Nahuatl,
“Juanito, Juan Dieguito, the most humble of my sons”.
It was December 9th, only 10 years after Cortez conquered the Aztec Nation. He was on his way to attend catechism classes and he heard the beautiful singing of birds when she spoke to him on the hill called Tepeyac. She asked him to tell Bishop Friar Juan de Zumárraga she wanted a temple to be built on this spot, Juan Diego was obedient but the Bishop did not believe him. Juan decided to give up on this but she repeated her request. Again he spoke to the Bishop but was not believed. Finally, the Bishop, sensitive to his sincere request and obedience, asked for a sign of this visitation. The Virgin again spoke to Juan Diego telling him that she would give him proof the following day.
It was early morning on the 12th of December. Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernadino, was ill and needed a priest so he tried to avoid the visitation of the Lady by going around the hill another way. She found him once again, and gave him a message of hope. She assured him the temple would be a message of great peace to the entire world. She then, as proof, instructed him to go to the top of the hill where he found beautiful roses blooming in the frosty December morning. He picked them and put them in his cloak and carried them to her. The Virgin Guadalupe rearranged them and sent him to Bishop Friar Juan de Zumárraga. On arrival, he opened his cloak and the flowers fell onto the floor in front of the Bishop. Bishop Friar Juan de Zumárraga was in awe, not of the rare, beautiful roses, but of a miracle; there before his eyes, on Juan Diego’s cloak made of coarse cactus cloth, an image of the Blessed Virgin began to appear. At the same time, she appeared and healed Juan Bernadino, telling him she was Guadalupe, the Perfect One and the forever Virgin Mother of the True God.
Juan Diego devoted the remainder of his life to sharing his gift and miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe until his death on May 30, 1548. Today, the shrine is visited by millions every year and her original image on the cloak, intact and complete, brings a powerful message of life, peace, love, and hope to all.
Note: Pope John Paul II praised Juan Diego for his simple faith (who said to the Blessed Virgin: “I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf”) as a model of humility for all of us. The summer of 2002, Juan Diego was canonized a Saint.