Ten years after Hernando Cortez conquered Mexico for the world, Our Lady began her conquest of Mexico and all of the Americas for her Divine Son's world when she chose a simple peasant to convey one of the greatest miracles in the history of apparitions. On a frosty December morning in 1531 Juan Diego, a 51-year-old Aztec peasant. Juan and his wife, whose name is not recorded, were recent converts to Catholicism due to the influence of the Spanish evangelization which Cortez brought with him from Spain.
Spain had been one of the few countries in Europe who had been protected from the onslaught of "enlightenment" which ushered in the Protestant Revolt in the early 16th Century. Thanks to the safeguards taken by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and the steady hand of the Spanish Inquisition which prevented revolt by strict vigilance, the True Faith was preserved and spread to the New World in waves of Spanish priests who accompanied the Conquistadors. These Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite Orders, as well as the Jesuits, played a pivotal role in the conversion of Central and South America. It was Isabella who financed Christopher Columbus's historic journey to the New Indies in 1492 and oversaw the activities of Cortez throughout the early 1500's as the Spanish Conqueror overcame the forces of Montezuma, toppling the pagan Aztec and Mayan nations and subsequently their over-riding culture, as they gradually faded into the archives of history and artifacts, replaced by the strength of the Church and the inculturation of Spain from her language to her customs.
Catholicism had taken root in Mexico, especially around Mexico City, yet the Aztecs did not go quietly. For years they had offered human sacrifice to their gods; Quetzocoetl - the bird and serpent god being the main one. This pagan practice had taken its toll in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands reaching into the millions. This was one of the main reasons Our Blessed Mother came in 1531, to stop the human sacrifice; both with the pagan Aztec traditions and the senseless slaughter of the Conquistadors who had cut a swath of blood across Mexico on Cortez' march to Mexico City from the Gulf. By exemplifying a gentler, Christ-like nature, not only would the native peoples understand what the missionaries were conveying, but also remind the Spanish soldiers of their roots and prompt them to repent of their warring ways.
Into this atmosphere Our Lady chose Juan Diego to impart her message and give to him the on-going miracle of the miraculous tilma worn by Juan on the day of the apparition. In the nature of replacing the ridiculous with the sublime, Blessed Mary asked Juan to have a chapel or church built on the site where there had been an Aztec shrine. This site was the hill of Tepeyac. She asked him to go to the local bishop with this request. One can imagine the bishop's first reaction when he encountered this poor Indian approaching him...and then telling him why he was there. No one should be surprised at the Bishop's response. Bishop Zumarraga demanded a sign that this message Juan brought was truly Heaven-sent. Needless to say, Juan was intimidated and disheartened. He didn't even want to go back to the hill, but through the grace of the Holy Spirit there he was again the next day - December 12th, trembling on Tepeyac Hill both from the winter chill and in trepidation of what he would tell the Blessed Virgin and what, in turn, she would ask him to do. In the custom of the people of his day, Juan was dressed in simple pants and a shirt, sandals, a straw short-visored sombrero and a tilma, which was a scapular-like garment made from a versatile and strong-fibred cactus plant indigenous to this region. Shivering as he waited, he almost did not notice the light and the gentle whisp of wind as Our Lady hovered near the top of the hill. He moved closer and Our Lady sought to allay his fears, bidding him come closer and tell her the Bishop's reaction though she already knew. Juan related his encounter and the need for an outward sign. Our Lady responded with the request that he pick the roses growing out of the rough, semi-frozen tundra of Tepeyac. Juan was aghast to find rich red roses in full bloom and he quickly stooped to pick as many of these rich beauties as he could, gathering them in the full of his front tilma, then pulling it up against his chest to protect them in a pouch-like fashion; then scurrying off to present this "sign" to the Monsignor Zumarraga. Panting and nearly out of breath, he reached the Episcopo alerting the guards outside. His insistance to see the Bishop brought rebuffs from those in the outer circle who thought it odd that an Aztec peasant should be so bold, yet through the grace of God Juan was admitted to the Bishop's chambers and there excitedly exclaimed, "I have the sign, your Excellency!" Impatient, doubting and yet curious, Zumarraga beckoned Juan to approach him. Blessed Diego came near the foot of the Bishop and knelt in reverence as he unrolled his tilma. Juan's eyes were fixed on the fresh petals that tumbled to the floor and did not see the shock and amazement on the Bishop's face as his vision was transfixed on the image he beheld emblazoned on Juan's poor, fragmented tilma. To this day one can see at the Shrine an mega-sized enlargement of Our Lady's eye on the tilma. In the eye, one can see the reflection of the Bishop and his entourage as they stared in disbelief. While transfixed in this incredibility, Juan straightened up and, at once, realized the true miracle Our Lady had endowed. There on his tilma was an image of how she had appeared to him just hours before, in full color.
