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(We thank Merciful Love at P.O. Box 24, Fresno, CA  93707 for their permission for our reprinting the following article from their Divine Love, Issue No. 87, 4th Quarter, 1981)
— Mary’s Touch By Mail, Gresham, Oregon


by Coley Taylor

We can proudly—and humbly—say that America is the land of Our Lady.  And by America I do not mean simply the U.S.A.  I mean ALL of America—the Western Hemisphere.  Every nook and corner of it has been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and was so dedicated long before the Bishops in 1846 dedicated the United States to her in her title of the Immaculate Conception, and asked her to be our celestial Patroness.  In a very real sense they were only ratifying something that had already taken place centuries earlier.

The most important dedication of America to Our Lady took place in Mexico in December, 1531.  The event was all-embracing; and the deed was done by no other than the Blessed Virgin herself.  In her talks with Juan Diego, she specifically claimed him and "all the people of these lands and all who come to me" as her children, and asked that a church be built there at Tepeyac, where she could console and help them and hear their prayers and petitions.  At that time there were no national boundaries—it was just the New World.  And Mexico is almost exactly the mid-point of the twin continents, and the only capital city then known in the Americas.  Our Lady claimed all these lands for herself.  Mexico and Spanish writers and ecclesiastical authorities from the beginning have always called her "Queen of The Americas," and they called the Apparitions, "The American Marvel" or "Miracle"—"Maravilla Americana."  Those who refer to Our Lady of Guadalupe as "The Mexican Virgin" are in error.  She is also "Empress of the Americas."

The Story

Our Lady first appeared at dawn on December 9, 1531, on the outskirts of Mexico City, to Juan Diego, a middle-aged Aztec convert of several years.  He was on his way—a six mile walk, no less—to attend the Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which was then celebrated in the Spanish Empire and some other countries on the 9th instead of the 8th as at the present.  When he was approaching the causeway crossing the lake, at the foot of the high hill called Tepeyac, he suddenly heard a great choir, as of thousands of birds singing—unknown and unseen birds.  He was enchanted and looked up to the hilltop where the music seemed to come from and saw there a shining cloud of brightness in that dusk before dawn, and started to climb up the barren rocks towards it.  Suddenly the heavenly music stopped, and then through the silence he heard a lady's voice call him by name "Juan, Juan Diegito" ("John, little John-Jimmie.")  He couldn't believe his ears and stopped in his tracks, but the voice called him again.

And as he climbed up, he saw her, standing in the luminous cloud or mist, iridescent with rainbow hues.  She identified herself immediately as the "Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God, through Whose favor we live, the Creator, Lord of Heaven and of the earth," and asked him to go to the house of the Bishop of Mexico and tell him she wanted a church built there, where "I may show and may make known and give all my love, my mercy, and my help and my protection—for I am in truth your merciful Mother—to you and to all the other people dear to me who call upon me, who search for me, who confide in me."

Juan Diego did as he was told and went immediately to the Bishop's house in the center of the city, some four miles away.  Naturally, the Bishop was not too readily impressed with such an astonishing story, and told him to come back again in a few days when he would have time to go into it all thoroughly.  Juan Diego sadly trudged back to Tepeyac with a humiliating sense of failure.  Who was he, a mere small farmer and weaver of mats, to talk to the great Lord Bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga?

On the hilltop Our Lady was waiting for him and he told her the bad news:  the Bishop didn't believe him.  Juan Diego asked her to send somebody else—somebody important whom the Bishop would be likely to believe.  However, Our Lady smiled and said it was fitting for him to be her messenger although she didn't lack others to send, and asked him to go back again the next day—Sunday—and urge the Bishop to do as she asked.  So, after Mass at the Franciscan mission church of Santiago (St. James) in Tlaltelolco, he went again to see Bishop Zumarraga and, this time, by his pleading he seemed to impress the Bishop with his sincerity at least and, finally, Bishop Zumarraga suggested that he ask the Lady for a sign by which he might be absolutely sure she was the Blessed Virgin and no other.  Juan Diego asked him what sign he wanted, but the Bishop merely shrugged his shoulders.

