Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most dramatic appearances of Mary in history, when Mary, in the guise of an Aztec princess, appeared to Saint Juan Diego (his pre-conversion name of Cuauhtlatoatzin translates as “Talking Eagle”), a Mexican convert, on December 9, 1531 as he strode to Mass and was passing by the base of Tepeyac hill. She spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native tongue, and told him to go to Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga, the primate of Mexico, and tell him that she wished for a shrine to be built on Tepeyac hill. She also gave him this message:
“I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me , of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.”
The Archbishop told Diego he would not believe in his encounter with Mary unless he had a sign. Our Lady told Diego to visit the Archbishop again, but Zumarraga repeated his request for a sign. Returning to Tepeyac, Diego again encountered Our Lady who told him to present himself to Archbishop Zumarraga and give to him roses he was instructed to pick. Roses growing in Mexico in December were a miracle in and of themselves. Diego did as he was bidden, and when he presented the roses to the Archbishop, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was imprinted on his tilma, his peasant’s cloak, where the roses had been held by him. News of the miracle spread throughout Mexico and before the decade was out some eight million Mexicans converted to the Faith. A chapel was built on Tepeyac and Diego cared for it and the image as a religious hermit until his death in 1548 at 73.
Doubts have been raised about whether Juan Diego existed due to the lack of contemporary accounts. However, these doubts were quashed, at least any reasonable doubts, in 1995 with the coming to light of the Codex Escalada which has been dated to the sixteenth century. It bears the date of 1548 and is an illustrated account of the apparition with text in Nahuatl describing the encounter between Juan Diego and Mary. The document bears the signature of Father Bernadino de Sahagun, a missionary priest and historian in Mexico, and a contemporary of Juan Diego. The first mention of the image in Spanish is in 1556 in a sermon preached by Archbishop Alonso de Montufar, the successor to Archbishop Zumarraga, in which he recommended devotion to the image. Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe spread rapidly throughout the Catholic world, with Genoese Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria having a copy of the image on his flagship during the decisive Christian victory at the battle of Lepanto in 1571.