Our Lady of
An elder Mexican man makes his way to Mass in the early morning twilight of December 9, 1531. He is a peasant, a simple farmer and laborer, and he has no education. Born under Aztec rule, he is a convert to Catholicism, and each step he takes this morning is a step into history.
The morning quiet is broken by a strange music that he will later describe as the beautiful sound of birds. Diverting his path to investigate the sound, Juan Diego comes face to face with a radiant apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Juan Diego is 57 years old. He has just encountered the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill, the site of a former Aztec Temple. His wife has died two years earlier, and he lives with his elder uncle, scratching his living from the earth as a humble peasant farmer. Why should this unlearned, man be chosen by Our Lady to carry a message to the Bishop? Perhaps because she would find none other as humble as Juan Diego.
Juan Diego is dazzled by the incredible beauty and miraculous nature of Our Lady's appearance. She appears as a native princess to him, and her words sound more beautiful than the sweetest music ever made.
Our Lady calms the startled traveler, and assures him of who she is. She instructs Juan Diego to visit his bishop and ask that a temple be built on the site of her appearance, so that she will have a place to hear petitions and to heal the suffering of the Mexican people. "Now go and put forth your best effort," Our Lady instructs.
Visibly shaken, Juan Diego approaches the Bishop who is initially very skeptical of his account. What did this peasant truly want? Does he merely seek attention? Notoriety? Money? Or is he possessed by demons? Has Juan Diego been tricked by the Devil?
The Bishop patiently listens to Juan Diego's accounts and dismisses him. The humble farmer has failed.
Juan Diego begins to doubt himself. He returns to Tepeyac Hill where he hopes for some conformation of what he's experienced. Indeed, Our Lady does not disappoint, for she appears again, as radiant as before. Juan Diego tells Our Lady what she already knows, that the Bishop did not believe him. She instructs him to return the next morning and ask again.
The Bishop is beside himself. Why did this peasant insist on telling this story? How could he know if the peasant was lying or perhaps insane? At their second meeting, the Bishop asks for a sign. Juan Diego makes a promise he won't keep, saying he will return the very next morning with a sign from Our Lady.
But that evening, Juan Diego returns home to find his uncle, Juan Bernadino, who is 68 years old, and suddenly, terribly ill. The illness is known to the people there and it brings a burning fever so hot, it's almost always fatal. Juan Diego cannot leave his uncle's bedside to keep his pledge to the Bishop. He spends two days with his uncle, trying to save him. When it becomes apparent his uncle is about to die, he leaves to find a priest who can prepare him for death.
Frightened and saddened, Juan Diego sets off in a great hurry, time is running out, and Juan Diego is afraid his uncle will die without a last confession. On the road, in his way, Our Lady appears for a third time. Upset and afraid, Juan explains himself. Our Lady replies, "Am I not your mother? ... Are you not in the crossing of my arms?" she asks.
Shamed by the admonishment, but emboldened by Our Lady's presence, Juan Diego asks for the sign he promised to the Bishop. He knows he is wrong to doubt Our Lady. Juan Diego is instructed to climb to the top of Tepeyac Hill where he will find flowers. He is to pick the flowers there, which are unlike any he has seen before, and he is to keep them hidden in his tilma until he reaches the Bishop.
Juan Diego is skeptical again. It's December, what flowers could grow on the summit of the hill in this cold?
Nevertheless, he obeys and atop the hill he finds a great number of flowering roses which he picks and hastily gathers into his cloak.
For the third time, Juan Diego is ushered in to see the Bishop. The skeptical cleric has waited for two days to see what sign Our Lady has for him. Juan opens his tilma, letting the roses cascade to the floor. But more than the roses, both men are astonished to see what is painted on his humble tilma - an exquisite image of Our Lady.
In the image, she stands as she appeared, a native princess with high cheekbones. Her head is bowed and her hands are folded in prayer to God. On her blue cloak, the stars are arranged as they appeared in the morning darkness at the hour of her first apparition.
Under her feet, is a great crescent moon, a symbol of the old Aztec religion. The message is clear, she is more powerful than the Aztec gods, yet she herself is not God.
At the same time Our Lady is appearing to Juan Diego, and directing him to cut the flowers on Tepeyac Hill, she also appears to his uncle, Juan Bernadino who believes he is about to die. As soon as she appears, the fever stops and Juan Bernadino feels well again. She tells Juan Bernadino, she wants to be known as "Santa Maria, de Guadalupe."
