Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
A bit of the history of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Today - the day this article is appearing, December 12 - is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico (sometimes referred to as the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe). While neither a statutory nor a civic holiday, December 12th is one of the most important days in Mexican Catholicism. Throughout Mexico, millions of Catholics make pilgrimages to local and distant churches in order to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Indeed, the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage in the world - with millions of believers visiting the shrine on December 11 and 12 each year.
If you have spent any time in Mexico or in Mexican communities throughout the world, you are likely quite familiar with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In Mexican culture, the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most recognized and venerated devotion and symbol of Catholicism as practiced in this country. But, you may not be familiar with the origins of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or how she relates to other figures in the Catholic canon. Here then is a (very) brief overview of the history of this figure.
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The Virgin of Guadalupe did not originate in Mexico - she instead originates in Spain, nearly a century before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. According to early Catholic teaching, the Apostle Luke carved a statue of the Virgin Mary, which ended up in the hands of the Roman papacy. Some time in the 6th century A.D., this statue was gifted by Pope Gregory I to the Archbishop of Seville. In the year 712 when the Moors invaded and captured Seville, priests from Seville took the statue north and buried it near the Guadalupe River. There the statue remained until early in the 14th century when a Spanish vaquero named Gil Cordero claims to have been out searching for one of his missing animals near the Guadalupe River, when the Virgin Mary appeared to him and instructed him to dig at that site. Which he didn’t do, but, priests who heard his story went out and dug there and found the statue. They built a shrine at that location, which eventually grew into the grand Monastery of Saint Mary of Guadalupe, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico (1519-1521), Spanish priests began arriving in what was then called New Spain, with the intention of converting the indigenous peoples of New Spain to Catholicism. These priests found in the Virgin Mary in general - and of Mary of Guadalupe in particular- a compelling story that resonated with their indigenous audience. Thus the cult of Mary (and the association with Guadalupe) began to take off in Mexico.
On the 9th of December in 1531, an indigenous Chichimec man named Juan Diego claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary near a small town in what is today a suburb of Mexico City. The apparition spoke to Juan Diego in his native Nahuatl tongue, identified herself and told him to build a church in her honor at the site of her appearance. Juan Diego went to the Archbishop of Mexico City and conveyed to the Archbishop Juan Diego’s vision and the instructions he was given. The Archbishop wasn’t buying this, and sent Juan Diego on his way.
Later that day, Juan Diego was visited again by the apparition and instructed to continue with her instructions to have a church built. So on the following day, Juan Diego went back to the Archbishop, but this time the Archbishop was a bit more accommodating - but he still required proof. He instructed Juan Diego to go back to the site of the apparition and, if she appeared again, to ask her for a miraculous sign that would prove to the Archbishop that she was, in fact, the mother of Christ.
Juan Diego followed the Archbishop’s instructions, and the apparition did indeed reappear, whereupon Juan Diego asked for the miraculous sign. The apparition consented to giving a sign, which she said would happen on the next day, December 11.
However, on December 11 Juan Diego was unable to return to the site of the apparition, because his uncle became ill and Juan had to attend to him. Early on December 12, the uncle’s condition worsened and Juan feared that he would die. So he went in search of a priest to administer last rites. On the road to find a priest, the Virgin appeared once again to Juan Diego and asked him why he hadn’t returned to her on the 11th. Juan explained what had happened, to which the Virgin uttered the famous reply: ¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre? (Am I not here, I who am your mother?). She told Juan Diego that his uncle had recovered from his illness, and she instructed Juan Diego to gather flowers from the surrounding hillsides, which were barren. Barren or not, Juan obeyed, and he found Castilian roses blooming there in the hills. Castilian roses don’t bloom in December, and they do not grow in Mexico.
Nevertheless, there the roses were - which he gathered and which the Virgin then arranged within Juan Diego’s cloak. Juan carried these roses thus back to the Archbishop - and when he opened his robe to show the Archbishop the flowers, they fell to the floor and revealed imprinted on the cloak the image of the Virgin Mary - that iconic image that we know today as the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
After a few more follow-on events and “miracles”, the story of Juan Diego1 and the image on his cloak became entrenched in the Catholic folklore of Mexico. A chapel was built on the site of the apparition, as instructed. Over the years, it was added to and rebuilt, eventually becoming what is now the home of Juan Diego’s famous robe and image thereupon - the Basilica of Guadalupe; the most holy of sites in Mexico which yearly attracts 20 million visitors - half of which arrive on December 11 and 12.
And this is why December 12 is known as the Feast/Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is also why many of the streets leading to churches are closed here in the early weeks of December - to accommodate the pilgrimages going on. So, stop honking. Avoid that part of town. Unless you’re on a pilgrimage 🙂.
In 1990, Juan Diego was beatified by Pope John Paul II