Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe stems from her appearances in the 16th century outside Mexico City to Juan Diego (1478-1548), an Indian peasant in the Aztec Empire.

A convert to Catholicism about six years before, Juan Diego was a pious man. He rose well before dawn every Saturday and Sunday to walk barefoot three and a half hours for Mass and religious instruction.

In 1531, Juan Diego told the local bishop he had seen the Blessed Virgin on a hill near his home. The bishop didn't believe him, so Juan Diego asked Mary for a sign.

The Virgin directed him to a place on the hill where, amid the December snow, he found a rosebush in bloom. He collected some of the unseasonal roses in his tilma and returned to the bishop's residence.

When Juan opened his tilma, the roses fell — revealing to the stunned bishop an image of Mary impressed on the interior surface of the rough cloth.

The image — which scientists still can't explain how it was done — depicts Mary as a dark-skinned woman. The Virgin of Guadalupe was an immediate draw for the Indians, who clung to her as their special patroness.

Since then, her jurisdiction has expanded. In 1746, her patronage was extended to all of New Spain, which stretches from what is now El Salvador to Northern California. In 1757 she was declared patroness of the citizens of Ciudad Ponce in Puerto Rico.

In 1910 Pope Pius X declared the Virgin of Guadalupe patroness of Latin America. Pope Pius XI extended her patronage to the Philippines in 1935. In 1946, Pius XII made her patroness of all the Americas.

In 1988, the liturgical celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe was raised to the status of a feast in all U.S. dioceses.

Next May 21, Pope John Paul II is expected to canonize Juan Diego in Rome. The Pope is also expected to beatify 20 Mexican martyrs and a Mexican nun.

Peter Sonski, communications director at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., noted that when Mary appeared to Juan Diego, none of the current national boundaries in the Americas had yet been drawn. He also observed that Tepeyac hill is roughly in the middle of the Americas, between north and south, east and west.

“Certainly she has had a longer identity with people from Mexico or of Hispanic origin,” Sonski said of the Virgin. “But she is really a mother and a patroness for everyone in the American continent.”

In the Virgin of Guadalupe, Pope John Paul sees God reaching out to man in his local conditions. In his January post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), he stated:

“The appearance of Mary to the native Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531 had a decisive effect on evangelization. Its influence greatly overflows the boundaries of Mexico, spreading to the whole Continent. America, which historically has been, and still is, a melting-pot of peoples, has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac, in Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization. Consequently, not only in Central and South America, but in North America as well, the Virgin of Guadalupe is venerated as Queen of all America” (No. 11).

—Matt McDonald