A Sign From Heaven

Juan Diego reported all this to his heavenly Visitor on his return to Tepeyac that afternoon at sunset, and she seemed well pleased and promised him a sign the next day, and urged him not to forget, and to meet her at the usual time, before dawn.  However, Juan Diego did forget, and did not keep his appointment the next day.  When he got home on Sunday night, he found his old uncle, Juan Bernardino, very ill with a high fever—identified as typhus—and he spent that night and all day Monday and Monday night nursing the uncle who had been like a father to him.  Very early on the morning of the 12th, Tuesday, he set out on the sad journey to bring a priest from Tlaltelolco for the last rites.  It was obvious to all that the good old man was dying.

When Juan Diego was approaching Tepeyac—and it was nearly dawn—he suddenly remembered that he had forgotten all about his appointment with the Blessed Virgin the day before, and he thought if he continued on his usual route between the hills, he would meet her and she would delay him, so he took another path, along the eastern side of the hill, along the lake shore.  But Our Lady met him just the same, and asked him where he was going, why he was taking this path?  Juan Diego, in a state of total confusion and embarrassment, explained his predicament and asked her to let him get the priest for his uncle, and he'd be back the next day to take the sign to the Bishop.  Our Lady put him at ease and said he was not to worry, that his uncle was not going to die; in fact, he was now already perfectly well.  So, believing her utterly, Juan Diego asked her for the sign for the Bishop.  She told him to climb up the hill to the place where they had always met before, and pick the flowers he would find blooming there.

He knew that no flowers—or anything else except some briers and starved cactus—ever grew on the barren rocks of Tepeyac, but he climbed up, nonetheless.  And on the hilltop to his vast surprise he found a garden of roses such as he had never seen before—roses of Castile, not yet grown in Mexico—and in the frosty time of December!  He filled his thin white cape, or serape, called a tilma, with the flowers and took them back to her.  She took the roses out of his tilma and, like any other woman before or since, she rearranged them and put them back; then she told him to carry them so that no one would see what he had until he was in the Bishop's presence.  And she cautioned him to tell the Bishop everything that had happened before opening his cape to show him the roses.  Juan Diego took his leave and Our Lady thanked him and promised to reward him for all he did for her.

After waiting a long time at the Bishop's house, he was finally ushered into the room where Bishop Zumarraga and some others were, and then he told the story of that morning and opened his tilma.  As the roses fell to the floor, the Bishop and his companions with a started gasp fell to their knees: on Juan Diego's tilma was a most beautiful painting, incredibly more beautiful than any they had ever seen—the Portrait of Our Lady, exactly as Juan Diego had described her on his earlier visits.  The Bishop had his sign: Our Lady's Portrait, of heavenly or miraculous origin, and corresponding to the Woman of the Apocalypse—the Woman clothed with the sun, standing on a new moon, and with the stars—not as a crown, to be sure, ornamenting, her blue-green robe, accompanied by an Angel at her feet.

Was ever a Bishop so honored?  After long veneration, Bishop Zumarraga took the Miraculous Portrait from Juan Diego and  hung it over the altar in his oratory until the next day, when it was transferred to his cathedral church for all to see and venerate.  The startling news spread throughout the city with an impact as overwhelming as an earthquake.  Everyone wanted to see the miraculous gift from Heaven.

The next day, also, the Bishop and many others, led by Juan Diego, who was the Bishop's honored guest, went out to Tepeyac to see where Our Lady wanted the church to be built.  The building began at once; tradition says that Juan Diego's fellow-villagers from Tolpetlac built it, and the little house for him to live in, along side it, for he was to be its caretaker and guardian.

By Christmas, the little chapel was ready, and on the 26th a tremendous procession of people escorted the Sacred Image to its first shrine.  Pilgrimages have continued ever since, even during eras of severe persecution, and now every year some five million pilgrims and tourists visit the shrine, a minor Basilica now, and privileged Lateran church.  Over a million are present on December 12th, the great Feast of "Our Lady of Guadalupe"—the title she herself picked for this image.  

