Today, during this Marian month of May, we look to the Patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here is some information from the Saint of the Day page at American Catholic.
The feast in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe goes back to the sixteenth century. Chronicles of that period tell us the story.
A poor Indian named Cuauhtlatohuac was baptized and given the name Juan Diego. He was a 57-year-old widower and lived in a small village near Mexico City. On Saturday morning, December 9, 1531, he was on his way to a nearby barrio to attend Mass in honor of Our Lady.
He was walking by a hill called Tepeyac when he heard beautiful music like the warbling of birds. A radiant cloud appeared and within it a young Native American maiden dressed like an Aztec princess. The lady spoke to him in his own language and sent him to the bishop of Mexico, a Franciscan named Juan de Zumarraga. The bishop was to build a chapel in the place where the lady appeared.
Eventually the bishop told Juan Diego to have the lady give him a sign. About this same time Juan Diego’s uncle became seriously ill. This led poor Diego to try to avoid the lady. The lady found Diego, nevertheless, assured him that his uncle would recover and provided roses for Juan to carry to the bishop in his cape or tilma.
When Juan Diego opened his tilma in the bishop’s presence, the roses fell to the ground and the bishop sank to his knees. On Juan Diego’s tilma appeared an image of Mary as she had appeared at the hill of Tepeyac. It was December 12, 1531
Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego as one of his people is a powerful reminder that Mary and the God who sent her accept all peoples. In the context of the sometimes rude and cruel treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards, the apparition was a rebuke to the Spaniards and an event of vast significance for Native Americans. While a number of them had converted before this incident, they now came in droves. According to a contemporary chronicler, nine million Indians became Catholic in a very short time. In these days when we hear so much about God’s preferential option for the poor, Our Lady of Guadalupe cries out to us that God’s love for and identification with the poor is an age-old truth that stems from the Gospel itself.
Mary to Juan Diego: “My dearest son, I am the eternal Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God, Author of Life, Creator of all and Lord of the Heavens and of the Earth…and it is my desire that a church be built here in this place for me, where, as your most merciful Mother and that of all your people, I may show my loving clemency and the compassion that I bear to the Indians, and to those who love and seek me…” (from an ancient chronicle).
This is really an extraordinary story, and one of the most beautiful in our church. I have spent a lot of time reading and studying this particular apparition, and I always moved by this chapter of our Mother Mary’s presence.
To understand the power of the story, one must enter into that time. The Spaniards were in serious conquest mode, and the indigenous people were really being pushed to convert to Catholicism. This was not a time to be proud of evangelizing efforts – the Spaniards thought of the natives as savages, and were not very charitable towards them in general.
Some, like Saint Juan Diego were converted, or at least baptized. Many of the local people felt the pressure of being under the foot of the Spanish, and were slow to follow. Many baptisms were done under this kind of duress. It does appear, that Saint Juan Diego was indeed a prayerful man, who had been converted in his heart. All that was about to change, illustrating to one and all, that conversion is an on-going process of faith for everyone, without exception.
It is what happens next that changes everything. Our Lady of Guadalupe does not appear to the Bishop or a priest, not to the men in all their finery, with their educations, and their books, and their words; the men with their extraordinary vestments and who were building churches. Nor does she does not appear to any of the Spanish Conquistadors, who have taken over the land as their own. She does not appear to Aztecs who were of a higher class than Juan Diego.
No, when Our Lady chooses, she chooses this Juan Diego, a “nobody” in his own words, a class below the classes. A simple man, a poor man, a humble man.
That is the story, like so much of what we find in Sacred Scripture, the story is inverted. God is forever using the outsider, the one on the edge, the one with no power or position, no real place at the table. It is an important reminder to us all – and it is a most beautiful thing as well.
After they first meet, Our Lady sends Juan Diego on a mission, which he does not succeed at. Then, as Juan Diego tries to avoid her, Mary finds him anyway. I love that part of the story and it brings to mind the great Annie Dillard line from The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
The Guadalupe story is so much about how beauty and grace are ever present in the sacramental invitation to embrace all that is offered to us, with great and loving persistence by our God. God is calling to a certain type of person…. The ultimate outsider. The real shock is the the ultimate outsider is always ourselves.
And then – only when this ultimate outsider is called – then that is when the people open their hearts and change, be transformed and move more deeply into a life of faith. This life is a process, going on for all time.
Another story that comes to mind as I consider this is from the Gospel of John – the Samaritan Woman, at the Well. Jesus makes sense to her and to her compatriots, they are so far out that they have no place to go but in.
And those on the inside, they often remain confused and unconverted.
It is a provocative thought for us to sit and pray, isn’t it? How are we the outsider? How are we the complacent insider? How are we proud? How are we humble? And how willing are we to change?
That is Mary, the Mother of God at work. Calling to us, loving us, bringing us forth. If, that is – we are willing to go. And she always goes to great lengths to find us.