Our Lady of Guadalupe did not appear again, for her mission was complete. The temple was built and remains there today, in what is now a suburb of Mexico City. Juan Diego's tilma, woven from cactus fibers, with a shelf-life of just 30 years at best, remains miraculously preserved.
The symbolism of Our Lady's dress is obvious to over eight million Native Mexicans, whom all speak different languages. She is brighter than the sun, more powerful than any Aztec god, yet she is not a god herself, and she prays to one greater than her. Her gown is adorned with stars in the correct position as in the night sky, and the gold fringe of her cloak mirrors the surrounding countryside. Millions of natives will convert at the news of what has happened. Millions more will make pilgrimages over the next five centuries to see the miraculous tilma, and to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe. Great miracles continue to occur, even today.
The origins of the May Crowning are hard to pinpoint, although devotion to our Blessed Mother Mary originates in the earliest days of the church. Concerning the significance of the month of May, toward the end of the 18th century, Father Latomia of the Roman College of the Society of Jesus (in Rome) instituted the practice of dedicating this month to our Blessed Mother. His desire was to promote devotion to Mary among the students.
May probably seemed most appropriate because the liturgical calendars, former and present, mark several feast days honoring our Blessed Mother: Our Lady, Queen of Apostles (the Saturday following the Ascension); Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament (May 13); Our Lady of Fatima (May 13); Mary, Help of Christians (May 24); Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces (May 31); and the Visitation (May 31).
The May devotions also were energized by the four authenticated apparitions of our Blessed Mother. In 1830, Mary appeared to St. Catherine Laboure and instructed her to have the Miraculous Medal struck with the inscription, “Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” In 1846, she appeared to the children of La Salette, France, and tearfully lamented the lax practice of the faith. In 1858, she appeared to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, identifying herself as the “Immaculate Conception.” Finally, she appeared to the three children at Fatima May 13, 1917, where she instructed the people to pray the rosary daily for peace.
Regarding the crowning, the image of Mary (as well as Jesus) wearing a gold crown is found in the earliest forms of iconography, especially in the Eastern Churches. In the West, the pious practice of publicly crowning an image of the Blessed Mother gained popularity in the 19th century. In Rome, the image known as Salus Populi Romani — of our Blessed Mother holding the Child Jesus — is enshrined at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Tradition holds that St. Luke painted the image. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) added two crowns to the icon, which were at some point later lost. Nevertheless, on Aug. 15, 1838, the Feast of the Assumption, Pope Gregory XVI with great solemnity, again added the crowns, and thereupon the practice of crowning the image of the Blessed Mother became popular, especially during the month of May.
In more recent times, Pope Paul VI, in his “Letter on the Occasion of the First of May” (promulgated April 30, 1965), noted not only the venerable tradition of May devotions to Mary, but also their importance: “It is precisely because the month of May is a powerful incentive to more fervent and trusting prayer, and because during it our petitions find their way more easily to the compassionate heart of Our Blessed Lady, that it has been a custom dear to Our Predecessors to choose this month, dedicated to Mary, for inviting the Christian people to offer up public prayers, whenever the needs of the Church demanded it, or whenever danger hovered menacingly over the world. This year, We too … feel the need of sending out a similar appeal to the whole Catholic world. When We look at the present needs of the Church or at the state of peace in the world, We have compelling reasons for believing that the present hour is especially grave; that it makes a call for united prayer from the whole Christian people more than ever a matter of urgency.” Considering the plight of so many Christians who face persecution throughout the world, all of us should use this month for fervent prayer for them.
Also, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, to help celebrate the Marian Year declared by Pope St. John Paul II in 1987 to prepare for the new millenium, issued a ritual, Order of Crowning an Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which captures the significance of this pious practice: “The queen symbol was attributed to Mary because she was a perfect follower of Christ, who is the absolute ‘crown’ of creation. She is the Mother of the Son of God, who is the messianic King. Mary is the Mother of Christ, the Word Incarnate … ‘He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High; the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there will be no end.’ Elizabeth greeted the Blessed Virgin, pregnant with Jesus, as ‘the mother of my Lord.’ Mary is the perfect follower of Christ. The maid of Nazareth consented to God’s plan; she journeyed on the pilgrimage of faith; she listened to God’s Word and kept it in her heart; she remained steadfastly in close union with her Son, all the way to the foot of the Cross; she persevered in prayer with the Church. Thus, in an eminent way, she won the ‘crown of righteousness,’ ‘the crown of life,’ ‘the crown of glory’ that is promised to those who follow Christ.”