Monday, December 12, 2011

"Am I not here, who is your mother?"

On November 8, 1519 - only two years after the start of the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe - a Spanish conquistador named Hernando Cortes, led his army into the sprawling city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire in modern-day Mexico. This was the symbolic start of the conquest of Meso-America by the Spanish.

The Spanish conquistadors were seeking fame and fortune. They were accompanied, however, by Catholic missionaries who were seeking to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the indigeonous peoples of Meso-America. For more than a decade, the labor of the Catholic missionaries among the indigenous people was undertaken with few results. The vast majority of Meso-American Indians clung to the gods and customs of their old religion, spurning the efforts of the Catholic missionaries.

That all changed in 1531.

In that year on December 9 (the day on which the Immaculate Conception was celebrated within the Spanish Empire at that time), according to tradition, an indigenous peasant who had accepted Christianity had a miraculous vision of a beautiful young woman. The man's Christian name was Juan Diego and the vision took place on a hill called Tepeyac, in the desert just outside of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City).

The lady who appeared to Juan Diego was dark-skinned and spoke in the native tongue of the local Indians and she asked Juan Diego to build a church on the spot where he was standing. She identified herself as "Mary, the ever Virgin Mother of the true God." Over the next few days, she appeared four times to Juan Diego, persisting to ask that the bishop build a church on top of the hill. Juan Diego was to be her messenger to the bishop, but the bishop refused to listen to him unless he was given some sign from heaven. Finally, on December 12th, Mary granted them a sign by causing roses to appear at the sight, which she instructed Juan Diego to gather in his tilma, and take to the bishop. The tilma that Juan Diego wore was a traditional outer garment worn by Meso-American men at the time. It was rough-hewn, made of agave (cactus) fibers, and it served as both a cloak and as an apron, useful for carrying items.

At Mary's insistence, Juan Diego gathered the roses from on top of the hill and took them to the bishop's palace in the city, thinking that the roses (miraculously blooming in December) were the sign the bishop would need to heed her requests for a church to be built. Upon reaching the chambers of the bishop and unfurling his tilma, however, the bishop responded not to the roses, but to the tilma itself which had miraculously come to bear a colorful image of Our Lady - an image of Mary that we now know as "Our Lady of Guadalupe."

The rest, as they say, is history. A small chapel was built on top of the hill to house the miraculous image of Our Lady on Juan Diego's tilma and, with almost immediate effect, the indigenous peoples who had spurned the missionaries for more than a decade began to accept the Gospel of Christ. Within a few short years, there was a flood of indigenous Christian converts entering the Church. It was truly miraculous.

At the time of the apparition, there was no Mexico. Much later (in the early 19th century), Our Lady of Guadalupe was adopted by those who initiated calls for Mexican independence from Spanish rule. But the importance of Our Lady of Guadalupe reaches far beyond any particular culture or group of people. She appeared to Juan Diego more than three centuries before her appearance to Bernadette in Lourdes, France and long before her appearance to the three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. Her appearance to Juan Diego was a clarion call which firmly established the Catholic faith in the Americas, so she belongs to all Americans - from Greenland to Chile. She is rightly called the Patroness of the Americas. In fact, in 1946, Pope Pius XII gave her this exact title.

She is also the Patroness of the Unborn. In the image, Our Lady appears with a black sash tied around her waist  - a traditional sign of being with child in pre-hispanic, Meso-American culture. In other words, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the earliest-known depictions of Mary pregnant with her Divine Son. This is why Our Lady of Guadalupe has become an important symbol of the Pro-life movement.

So, today, celebrate the miraculous appearance of Our Lady here in the Americas. Throughout the centuries, she calls to all of us in the Americas to turn towards her Son and to live the Gospel. As she told St. Juan Diego so many years ago, she still gives us her "...love, compassion, help, and protection, because [she is] the merciful mother ... to all the inhabitants of this land."