It is the year 1521, Tenochtitlan (which is now Mexico City), the capital city of the Aztec empire, falls to Spanish forces. Ten years later 9 million inhabitants of this land, who had for centuries professed a polytheistic and human-sacrificing religion, were suddenly converted to Christianity. What was it that happened in those times that produced such an incredible and historically unprecedented conversion?
The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a poor and humble Indian at Tepeyac, a hill northwest of Mexico City. She identified Herself as the Mother of the True God, Santa Maria of Guadalupe or Te-coa-tla-xope", (pronounced phonetically "te-quat-la-shupe) which in the Aztec tongue means "the one who crushes the head of the serpent". Undoubtedly she came to crush the serpent, as it is written in the Book of Genesis, 3:15 "...she shall crush thy head...", by putting an end to these barbaric human sacrifices, and literally converting millions of natives to Christianity.
Background and setting of these events
The Aztecs ruled most of Central America. The two chief gods of the Aztec pantheon were Huitzilopochtli, the Hummingbird Wizard or "god of thirst", called the Lover of Hearts and Drinker of Blood; and Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror Lord of the Dark, called "He Who is at the Shoulder as the Tempter". The Aztecs believed that the gods required human blood in order to subsist and in order to appease these frightful deities, their priests sacrificed at least 50,000 men, women, and children annually by cutting out their beating hearts. Years of practice had given them a skill and speed that enabled them to perform this gruesome task on each victim in less than 15 seconds! The early Mexican historian, Ixtlilxochitl, estimated that one out of every five children in Mexico was sacrificed. (Note: In the United States today it is even more; one out of every four children is killed by abortion.)
The climax of these ritual killings came in 1487 for the dedication of the new, and richly decorated temple of Huitzilopochtli in the center of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), and enclosed by the richly decorated Coatepantli, the Serpant Wall. In a single ceremony that lasted for four days and four nights, with the constant beating of giant drums made of snakeskin, the Aztec ruler and demon worshiper, Tlacaellel, presided over the sacrifice of more than 80,000 men. (For more information on the Aztec worship, please see Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness, by Dr. Warren Carroll.)2013
Montezuma, or Moctezuma, as some called him, was ruler of the Aztec Nation, chief priest and head of their army. His sister, Princess Papantzin, had a dream that deeply troubled the King. In her dream she saw a luminous being with a black cross on his forehead who led her to a shore with large ships. These ships would soon come to their own shores and conquer the Aztecs, bringing with them the Faith in the One True God. Ten years later, on Good Friday, April 22, 1519, the Spanish Conquistadors arrived on the Gulf shore of Mexico led by Hernando Cortez. They named the landing place Veracruz or "The True Cross". Their Chaplain, Father Bartolome de Olmedo, celebrated the first Mass there on Easter Sunday.
Within two years, with a small army of a few hundred soldiers, under the twofold protection of the Cross of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose image Cortez had carried over with him on his voyage from Spain, and through a series of miraculous victories, the Aztecs were defeated and the practice of human sacrifice was finally brought to an end. Cortez's first action as commander was to place the region under the Spanish crown and to demolish the temples of sacrifice, building in their place Catholic churches, such as the Church Santiago (or St. James) de Tlatelolco on the site of the Temple of the sun god in present-day Mexico City.
Unfortunately, some of the Conquistadors were not "saints". Much like many of the Crusaders, they were in search of God, fortune, and personal glory, but oftentimes it was more the fortune and personal glory that became their goal. The Native Americans were treated very unjustly and suffered much abuse at the hands of their Spanish conquerors. With the hostility that was shown to these people by the new colonial government, they distrusted the Spanish. This caused them to be wary of converting to Christianity, impelling the newly appointed bishop-elect, Juan de Zumarraga of Mexico, to write to the king of Spain, "Unless there is a miracle, the continent shall be lost." Between December 9 and December 12, 1531, the miracle did happen, and it changed the future of the continent forever...
St. Juan Diego and the "Lady from Heaven"
St. Juan Diego was born in 1474 in Cuautlitlán, which, today, is part of Mexico City. He was given the name "Cuauhtlatoatzin" or "talking eagle" and was a gifted member of the Chichimeca people. He worked hard in the fields and in the manufacturing of mats. He owned a small house on a tiny piece of land and was happily married, but had no children. Between 1524 and 1525, he and his wife converted to Christianity and were given the names, Juan Diego and Maria Lucia in Baptism. They were both very devout and attended daily Mass despite a distance of 12 miles to the mission church. In May of 1529 Juan's wife became ill and died. He then went to live with his uncle Juan Bernardino, who was also a convert to Christianity, in Tolpetlac, which was still 4 miles from the church of St. James in Tlatelolco-Tenochtitlan.
Each morning he departed early in order to be on time for the Mass and to receive religious-instruction. He walked barefoot and on chilly mornings he would wear a tilma, or ayate which was a course cloth-like mantle woven from the fibres of the maguey cactus. Although Mexico is a hot country, the plateau of Mexico City is about 7000 feet above sea level and the nights and early morning hours can be very cool. It was on one of these mornings, December 9th, 1531, that Juan Diego was making his way to the early Mass. As he reached the base of the hill known as Tepeyac, he suddenly heard sweet music, like "birds singing in a chorus". This surprised him, so he stopped. The singing seemed to be coming from atop the hill from which he could see a white shining cloud surrounded by a rainbow. He was not at all afraid; rather he felt enraptured and his heart was filled with an unexplainable joy.
