In the ten years following the appearance of Mary in Mexico to Juan Diego, there were over nine million conversions to Catholicism.
That is over 2,000 conversions every day.
Guadalupe changed people. It should change us.
When I was a senior in college I was given the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to the Mexican martyr sites that would end with a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The entire trip was transformative for me. The visit to the hills and the basilica where the miraculous tilma (a peasant-type shawl made of flimsy cactus fiber) is stored was definitely the climax.
If I am being completely honest, as a guy in my young twenties I always found the rosary and the devotion that some Catholics have for Mary to be something I could not relate to. It was not that I doubted the importance of the Mother of God on our faith; I simply never experienced her.
That all changed when we arrived on the holy ground of this Marian apparition.
Up to this point in our pilgrimage, we had visited many Mexican martyr sites and learned about the stories of these priests and laypeople who laid down their lives for their relationship with Jesus Christ. A common thread between their deaths was the fact that many of them uttered the same words before they died: “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” (“Long live Christ the King! Long Live the Virgin of Guadalupe!”)
What a person utters on their deathbed reveals what he or she holds to be most true and important. Deathbed messages are what people’s lives are defined by. I wondered, why did so many of these martyrs choose these words as the last ones they uttered?
The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego in December of 1531. She asked for a church to be built on the ground they stood on. When the bishop asked Juan to ask the woman in the sky for a sign, she appeared to him again and told him to pick nearby flowers, place them in his tilma, and not uncover them until Juan arrived in front of the bishop.
When he unveiled the tilma, the flower petals fell to the ground and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared.
The image has been studied by unbiased scientists through the ages and several characteristics are unexplainable. First and foremost, the image has no pigment on the cactus fiber. Usually, when an artist paints on canvas or any surface two fibers can be detected under a microscope: the original surface and the fibers from the pigment used to make the image visible (paint, pastel, pencil, etc.). The tilma has no such fibers, there is no explanation for how the image was placed on its surface. The cactus fibers which the tilma is made of also should have deteriorated after only a few decades. However, it has endured just under five hundred years.
According to astronomers, the stars which surround her veil also match the constellation which would have appeared in the sky in December of 1531. Under a microscope, one can also peer into the pupils of Mary’s eyes and see the miraculous image of the instant in which Juan unveiled the image. The bishop and his assistant are visible as if someone took a photograph of that moment in time.
I learned all of these facts in the years following my visit to the Basilica. What changed me was less the miraculous facts and more the experience of being on the ground where Mary appeared and seeing the image in person. When I walked the hills that she appeared on I felt what can only be described as a sense of comfort and peace. There was something different about being there than anywhere else I had been in my life. In hindsight, it can best be described as an experience of being with your mom one-on-one and simply wasting time away being with each other.
When I finally was able to see the image itself I was blown away. The tilma is framed on the wall behind the sanctuary. There are moving walkways (like you see in an airport) to prevent people from sitting in front of the image all day. Because of this, people are staring with their necks tilted upwards for about twenty seconds before the image is out of sight again.
I went back three times in a row to view the image. I could not help myself. I was mesmerized by her. There was something about the way she looked at you.
After the third time, I found an open pew and prayed to Mary unlike ever before in my life. I did not recite the rosary or another Marian prayer. I just spoke to her like I do with my own mom. That day changed my relationship with Mary because I was able to experience her uniquely loving presence and see the way she looked at me.
I have further learned that we should be amazed by the miraculous facts revolving around the tilma of Guadalupe. But the reality is, we should be more changed by the fact that the Mother of God makes a point to intervene in time to reveal that she is always with us.
She is always desiring to communicate comfort and peace; she consistently makes it clear that our lives should be defined by her Son.
If listen to her and conform our lives to her message, we’ll be changed forever.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.