Mother Of All

The apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe have a great significance for all of us.  First of all, she appeared on our continent and called herself our own Mother.  These apparitions were the first of the great, universally-important visitations of the Blessed Virgin—Guadalupe, Lourdes, La Salette and Fatima.  In all these she has appeared at a time of great crisis, with a special message, but since the Guadalupe apparitions are the first in time, and her declarations of universal motherhood are for all time, these are the foundation stone of the other appearances.

She declared to Juan Diego that she was the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God.  This doctrinal statement contradicted emphatically the ideas of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation then turning all Europe into two camps.  She called Juan Diego her very dear son, and proclaimed herself a loving mother to all who would come to her with their problems and cares; in other words, substantiating the Church's traditional teaching that Our Lord, from the Cross, in giving her to St. John as his mother and appointing St. John as her son, was creating for her a universal role as Mother of us all.  This was being denied by the Protestant Reformers:  Mary was for them simply the historic mother of Jesus and had no other role to play.

She offered her intercession—as a mediatrix of graces—to all who should ask for it.  This, too, was of course denied by the Reformers, and where "national churches" were being set up, taking over the magnificent churches of the "Old Faith" as in England, the many little German kingdoms and the Scandinavian countries, the images of the Blessed Virgin, as well as those of the Saints, were being thrown out of the churches and homes and were burned or hacked to pieces.  But Our Lady in 1531 firmly emphasized her intercessory role in "the Communion of Saints."

All of these statements of hers are important to emphasize again now, when many Catholics seem concerned about "too great an emphasis on the importance of Mary" in our devotional life.  These doctrinal points make her apparitions of 1531 of universal significance, and Bishop Zumarraga, all the Spaniards in Mexico, and the Popes from that century to the present time have so recognized spiritual truth.

There is another important point:  she did not ask Juan Diego to build the church, or simply ask that a church be built in her honor.  She sent him to the Bishop, to the head of the Church in that land new to Christianity.  She was giving an order to the Catholic Church.

To the Mexicans, who then had no written language, but made their historical and literary records in a symbolic picture-writing, her Portrait had much to say.  Since she was standing in a nimbus of light, with rays representing those of the sun, she was greater than the sun; she was standing on the new moon, and therefore was greater than the moon; and her robe, like the sky, was sown with stars.  All these heavenly bodies had long been worshipped, with a god for each, in their pagan pantheon.  The Lady was greater than these, and said she was the Mother of all.  Since an Angel was at her feet, she was greater than other heavenly creatures.  Yet she was no goddess, for her hands were clasped in prayer.  And at her throat was a golden brooch, a circle enclosing a black cross—the Christian symbol on the Spanish banners, on the Christian altars, and set up before their mission churches.  Her Portrait and its symbolic teaching, far more than the work of the score of missionary priests and brothers, converted the largely pagan Mexico to the Christian Faith.  And its symbolism as picture-writing continues to teach and convert the illiterate who come on pilgrimage with perhaps only a smattering of catechism dimly remembered.  She speaks for herself to all who come to look at her image. 

Miraculous Portrait

The Portrait itself was 430 years old on December 21, 1961.  When one speaks of a miraculous portrait, meaning one created by a miracle, many U.S. Catholics of this scientific age tend to think that perhaps Mexican tradition and devotion are a little too flowery; after all, it was so long ago, and fact can be overlaid by pious fiction in a few centuries, and until they know more of the details they are hesitant to accept it as a miracle.  Quite all right.  But what they should know is that every religious, scientific test devised from early times to the present results in the same explanation:  a painting without a trace of brush marks, (under microscopic study), mysteriously still existing and still uniquely beautiful when it should have disintegrated centuries ago.

It is on a coarse, thin linen-like cloth made of maguey cactus thread, which only lasts from twenty to thirty years or so.  Paintings a couple of hundred years younger, in the old churches of Mexico, and on first-rate canvas, are in very poor shape, sadly in need of restoration.  No artist, about to paint a masterpiece, (and it is a masterpiece), would ever choose such an unsuitable "canvas" as that of the Miraculous Portrait, especially one made of two strips of cloth with a seam right down the middle of the paintable area.  This cloth was not prepared for pain by sizing or any other preparation to make it a paintable surface.  The hardest-headed artists and scientists frankly write their analyses and report that they cannot figure it out.