She had appeared to Juan not as Our Lady of Grace, or as a European-kind of visage, but as an Aztec woman standing on the moon, dressed in a finely detailed full-flowing dress or garment that symbolized many of the Aztec traditions. It was an image that would be accepted by the native Indians of this land moreso than the European icons of the Virgin the Spanish had brought with them. As always the Mother of God has a method to her message and the message conveyed stirred the Bishop to a reconversion and a rededication to evangelizing and serving the Indians while preaching the reason for Our Lady's visit. The results, guided by God, spread faster than the December wind blowing across the Mexican terrain. Within a short time, countless native Indians had been brought into Holy Mother Church's fold. To top that, almost instantly the people realized the error of their ways in the ancient Aztec ways of human sacrifice and abandoned the practice. The population flourished and as the Church dwindled in the Old World due to the erosion of the Protestant Reformation, the pendulum of plentitude swung to the New World in graces and conversions. It was the beginning of a reverence and veneration that would be carried through every generation up through today that sometimes even borders on the extreme. This is said in light of two visits to Mexico City in December by this author when he beheld thousands of devout Mexican people making their annual pilgrimage to the shrine on their knees, no matter the weather conditions. In contrast, the cab drivers and merchants festooned their vehicles and places of business with mardi gras-like decorations honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe. Always, the reverence and love for Mary is prevalent south of the border. It is a veneration that we would hope would permeate north of the border and bring back the reverence and respect for the Mother of God's role in our Church and daily lives. In recent years Our Lady has brought her mission ever more in focus as she asks all to help her in ending the abominal human sacrifice of abortion, a sin far worse than the human sacrifice offered to the pagan gods by the ancient Aztecs. But, as in the early 1500's and that century known as the "Century of Saints" it took great sacrifice on the part of all God's faithful ones to stop the sacrifice of God's children...so also today, we need, more than ever to offer sacrifice through penance, redemptive suffering, fasting and prayer to end the horrible sin of abortion. We have the formula. We have the forces of good on our side. We just need to act and human sacrifice will end as it did in the sixteenth century.
The on-going miracle of the tilma is a direct manifestation of supernatural intervention and for well over four centuries the image has remained ever brilliant even though it is on such a coarse cactus fiber that it would have faded within a few years had it not been from Heaven. The tilma was placed in a small church built at the top of Tepeyac Hill as Bishop Zumarraga obediently carried out Mary's wishes. This same church is still there today above the shrine at Guadalupe. In 1709 a larger basilica was built to house and venerate the image and word of this miracle spread throughout the world. Earthquakes and shifting soil caused great concern in the mid twentieth century and plans were drawn up for a newer, modern basilica which was consecrated in 1976 and today houses the famed image behind glass high above and behind the main altar. Visitors and pilgrims can see it closer by way of a conveyor belt walkway below and behind the main altar. No shrine has been more visited in the world than Guadalupe. In 1910, Pope Saint Pius X declared Our Lady of Guadalupe the patroness of Latin America and in 1945 Pope Pius XII expanded this declaration by designating her patroness of all the Americas. Our present pontiff, Pope John Paul II has endorsed this and brought with him a deep reverence for Our Lady of Guadalupe.