In his 1999 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pope St. John Paul II referred to Our Lady of Guadalupe as the “Patroness of all America and Star of the first and new evangelization” (Ecclesia in America (EA), 11). In referring to her as the Star of the New Evangelization the Holy Father was calling to mind the profound effect on the evangelization of Mexico after her appearance to St. Juan Diego in 1531 and her guiding role in evangelization today. With the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe upon us, it is instructive to look at least two ways in which we can look to her to guide us.
The first is that Our Lady uses lay people who are specially devoted to her as instruments in the spreading of the message of Guadalupe.
At the time of the apparitions, the spreading of the Gospel to the Mexican people was largely unsuccessful. Even though Cortes demolished all the blood soaked temples where human sacrifice to demons was going on, conversion was virtually non-existent because of a deeply rooted paganism. Further slowing the process was a fundamental mistrust among the native peoples of the Spaniards because of abuse at the hands of the First Audience, the five administrators appointed by Charles V after Cortes returned to Spain. Charles V also appointed Bishop Juan Zumarraga as the first bishop of the new world and the Bishop worked to protect the Indians against the harsh rule. This brought the Bishop himself and his friars under persecution that he described as “worse than that of Herod and Diocletian.” Eventually he was able to smuggle a message back to Charles V he immediately replaced Guzman with a Second Audience headed by Bishop Don Sebastian Ramirez y Fuenleal. Knowing that the Aztecs were about to take up arms against the Spaniards Bishop Zumarraga begged Our Lady to intervene. Secretly he asked her to send him some Castilian roses as a sign of her intercession.
Enter Juan Diego, a simple farmer who was on his way to Mass one Sunday. When he passed a small hill named Tepeyac, six 6 miles north of Mexico City and the location of a former temple to the great mother god Torantzin (whose head was a combination of serpent heads and dress a mass of writhing serpents), he began to hear music and the voice of a woman bidding him to come to the top of the hill. She told him she was the Virgin Mary and that he was to present himself to the Bishop and ask him to build a Church on the hill. After two visits the Bishop and two additional apparitions, she eventually gave him the sign the Bishop had asked for in the form of roses and the beautiful image on the tilma (more on this below).
What makes St. Juan Diego a model for our collaboration with Our Lady’s work of evangelization is what he did after the apparitions. He was appointed as custodian of the chapel on Tepeyac where the image was kept and he tirelessly explained the significance of the image to wave after wave of pilgrims. He emphasized the providential location of the apparition as formerly the site of pagan temple and this had such an effect on them that they referred to the image as Teonantzin (God’s Mother). It was His ability to re-tell his story in the Indian language that served as a major source of conversion. In fact when many of the Indians presented themselves to the missionary priests for instruction and baptism they had already been converted.
A major obstacle to the spread of the New Evangelization has been a lingering clericalism. Our Lady of Guadalupe shows us what happens when lay people live their vocation in the Church properly and when clerics live theirs. Juan Diego, despite being a widower, did not become a priest. Instead he remained as a lay person and embraced his role as the primary evangelizer of the pilgrims that came to the chapel to venerate the image. It was only after they had been evangelized that he sent them to the missionary priests for further instruction to prepare them for the sacraments. Like St. Juan Diego, laity need to see themselves as the primary evangelizers of culture. We cannot abdicate that role to priests and bishops but instead must embrace it.
When the laity are living out their vocation to evangelize those outside the confines of the Church (and even those who need it within the Church), Priests and Bishops are able to focus on tending their flock through catechesis and the Sacraments. They also will not feel the need to abdicate this role in order to change the culture. They can comfortably focus on the formation and sanctification of the laity and support them in their mission to the world. I dare say that Bishop Zumarraga and his friar priests understood that their role should be to support Juan Diego in his evangelizing mission and they reaped the fruit of it, sometimes baptizing up to 6000 people day—most of whom they had not evangelized.
The second lesson we can learn from Our Lady of Guadalupe is the power of images.
Like our culture today, the Aztec culture was one of the image. In his account of the apparitions, the missionary Fernando de Alva Ixtilxochitl recalled:
“The Indians submerged in profound darkness, still loved and served false little gods, clay figurines and images of our enemy the devil in spite of having heard about the faith…But when they heard that the Holy Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ had appeared and since they saw and admired her most perfect Image, which has no human art their eyes were opened as if suddenly day had dawned on them.”
The devil in inspiring the creation of the little idols knew that the Indians found them visually appealing and he exploited that even after the destruction of the temples and human sacrifice. That is why Our Lady did not haphazardly leave the image on St. Juan Diego’s tilma but instead every element was wrought with meaning. The people were familiar with using glyphs rather than written language and so Our Lady offered them an evangelizing image. Not only is it edifying for us to discover the meaning of this image but it increases our reliance upon her (for more detail on the image, see Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Civilization of Love by Carl Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez).
