According to the legend, in December 9 1531 an indigenous Mexican peasant known as Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Aztec Catholic convert, was crossing the Hill of Tepeyac in a present-day northern suburb of Mexico City, when he came upon a young woman, who claimed to be Mary, the Virgin Mother. She requested that a church in her honour be erected at that site.
Juan Diego reported his vision to the Archbishop in Mexico City, but he was not believed.
The next day, in a second vision, Mary told him to insist on her request. He returned to the archbishop, who suggested that he should return to the hill and request a truly miraculous proof of her identity.
Mary’s response was to instruct him to gather some flowers from the summit of the hill, which was normally barren in mid-winter. There he found some roses growing, a flower not native to Mexico. He gathered some and carried them to the archbishop in his cloak. When he opened his cloak and showed the roses, they found an image of Mary imprinted on the cloth, an image that is venerated to this day in the Basilica de Guadalupe.
Initially, the location of the appearances was marked with a pile of stones and a wooden cross. Eventually a small shrine was built to house the image. In about 1660, the Capilla del Cerrito was constructed, and with the greatly increased number of devout visitors, the first Basilica was added in about 1695. Due to the eventual sinking of the foundations, a new Basilica was completed in 1975.
It was when I lived in Australia in the early 1970’s that a very devout Australian lady told me about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. I became most curious about the legend. I had already been to Lourdes and had in mind to one day go to Fatima, in Portugal, a still unfulfilled ambition. All three locations involved a vision of Mary.
Today, the religious complex at Guadalupe is by far the most revered Catholic site in the Americas, and one of the most visited religious centres in the world. Reputedly, some twenty million people visit the site every year.
My opportunity to visit the site came when I was travelling overland from Panama to the United States in April 1976. Like Lourdes, it seemed to have been taken over by tawdry commercialism, but the churches and chapels were impressive, and the obvious devotion of the visitors was sobering. I left with mixed emotions when I returned to the city.
On the one hand, there was no surviving documentary mention of the apparition until 1648. Indeed, the bishop approached by Juan Diego was not consecrated until some three years after the event, and he made no mention of it in his writings. But of course, it is quite possible that such documentation has been lost or destroyed.
On the other hand, there is so much unexplained about the image. The cloak (tilma) apparently shows no obvious sign of deterioration after almost 600 years. It survived intact from a bomb placed at its foot by an anti-Catholic extremist in 1921, a blast that destroyed much of the interior of the church. According to experts, there is no evidence of brush strokes or protective varnish, and when enlarged, several images can be seen in the eyes of Mary. In the opinion of many who have examined the image, it is inexplicable in human terms.
It is true that the Hill of Tepeyac was formerly the site of a Nahual temple to honour Tonantzin (‘Our Mother’), a Nahual goddess. Could the Catholic Church have chosen the site to convert superstitious Aztec peasants to the new religion, using an invented tale of mysterious appearances and a faked cloak?
What to think? Was it truly a miracle or just a clever hoax of the Catholic Church?
Almost certainly, we may never know, but I feel sure that the academic debate will continue ad finitum.