Our Lady, Patroness of All Peoples

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab, Luke 1:26-38.

The Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to many people, although in my upbringing we generally considered her from a European context, with skin too white to be from Nazareth. Today is the Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, a decidedly brown-skinned Mary who appeared to St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1531 in what is today a suburb of Mexico City. This is a good opportunity for us to remember that Christ came to save all of humanity, not just the Jews (or white-skinned Europeans). Our Lady of Guadalupe is such a good example of how the Blessed Virgin works alongside the Church to bring all people to Christ.

The image of the Virgin Mary given to St. Juan Diego in 1531 | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia.

I think it’s instructive to consider the real-world conditions under which she appeared to Juan Diego. The conquistador Hernán Cortés had just conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán 10 years earlier and re-named it Mexico City, the capital of New Spain. While we can rightfully abhor the philosophy, methods, cultural and physical damage that colonialism inflicted on native peoples around the globe, we can see a tiny glimmer of genuine goodness in Cortés when he asked the young Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to send monks to evangelize and convert the natives. In his fourth letter to the king, Cortés pleaded for friars rather than diocesan or secular priests because those clerics would not help with a true effort of conversion:

“If these [native peoples] were now to see the affairs of the Church and the service of God in the hands of canons or other dignitaries, and saw them indulge in the vices and profanities now common in Spain, knowing that such men were the ministers of God, it would bring our Faith into much harm that I believe any further preaching would be of no avail.” (Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, translated and edited by A.R. Pagden. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971, p. 333.)

Despite his many flaws and atrocities, in this at least Cortés seems genuine in his desire to bring these people into the Church. The famous Franciscans, the “Twelve Apostles to Mexico,” came in 1524 (followed by Dominicans and others) and proceeded to evangelize in a new and effective way. They performed traditional missionary activities like building chapels and  residential schools for native peoples, but their approach was very gentle and well integrated into the native culture. First, they learned the languages, starting with Nahuatl. Then, they found common ground in the religious festivities that the people were currently doing and the Christian festivals that we know. They attended festivals together, even if the subject and the God was different between them – it offered the Franciscans an opportunity to engage in dialogue and start to explain who Jesus Christ was. This turned out to be a great connection. They developed a catechism of basic beliefs, written first in Nahuatl. In it, they explicitly used indigenous terminology for the Divine, particularly as the creator and lord of all things and as someone who was “of the common people,” which resonated greatly with them. So, when they spoke of God and His Son, their deeply rooted religious meanings would sound familiar to the people. Thus, our Christian God and especially Jesus Christ could be understood as the ultimate embodiment of these very familiar characteristics of divinity. 

The Franciscans also made themselves friends to the children and youth. They introduced them to the catechism of our faith and learned from them words and concepts in Nahuatl. It was a very receptive environment. It was the opposite of the heavy-handed, violent approach we normally associate with colonialism.

St. Juan Diego and the Virgin’s Image, Julie Lonneman (contemporary) | Image from fineartamerica.com.

In this environment we find Juan Diego, a Nahuatl peasant who had been baptized as a Roman Catholic. In 1531, he was passing by the hill of Tepeyac headed toward the Franciscan mission at Tlatelolco for religious instruction and to perform various religious duties. He was stopped by the appearance of a young morena, a brown-skinned woman, who addressed him in Nahuatl, his native language. She was clearly one of his own, indigenous people. She identified herself as Mary, the ever-virgin Mother of God, and instructed him to request that the bishop erect a chapel in her honor at that spot, so she might relieve the distress of all those who call on her in their need. Juan Diego did as instructed, but, crucially in the story, the Franciscan bishop didn’t quite believe him and asked for evidence, which made Juan Diego tell Mary that he thought he was too lowly of a person to carry her message to the bishop.

This, however, was Mary’s point: she was there to serve the low and rejected, just as her son did. She encouraged him to gather flowers at the top of Tepeyac, and take them in his tilma (cloak) to the bishop. When he did so, opening his tilma to drop the roses at the feet of the bishop, the incredible impression of Our Lady was there on the inside of his tilma (and remains to this day, displayed at the Basilica that stands on the spot).

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine, Irapuato, Guanajuato State | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia.

The fact that Mary appeared to the lowly Juan Diego and that he was the one to carry her message was important from an evangelical as well as a theological point of view. In this cultural milieu where Franciscans created bridges between Aztec beliefs and the orthodox Christian faith, Juan Diego himself became a type of bridge. The Franciscans had been longing to create a Church different from that of European Christianity, which they felt did not appreciate evangelical poverty. It was this exact poverty in fact and in spirit that they found in Mexico. Jerónimo de Mendieta, a Franciscan of the time, expressed it this way: “It can be asserted as truth that no nation or people have been discovered in the world better disposed and prepared for salvation (if they are helped to) than the natives of this New Spain. . . . they have shown by their deeds that they spurn the world and wish to follow Jesus Christ with such efficacy and such good spirit as I, a poor Spaniard and lesser brother, might wish to in following the evangelical life.” Their common spirit of poverty resulted in a natural respect of the native cultures and helped to create what we would today call “intercultural dialogue.”

Mary, evidently, approved of this approach and used Juan Diego as that human bridge to bring native peoples to the Church. Many Nahuatl-speaking natives began traveling to Tepeyac to venerate Mary and Christ as soon as Juan Diego had his visions and presented his tilma to the bishop. When the Franciscans built a small chapel there a few years later, they found that this was already a devotional site to Our Lady, where previously it had been a temple to an Aztec goddess. The fame of Our Lady of Guadalupe quickly spread throughout Mexico and her influence on converting millions of native peoples cannot be overestimated. Today, the Basilica complex is the most visited Catholic religious shrine in the world.

The importance of Our Lady coming to these people to expand the ranks of the faithful is stated well on the Basilica’s website:

The people present the Virgin to their children as the mother of the Creator and Protector of the entire universe, who comes to the people because she wants to embrace them all—Indian and Spanish—with the same mother’s love. The miraculous image imprinted on the sisal—a plant whose strong fibers were used by indigenous weavers to make tilmas (cloaks)—signaled the dawn of a new world, which was the Sixth Sun awaited by the Mexicas (Aztecs).

This syncretism of religious beliefs (with the “dominant” religion winning out, as a comparative religions class would teach it) hearkens back to the earliest days of the Church when Paul preached at the Areopagus in Athens, calling upon their religious traditions and explaining how they pointed to (or were evidence of) the Christian God at work in their world. While the dogma and doctrine of the Catholic Church do not change, we are open to the infinite ways God has worked within Creation and human history, drawing all peoples to himself. The quote from the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe states that the “Sixth Sun awaited by the Aztecs” was, in fact, the arrival of Mary in their midst, drawing them to her Son and the Father. It is a lovely understanding of the many ways God works in all of our lives, and it helps us open ourselves to be surprised and delighted by Him. May we never close ourselves off to the varied revelation of God in our midst!

Tepeyac Hill in north Mexico City. This is the site where the peasant Juan Diego was approached by a vision of the Virgin and instructed to build a place of worship. Here on Tepeyac Hill a sculpture shows the Virgin of Guadalupe being honored and showered with gifts by all the different peoples that now live in Mexico. Image credit: Matt Mawson. Image found on Google.

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