In April 1965, I was sent to Mexico City to finalize my language training for one month before finally arriving in Peru on May 1 as a Papal Volunteer for Latin America (PAVLA). As Mary would have it, she made sure that I be placed with a family in a neighborhood about a fifteen minute walk from the great shrine of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe). It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I went there every day. It seems that since my mother and I dedicated our lives to Mary when I was in 7th Grade (about 12 years old), I seemed to stumble on one Marian shrine after another all over the world, especially in the Americas. I wrote z series of two articles from Lima, Peru May 1965. The second is below.
During the ten years after the conquest of Mexico in 1521, evangelization of the Indians was painfully slow. Only about 30,000, a small fraction or .4% were converted. Juan Diego was one of the few. The Indians resented their treatment by the Spanish conquerors. Strife and unrest increased. Bishop Zumarragua feared a big uprising and a blood bath. He turned to Mary for help. She answered his prayer through Juan Diego in spectacular fashion on December 12, 1531. The Indians could immediately relate to the image of Mary, which was full of symbols they could easily understand. Mother Mary adapted to the Aztec culture by appearing in the dress of an Aztec princess. She seemed to be one of them and their mother too. Suddenly, they could relate to the Church her son founded. In the short span of seven years the message of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe brought 8,000,000 Mexican Indians to the fold and thus firmly established the faith in our hemisphere.
The question then arises: Exactly what does the image convey through its many symbols to millions of Indians having the same gods, but 22 different languages?
It is interesting to note a parallel between the image and Indian customs and culture. The Aztecs wrote their histories by painting on cloth and in their codices used drawings and symbols instead of letters. The figure of Nuestra Senora is shown blotting out the sun which they adored. Only its rays are visible. Thus the human figure of la Madre de Dios is shown as greater than their sun which therefore could not be God.
Another important diety was Quetzalcoatl, the comet or sky serpent. According to one theory (Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky), there actually was a great comet which passed close to Earth about 4,000 years ago and caused great destruction. The image of Mary convinced the Indians that they would no longer have to make human sacrifices to appease it. The sky serpent is represented as a crescent charred by the flames which destroyed it. In addition la Virgin Santa Maria is shown standing upon the crescent in the same manner as she is depicted standing upon another serpent over 300 years later as the Immaculate Conception.
The mantle of Nuestra Senora is blue green, which was the Indian color symbol for divine or precious things. By covering it with stars, God showed them that the celestial bodies which they adored were not gods, but instead were created to serve His creatures. Another interesting fact may be added about the 130 foot hill of Tepeyac on which la Santisima Virgin appeared. Prior to the arrival of Cortez, the conquistador, this region was dedicated to the worship of the goddess, Teotenantzen which means Mother of God.
After studying her figure, the Indians were sure that she had been an inhabitant of earth at one time. Having made herself visible to Juan Diego proved that the human soul is immortal. Her image also taught them that Maria Santisima is not a goddess. While supported by an angel, her hands are folded in supplication-- indicating that she is interceding for us at the throne of the true invisible God.
On her neck a small golden brooch with a black cross identifies Nuestra Senora with the cross which the Indians had seen on the banners of Hernando Cortez's troops. It convinced them that they should embrace the religion of their conquerors. Thus in great numbers they eagerly sought the missionaries in order to learn about the meaning of this cross. These Indians were astounded to hear that the Son of God had offered Himself as human sacrifice for their salvation especially since they for years had offered slaves and prisoners of war as human sacrifices to their pagan god.
The mantle was handwoven from the fibers of the maguey cactus plant, which has a lifespan of only twenty years. Since the material is rough, very absorbent, and has a large seam running through the middle; it is most unsuitable for painting. Through the years it has been exposed to acid, thousands of people touching it, and the smoke of countless candles. Yet the colors have a bright freshness instead of the expected dull and dark colors so common to other paintings of the period.
In 1921 a terrorist hid a stick of dynamite in a bouquet of flowers and placed it within three feet of the image. Marble blocks were torn out of the altar; every window was broken; and a brass crucifix now on display was badly deformed (see above photo). In addition a painting of St. James behind the image was destroyed. Yet not even a crack appeared in the glass covering as the image was left completely intact. Through all of this the image has survived and is beautifully preserved over the main altar almost as it actually was nearly a century before the Mayflower touched our coast. Can it be then, that this divine work of art also has a message and a significance particularly applicable to our modern but chaotic times?
Investigations by artists show that no one of this world could have painted such a work. The cloth had never been prepared for painting; even gold adheres to the rough cloth with no fixative. The fibers are not penetrated; and not even a brush mark could be found. In his study of thousands of paintings throughout the world, Professor Francisco Camps Riberia could find no technique or process that approached the image. Unusual is the fact that the image seems larger and the colors even more vigorous at a distance.
This image is the only authentic portrait of our lady. It corresponds very well to the only known detailed description of Mary's features made in 1821. This is described in the book, “The Life of the Blessed virgin Mary From the Visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich”. A painting later discovered in the catacombs also is similar to the image. The height of the Virgin in the image measures four feet eight inches which was probably her actual height. Her features are not really those of an Indian maiden and while her color is slightly tan, it is not dark.
It would be appropriate to close by quoting Nuestra Senora's own words which perhaps have particular application to our work with its not infrequent frustrations. Here Juan Diego, as we so often do, is so involved in the worries of this life and the illness of his uncle that he forgets to keep his appointment with Nuestra Senora. Thus in her last appearance she said to the 57 year old Indian:
“Hear and let it penetrate into your heart, my dear little son: Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance. Also do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety, or pain. Am I not here who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle-- in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need? (Que mas te falta?)”
Once again la Madre de Dios personally reiterates her maternal function in the Church as the mother of each one of us individually. Can she be any more precise, tender, and loving in her declaration?
Note: Acknowledgments are due to Helen Behrens for much of the information in this article. Her fascinating booklet, “America's Treasure” together with a wealth of slides, pictures, and other material in English as well as Spanish is available from her English Information Center at Apartado 26732. Furthermore, I enjoyed so much talking to her and listening to Helen's explanations. May she rest in peace.