Art historians and artists who balk when you say "miraculous painting" are suddenly brought to silence when you ask: "Well, who painted it, then?"  For in Spain at that time the art of painting was in a very primitive stage.  The great Renaissance art movement did not come to Spain until two generations later.  And this Painting is farther removed from the Mexican art tradition—Maya-Toltec-Aztec, and artists in featherwork and weaving, but in painting their work was crude hieroglyphic.  

Scholars who "couldn't swallow" the miraculous explanation have devoted lifetimes trying desperately to dig up a human painter of this great marvel, but without any success.  One might remark that if a human artist of such genius had lived in Mexico in 1531, he would have been working overtime to paint other masterpieces for altar retablos, for the palatial homes of the new-rich conquerors, and his work would have been world-famous from then to now.  The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a lone, mysterious, isolated splendor of that time, and to no other religious painting anywhere is there imputed supernatural origin.

The fact that it still exists, after 430 years, taking into account the poor material it is on, is prudently considered a continuing miracle.  For well over a century it was not protected by glass, and was exposed to all the vagaries of Mexican weather.  The first chapel or hermitage was open at one end, (facing the west), except for iron-work gates, and what windows it had were without glass.  The fogs and winds from nearby Lake Texcoco, a salt lake, were—and still are—laden with alkali and other chemicals that destroy paint, fabrics, wood and even pit the surface of stone.  But the Portrait is undamaged!  In that same first century and more, the smoke of thousands upon thousands of votive candles could have ruined it, but it was never blackened by smoke as so many other noted paintings and statues of Our Lady have been.  The Portrait still exists, beautiful beyond description.  As Pope Pius XII expressed it:  "On the tilma of humble Juan Diego—as the tradition relates—brushes not of this earth left painted an Image most tender which the corrosive work of the centuries was marvelously to respect."

There is something else that is unique about this portrait, this image.  There is a sense of Holy Presence.  So many have felt it, over the centuries.  Many people, and not all of them Catholics, by any means, stop in to talk to us at the English Information Center at the Basilica in a state of bewilderment:  "What goes on here?  I've never experienced anything like this."  Priests exclaim that they were so overwhelmed that they could hardly finish celebrating Mass; priests who have celebrated Mass at St. Peter's, Fatima, Lourdes, Notre Dame de Paris, Loretto.  It is unique, wonderful, and rather terrifying.  The humblest pilgrim feels it, too, and many Protestants stop in to say how strange and wonderful it is—they've had something happen to them they do not understand; and occasionally Jews, taking the conventional tour with hotel guides, stop for a minute and exclaim:  "This is so wonderful.  Can we come back without a guide, when we don't have to rush, and just stay a while?"

Mary, the Patron of America

His Holiness Pope John XXIII granted a Marian Year, beginning October 12, 1961, in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the occasion being the 50th anniversary of the act of Pope St. Pius X in rededicating all of Latin America to her.  All had originally been given to her as Patroness by Pope Benedict XIV in 1754, upon petition of the King of Spain, when all these countries were Spanish dominions.  In 1910, upon the petition of some seventy Archbishops and Bishops, St. Pius X renewed the Patronate, with magnificent ceremonies in her honor in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

This patronage was extended to the United States and Canada on October 12, 1945 by Pope Pius XII, on the 50th anniversary of the coronation of the Holy Portrait, when he hailed Our Lady as Empress of America and Queen of Mexico, noting that she had been Queen of all these lands from the moment of her apparitions in 1531, and that at the coronation of the Portrait in 1895, personally ordered by Leo XIII, "when on that angelical brow the golden crown shone so brilliantly, from all hearts and from all throats broke forth the shout until then so impatiently restrained: 'Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe, Empress of America and Queen of Mexico!'"

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