The Maternal Meaning of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Mary’s words were spoken to St. Juan Diego but meant for all of us: ‘Am I not your mother? Do you need anything more?’

The old and new basilicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe are seen from Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City.
The old and new basilicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe are seen from Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City. (photo: WitR / Shutterstock)

I am intrigued by Marian apparitions and love to meditate on their details and significance. When Mary appears, she bears a message that is pertinent to the people and circumstances not only of that time, but for all time. It seems to me that there is a common thread among the apparitions — the call to convert, repent, and to pray the Rosary. The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, however, is different from the others.

On Dec. 9, 1531, Our Lady appeared on the hill of Tepeyac to an Indian named Juan Diego, a 57-year-old widower who lived in a small village just outside of Mexico City. At the time of the apparition, Juan Diego was on his way to attend Mass in honor of Mary at a nearby Franciscan church. As he passed the hill, he heard a lovely song that seemed as though it was coming from a multitude of birds. When he looked up, he saw a brilliant white cloud. Suddenly the song stopped, and he heard a woman’s voice calling him.

Climbing to the top of the hill, he saw a beautiful young woman who began speaking to him in his native language. She identified herself as the Virgin Mary, “Mother of the true God from whom all life comes, the Lord of all things, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” Unlike other apparitions, at Tepeyac Mary appeared in the form of an Indian dressed like an Aztec princess. What’s more, she was pregnant.

Her instructions to Juan Diego are in many ways like those of other appearances, but there are distinct differences. She told him:

I greatly desire that a church be built in my honor, in which I will show my love, compassion, and protection. I am your Mother full of mercy and love for you and all those who love me, trust me, and have recourse to me. I will hear their complaints and I will comfort their affliction and their sufferings.

In 16th-century Mexico, the Aztec people were deeply steeped in the darkness of idolatry. They believed that their fertility god had transformed himself into a ferocious god. He became a symbol of the sun who was in continuous battle with the moon and stars. Only human blood could restore his strength and keep him alive. This caused the Aztecs to adopt the practice of offering human sacrifice by which the victim’s hearts were torn from their bodies and raised up to the god while still beating. Countless Aztecs lost their lives in this manner.

Interestingly, Mary’s words in the apparition contained no note of caution like there was at Fatima, Portugal, for example. She told the shepherd children in 1917:

If people attend to my requests, Russia will be converted, and the world will have peace. If not, she [Russia] will scatter her errors throughout the world, provoking wars, and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, and various nations will be destroyed.

At Lourdes, France, in 1858, Mary spoke to Bernadette Soubirous, calling for repentance:

Penance! Penance! Penance! Pray to God for sinners. Go, kiss the ground for the conversion of sinners.

And at Champion, Wisconsin, in 1859, Mary told Adele Brise:

Make a general confession and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.

This was not the case at Tepeyac Hill, where our Lady came as a gentle mother offering comfort and protection to the people of Mexico who were enveloped in paganism, human sacrifice and other atrocities. She wanted a church built on the hill for one purpose alone: To have a place, a home, in which she could show her love for the people in their affliction.

For me, this is the essence of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Without a doubt, there is an aspect of her motherhood and comfort in all the Marian apparitions. But it seems to me that at Tepeyac Hill there is a stronger emphasis on the alleviation of suffering. Mary came to gather her children into her motherly love and protection. Through that gesture, 9 million Indians were converted to Christianity within the following nine years and conversions have continued since.

There are many ways to look at the fact that, in the apparition, Mary was pregnant. This has become a significant symbol for the pro-life cause, and rightly so. Mary bore a Child with a great mission; every mother bears a child with a great mission, albeit not as momentous. When taken in the context of the entire apparition, it is for me a symbol of Mary as the Christ-bearer who brings comfort and salvation to the people. It also reminds me that she “bore” and spiritually gave birth to me at the Annunciation when she agreed to become the Mother of Christ and, subsequently, all God’s children.

The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is rich in meaning, and that meaning will be different for everyone. Regardless of the meaning we derive, the truth remains. On Dec. 9, 1531, Mary touched the earth in a visible way and with a powerful message for all people of all time.