There before him stood a beautiful girl with a tan complexion, bathed in the golden beams of the sun. He approached her, and before she herself had revealed to him her identity, Juan Diego had no doubt that he was in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven. She called to him by name in Nahuatl, his own native tongue: "Juanito, Juan Dieguito!" He was not frightened in the least; instead he felt overjoyed! He bowed before Her and she spoke to him with a sweet tenderness: "Juanito, my son whom I love tenderly like a little and delicate child, where are you going?"
He replied to her: "My Noble Lady and Child, I have to reach the church in Tlatilolco, to pursue things divine, taught and given to us by our priests, delegates of Our Lord."
Again, she spoke: "Know and understand well, you, the most humble of My sons, that I am the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God, for whom we live, of the Creator of all things, Lord of heaven and earth. I wish that a temple be erected here quickly, so I may therein exhibit and give all My love, compassion, help, and protection, because I am your merciful mother, to you and to all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love Me, invoke and confide in Me, to listen there to their lamentations, and remedy all their miseries, afflictions and sorrows. And to accomplish what My clemency pretends, go to the palace of the Bishop of Mexico, and you will say to him that I manifest My great desire, that here on this plain, a temple be built to Me. You will accurately relate all you have seen and admired, and what you have heard. Be assured that I will be most grateful and will reward you, because I will make you happy and worthy of recompense for the effort and fatigue in what you will obtain for what I have entrusted. Behold, you have heard My mandate, My humble son; go and put forth all your effort."
To this Juan Diego said to her: "My Lady, I am going to comply with Your mandate; now I must part from You, I, your humble servant." He then descended the hill and made his way along the road which runs directly into Mexico City in order to comply to her request.
The visit to the Bishop
Upon entering the city, Juan Diego went directly to the Bishop's palace to meet with Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, a Franciscan of great piety who had a great love for the Virgin Mary. Juan related to him all that he had seen and heard. The Bishop was cordial but hesitant on this first visit and said that he would consider the requests of the Lady and politely invited Juan Diego to come visit again.
Dismayed, Juan returned to the hill and found Mary waiting for him. He said to her: "Lady, I went where You sent me to comply with Your command. With difficulty I entered the prelate's study. I saw him and exposed Your message, just as You had instructed me. He received me benevolently and listened attentively, but when he replied, it appeared that he did not believe me. I perfectly understood by the manner in which he replied that he believes it to be an invention of mine – that You wish that a temple be built here to You, and that it is not Your order. Now I exceedingly beg, Lady, that You entrust the delivery of Your message to someone of importance, well known, respected, and esteemed, so that they may believe in him; because I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf, and You, my Lady, You send me to a place where I never visit nor repose. Please excuse my great unpleasantness, and let not fretfulness befall, my Lady and my All."
The Blessed Virgin answered: "Hark, My son the least, you must understand that I have many servants and messengers, to whom I must entrust the delivery of My message and carry My wish, but it is of precise detail that You yourself solicit and assist, and that through your mediation My wish be complied. I earnestly implore, My son the least, and with sternness I command, that you again go tomorrow and see the Bishop. You go in My name, and make known My wish in its entirety – that he has to start the erection of a temple which I ask of him. And again tell him that I, in person, the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God, sent you."
Juan Diego replied: "Lady, let me not cause You affliction. Gladly and willingly I will go to comply with Your mandate. Under no condition will I fail to do it, for the way is not even distressing. I will go to do Your wish, but perhaps I will not be heard with liking, or if I am heard, I might not be believed. Tomorrow afternoon, at sunset, I will come to bring You the result of Your message with the prelate's reply." Juan Diego then left Her and returned to his home.
The Bishop asks for a sign
The next day was Sunday and after hearing Mass Juan Diego returned to the palace of the Bishop. Kneeling before him, he dissolved into tears and once again conveyed to him the Blessed Lady's message and the wish of the Immaculate, to erect Her temple where She willed it to be. Bishop Zumarraga asked Juan many questions, and even though he replied to each question patiently and precisely, describing to him in perfect detail all that he had seen, the Bishop still did not give credence to his story. Finally the Bishop said to him that if the Lady would give a "sign" that would prove to him that she was truly from Heaven, then he would believe and he would grant Her request.
Juan Diego then returned to the Blessed Virgin, and related to Her the Bishop's answer. Smiling, she said to him: "Well and good, My little dear. You will return here tomorrow so you can take to the Bishop the sign he has requested. With this he will believe you, and in this regard he will not doubt you, nor will he be suspicious of you. And know, My little dear, that I will reward your solicitude and effort and fatigue spent on My behalf. Lo! Go now. I will await you here tomorrow."
