December 12, 2008


Juan Diego’s miraculous tilma

Today, Dec. 12, is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Last Tuesday, Dec. 9, was the feast of St. Juan Diego.

Anyone who doubts that miracles occur should go to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and see the image of Our Lady on Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak.

A miracle is defined as the transcending of a law of nature resulting in an unexplained occurrence that glorifies God. Just the fact that Juan Diego’s tilma continues to hang there today must be considered a miracle.

It was made from the maguey cactus plant, a material that resembles burlap, and would normally deteriorate in 20 or 30 years. Yet today it shows no signs of deterioration. It also is not suitable for a painting since it has no sizing. No artist would have chosen it.

Furthermore, artists who have examined it closely cannot explain why the colors show no sign of fading. They remain as brilliant as ever. The image in the painting does not penetrate the threads of the cloth, but lies on top of it like the emulsion of a photographic print. It can be nothing short of miraculous.

The appearance of Our Lady to Juan Diego in 1531, and her miraculous image on his tilma, resulted in the conversion to Christianity of about 8 million indigenous natives within a few years.

The Indians saw in Juan Diego’s tilma a catechism leading them to the true God. The image of the lady with the robes she wore, the angel below her, the moon she stood on, the other details in the painting, all had a meaning for the natives.

It was especially significant to the Indians that the Mother of God chose a humble 57-year-old Aztec Indian peasant to spread the faith of the people who had conquered them. Juan Diego was among the first Christian converts after the Franciscans arrived in 1523. He was baptized and received his Christian name, along with his wife, Maria Lucia, and his uncle, Juan Bernardino, when he was 48. Maria Lucia died in 1529, and Juan Diego lived with his uncle.

Juan Diego was headed to Mass on Dec. 9, 1531. As he reached the top of a hill called Tepeyac, he first heard music and then saw a beautiful lady who called his name. She identified herself as “the ever-Virgin Mary, the Mother of the true God,” and said that she wanted a temple to be built on Tepeyac hill, the site of a shrine to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin.

Juan hurried to see Father Juan de Zumarraga, the Franciscan priest who had been appointed bishop but who had not yet been consecrated. He listened to Juan Diego with considerable doubt, as anyone might do when someone says he or she has seen a vision of Mary. He told Juan Diego to ask the lady for some sign.

Mary met Juan again on Tuesday, Dec. 12. She told him to go to the top of the hill and to cut the roses he would find there, and gather them in his tilma.

Although there had never been roses at the top of Tepeyac hill, especially in December, Juan found them there. He cut them and took them to Mary, who carefully rearranged them in his tilma. She then instructed him to take them to the bishop.

When he was allowed to see the bishop, Juan opened his tilma to show the bishop the flowers. Bishop-elect Zumarraga fell to his knees because on Juan’s tilma was the painting that still hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe today.

Bishop Zumarraga immediately ordered the construction of a chapel to house Juan Diego’s tilma. The small chapel was enlarged in 1557, a basilica was built in 1709 and the present basilica was completed in 1976.

After the first chapel was built, Juan Diego lived in a one-room adobe hut next to it. He died there in 1548 at age 74 and was buried at the base of Tepeyac hill.

Our Lady of Guadalupe was designated patroness of Latin America by Pope St. Pius X in 1910 and patroness of all the Americas by Pope Pius XII in 1945.

As we remember St. Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe, may their feast days remind us of the miraculous growth of the Church in the Americas.

—John F. Fink

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