“Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the fountain of your joy?” These are the words that the Blessed Virgin Mary spoke to Juan Diego in December 1531 on the very site that a church and shrine now stand in her honor — and which are remembered each Dec. 12.
Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Catholicism, first encountered the Blessed Virgin on Tepeyac Hill, a rural area north of what was then Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). The Virgin appeared to Juan Diego and told him that she wanted a church built on the very spot she was standing so that the entire world could know of her compassion. She instructed him to tell the bishop of Tenochtitlan.
So the simple peasant immediately rushed to the bishop’s office, where he was wary of the rural farmer’s story. Discouraged, Juan returned to the spot where the Virgin was waiting for him. She again ordered him to return to the bishop and share her request. The bishop, still skeptical, requested a sign.
Consequently, the Lady told Juan to cut the roses that were growing behind him and offer them to the bishop. When he turned around, he saw a rose bush that had not been there before — and it was in full bloom, despite the winter season. So Juan stuffed the white roses in his tilma, or poncho, and headed directly to the bishop.
At the bishop’s office, he opened his tilma, and the roses fell out on the floor. But what was most surprising to both men was seeing an image of the Virgin — just as Diego had been describing her — imprinted on his tilma. At last, the bishop had his sign.
Construction on a church began in the same year of the apparitions. In 1709, construction was finally complete. In 1904, Pope Pius X granted the church the status of a basilica. Today, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is one of the most visited pilgrim sites in all of Catholicism.
Due to various construction difficulties, the basilica has been sinking into the ground ever since its completion. Between 1974 and 1976, a modern basilica was built a few yards away to host more visitors and to ensure a firmer foundation for the church.
Today, both the modern and old Basilicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as the Chapel of the Angels, located on the hill of the apparitions, receive several million visitors each year. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tilma hangs high above the altar of the modern basilica and remains fully intact, despite a bomb attempt in 1921, smoke and incense damage, and the weak material of the cactus fiber.
I arrived on the basilica grounds on a bright, sun-filled morning — typical Mexico weather. In 1531, the Tepayac Hill area was not a part of Mexico City, but as the city has grown and expanded over the years, it is now part of the capital city, which ranks as one of the largest cities in the world.
It’s about a 10-minute walk from the metro to the basilica grounds. This walk, however, is no average journey. Despite the many street vendors selling rosaries and statues, this walk becomes a time of pilgrimage and prayer for many and is best used to prepare one’s heart and mind to enter such a holy place.
This visit was only my second visit to a Marian site — the other being the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue du Bac in Paris. While my visit to that French chapel was a grace-filled occasion, there is a special devotion to Mary that one encounters in Mexico that is likely to be unrivaled anywhere else in the world.
If I were asked to choose one word to describe what I witnessed at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it would be “humility.” The Mexican people naturally have a humble disposition that is only magnified when entering into the presence of Our Lady. For them, there is a great recognition of the grace and compassion that she gives to those who are faithful — and the need that all of us have to receive these gifts. Visitors here would do well to recognize this essential virtue of the Mexican faithful and pray for the grace to emulate it in their own lives.
The main attraction is Mass in the modern basilica, which takes place each hour. Here, people enter from all backgrounds, from every region of the world, to bring their intentions to the one who is “full of grace.” Our Lady of Guadalupe’s shrine illustrates the real and visible unity of that which is the Catholic Church — a home of both saints and sinners in search of grace and truth.
While at noon Mass during my visit, I could not help but reflect on the almost 500 years of devotion to the Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
How could such devotion come from an uneducated peasant’s experience of her? While it may seem simple and obvious, the only reason I can offer is because she is, indeed, real and present.
As I bowed my head in prayer, joining together with the 10,000 other pilgrims present, I reflected back on the words that Our Lady first spoke to Juan Diego: “Am I not here who am your Mother?”
Yes, I concluded, she is very much here. I then asked for the same gift of faith that Juan Diego had so many years ago.
Christopher White writes from New York.