The following day was December 12th. Juan Diego was unable to return to the Tepeyac hilltop because his uncle Juan Bernardino had become gravely ill. Juan summoned a doctor, but by nightfall his uncle requested that he go instead to Tlatilolco early the following morning to summon a priest to hear his confession. Before dawn, Juan Diego set out for Tlatilolco and as he approached the road which joins the slope to the Tepeyac hilltop, he decided to make a small detour. He was ashamed for not having kept his promise to return to the Lady and he wished to avoid having to meet with her again. But, as he came around to the other side of the hill, there She stood as though She were waiting for him. She said to him: "What's there, My son the least? Where are you going?" He bowed before Her, saying: "Lady, I am going to cause You grief. Know that a servant of Yours is very sick, my uncle. He has contracted the plague, and is near death. I am hurrying to Your house in Mexico to call one of Your priests, beloved by Our Lord, to hear his confession and absolve him, because, since we were born, we were taught to prepare for death. But if I go, I shall return here soon, so I may go to deliver Your message. Lady, forgive me, be patient with me for the time being. I will not deceive You. Tomorrow I will come in all haste."
After hearing this the Most Holy Virgin answered: "Hear Me and understand well, My son the least, that nothing should frighten nor grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under My protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happily within My fold? What else do you wish? Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything. Do not be afflicted by the illness of your uncle, who will not die now from it. Be assured that he is now cured."
Juan Diego's uncle Juan Bernardino was in fact cured of his disease at that very moment. Our Lady told Juan Bernardino that she wished to be known under the title, "Santa Maria Te-coa-tla-xope". In the Aztec language "Coa" meaning serpent, "tla" being the noun ending which can be interpreted as "the", while "xopeuh" means to crush or stamp out. He later told this word to the Spaniards, who heard it as "de Guadalupe", a devotion to the Blessed Mother in Estremadura, Spain that the Spanish were very familiar with. (This is how the image was named Guadalupe, a title which it has kept for over four centuries.) But in reality it would seem that Our Lady must have called Herself "Santa Maria who crushes the serpent."
When Juan Diego was told that his uncle was cured, he was greatly consoled and begged the Lady from Heaven to excuse him so that he could now go directly to the Bishop in order to bring him Her "sign" that he too could now believe. The Lady from Heaven ordered him: "Climb, My son the least, to the top of the hill where you saw Me and I gave you orders. You will find different flowers. Cut them, gather them, assemble them, and then come and bring them before My presence."
Immediately, Juan Diego climbed the hill and to his amazement found many different varieties of exquisite Castilian roses blooming there. The hilltop was no place for any kind of flowers to grow. It had many crags, thistles, thorns, and mesquites. Occasionally weeds would grow, but... this was December, a time when roses or most any vegetation would ordinarily freeze! These roses were very fragrant and they were covered with dewdrops which resembled precious pearls. Immediately he began to cut them, placing them inside his tilma. Coming down the hill he presented them to the Lady from Heaven who took them, and with Her own hands rearranged them inside his tilma, saying: "My son the least, this diversity of roses is the proof and the sign which you will take to the Bishop. You will tell him in My name that he will see in them My wish, and that he will have to comply to it. You are My ambassador, most worthy of all confidence! Rigorously, I command you that only before the presence of the Bishop will you unfold your mantle and disclose what you are carrying. You will relate all and well; you will tell that I ordered you to climb to the hilltop, to go and cut flowers, and all that you saw and admired, so you can induce the prelate to give his support, with the aim that a temple be built and erected as I have asked."
When Juan Diego took leave of Our Lady, he felt happy that with a gift such as this, he was sure of success. It was with great care that he held onto the precious flowers which he bore in his tilma, and enjoyed their beautiful fragrance as he hurried along the road eager to present the Bishop with the "sign."
The miraculous image
Juan Diego reached the Bishop's palace, and once again waited a long time before finally being admitted to see him. Upon entering he knelt before Bishop Zumarraga and told him that he had brought with him the "sign" from the Lady – roses picked high on the hilltop of Tepeyac. He then unfolded his mantle and all the different varieties of roses scattered onto the floor. But even more amazing than the beautiful roses was the image that suddenly appeared on the tilma. It was that of the Ever-Virgin, Holy Mary, Mother of God. When the Bishop saw the image, he and all who were present fell to their knees. The Bishop, with sorrowful tears, prayed and begged forgiveness of the Blessed Virgin for not having believed and for his delay in attending to Her wishes and request. When he rose to his feet, he untied the cloth on which appeared the image of the Lady from Heaven from around Juan Diego's neck. He then took it and placed it in his own private chapel where he kept it until the new Church was erected on the grounds that had been designated by the Mother of God.
Juan Diego, after having given his business and property over to his uncle Juan Bernardino, moved into a small room attached to the chapel that housed the sacred image. He deeply loved Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, and by special permission of the Bishop, he received Holy Communion three times a week, which was a highly unusual occurrence for those times. He spent the rest of his life propagating the account of the Apparitions to his countrymen, and died on May 30, 1548, at the age of 74. Today this same image imprinted on the tilma continues to be venerated by the faithful and is viewed by an estimated 10 million pilgrims annually in the present Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Mexico.