- Clouds — in the image, the Virgin is surrounded by clouds, showing that she is from heaven. The indigenous greeted people they believed came from God with the expression: “Among fog and among clouds.” which is why Montezuma thought Cortes a god at first when his ships came through the fog into the Gulf of Mexico.
- Sun —golden rays from the second sun, behind her, signify that she is the “Mother of Light” and greater than the dreadful Aztec sun god, Huitzilopchtli, whom she eclipses.
- Cross medallion — around her neck, Mary wears a gold medallion engraved with a cross. For indigenous people, the medallion symbolized consecration, so the medallion around Mary’s neck meant that she was consecrated to Jesus. It was also the same black Cross that appeared on the banners and helmets of the Spanish soldiers.
- Hands — the indigenous people expressed prayer not only by the hands, but by the whole body. In the image on the tilma, Our Lady of Guadalupe is shown in a position of dancing prayer, with her knee bent in movement. Presented in the position of prayer, it would have shown that despite the fact that she was greater than all the Aztec gods and goddesses, she herself was not God.
- Mantle and tunic — Mary’s rose-tinted, flowery tunic symbolizes the earth, while her turquoise, starry mantle represents the heavens. The mantle also indicates that she is royalty since only the native emperors wore cloaks of that color.
- Moon — the Virgin stands on a crescent moon. The Aztec word for Mexico, “Metz-xic-co,” means “in the center of the moon.” She is standing upon it as their mother. The moon also symbolizes the Aztec moon god, fertility, birth and life. This was the serpent-god Quetzalcoatl.
- Angel — an angel with eagle’s wings appears below Mary’s feet. According to Aztec belief, an eagle delivered the hearts and the blood of sacrificial victims to the gods. The angel holds up the pregnant Virgin, signifying that the child in her womb is the offering that pleases God and only those with eagles wings could go to god
- Black ribbon — the black ribbon around Mary’s waist shows that she is expecting a child. For the Aztecs, the trapezoid-shaped ends of the ribbon also represented the end of one cycle and the birth of a new era.
- Four-petaled jasmine — the only four-petaled flower on Mary’s tunic appears over her womb. The four-petaled jasmine represents the Aztecs’ highest deity, Ometéotl. It shows that she is carrying the true deity within her womb.
- Flowers — nine golden flowers, symbolizing life and truth, adorn Mary’s dress. The flowers are made up of glyphs representing a hill and a river. The indigenous people considered hills the highest points of encounter between God and people. Viewed upside down, the flowers take the shape of hearts with arteries coming out, representing life, which originates from God and that sustains creation not by blood of sacrifice but shedding of His own blood.
One of the most amazing things about the image is the eyes. In the eyes of Mary miniscule human figures were discovered. Using digital technology, the images in the eyes were enlarged many times, revealing that each eye reflected the figure of the Indian Juan Diego opening his tilma in front of Bishop Zumarraga. Obviously no merely human artist could have painted these.
With nearly 9 million converts in 8 years (that’s an average of 3260 per day), this approach can be a very powerful force. I have written about the importance of evangelizing the culture through media before, but I want to re-emphasize just how important that is. Ultimately the grip that pornography has on many men (and an increasing number of women) is like the little idols that the natives in Mexico turned to. But the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe also offered a antidote the fear from the horrific images of human sacrifices that they had all seen. We are surrounded by violent images all day long and it creates a culture of anxiety and ultimately distraction. As Christians we need to offer different images to the culture—one based on what is objectively beautiful not beauty that has been objectified. Only Catholics truly know the difference.
In closing, it cannot be emphasized enough how much we can do when we give ourselves over to the hands of Our Lady. On the day of the third apparition, Juan Diego’s uncle grew deathly ill. Rather than turning to her to help him, he avoided Tepeyac hill and sought help elsewhere. When he came close, she came down the hill and confronted him saying,
“Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest son, that what frightened you, what afflicted you, is nothing; do not let it disturb your face, your heart; do not fear this sickness nor any other sickness, nor any sharp and hurtful thing. Am I not here, I who have the honor to be your Mother? Are you not in my shadow and under my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need something more?”
The gentle rebuke is for all of us. We may be anxious about our culture, but for those who in her shadow and protection, we have nothing to fear. It is ultimately she who will help us lead our culture back to her Son. In fact, Pope St. John Paul II called upon Catholics in the Americas to rely on the power of Our Lady of Guadalupe to evangelize the culture. “In America, the mestiza face of the Virgin of Guadalupe was from the start a symbol of the inculturation of the Gospel, of which she has been the lodestar and the guide. Through her powerful intercession, the Gospel will penetrate the hearts of the men and women of America and permeate their cultures, transforming them from within” (EA, 70).