By Fr Damian Polly OP
Millions of conversions to the Catholic faith in just under seven years!
How could this possibly have been achieved? Two words: Our Lady.
On the 9th December in 1531, Our Lady appeared in Mexico to a peasant named Juan Diego, a convert to Catholicism. She instructed him to visit his bishop and ask that a temple be built on the site of her appearance. The bishop was initially very skeptical of Juan’s account and asked Juan for a sign to prove what he had seen.
Upon returning to Our Lady and sharing this with her, Juan Diego was instructed by her to climb to the top of the hill to gather flowers to bring back to the bishop. Reaching the crest of the hill, Juan Diego found Castilian roses, which were neither in season nor native to the region. Our Lady arranged the flowers herself in Juan’s cloak, called a tilma, and instructed him to open the cloak only upon return to the bishop. When Juan Diego arrived back at the bishop’s residence and opened his tilma, the flowers fell to the floor and left on the surface of the tilma was the image that’s come to be known as “Our Lady of Guadalupe”.
And as amazing as it was for Our Lady to appear to Juan Diego, equally amazing is the visible reminder of her appearance in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted on Juan’s tilma which was hand woven from the coarse fibers of the Manguey cactus. This fabric has a life span of approximately 30 years and yet the image remains intact at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City after 487 years.
It is this image which helped bring about the millions of Aztec conversions to the Catholic faith because through the image, Our Lady spoke clearly to her Aztec children. Every part of the image is symbolic and reveals a part of the message Our Lady wanted to speak to them. Instead of the typical “white” Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe appears with the complexion of a mestizo, a combination of Mexican and Spanish, indicating that she is for all people. Her head is bowed and her hands are folded in prayer to God. Under her feet, is a great crescent moon, to show the Aztecs that she’s greater than their moon god. The Aztecs worshipped the sun as the god who gave them life, and to appease him, they offered him human sacrifices. Mary stands in front of and hides the sun, but the rays still appear around her, signifying that she is greater than the sun god. The message is clear. She is more powerful than the Aztec gods, yet she herself is not God as she prays to one greater than her.
Our Lady is wearing a black maternity band around her waist, signifying she was a noble woman with child, as noble indigenous women tied a black band just above their waist to show they were pregnant. Her beautiful turquoise mantle also signifies her royalty since only the Aztec Emperor wore this colour. On the brooch around her neck is a black Christian cross, indicating that she is a believer and follower of Christ.
Each aspect of Our Lady’s miraculous image was easily understood by the natives who gazed upon it. As a direct result, an estimated 8 million of them within 7 years were baptized into the Catholic faith, marking the end of the Aztecs’ barbaric rituals of human sacrifice to please their sun god. This remarkable number of conversions reminds us that we should constantly pray to Our Lady for conversions, particularly of those closest to us who are far from God, and trust that she will help bring them to God because she wants to bring all her children to her Son. This image still has an amazing power to convert!
I conclude with the beautiful words Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego, words that she also lovingly speaks to each of us to help us to trust in her maternal care for us:
‘Am I not here, I, who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, the crossing of my arms? Am I not the source of all your joy? What more do you need? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.’