Visits with Mary Logo – Large

December 1, 2014

In his 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, St. John Paul II referred to Our Lady of Guadalupe as the hope for the new evangelization in the Americas. Mary's appearance to St. Juan Diego at the Aztec holy site of Tepeyac in 1531 had a decisive effect in bringing the Gospel to the indigenous peoples of present-day Mexico.

In the document, the pope prayed that Mary's intercession would lead to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit "so that the new evangelization may yield a splendid flowering of Christian life."

Indeed, the image of Mary miraculously emblazoned on Juan Diego's cloak was replete with symbols from the Aztec culture. The Church did not even have to deliberately accommodate its presentation of the Holy Virgin to the Aztec people; Mary had done the job.

St. Juan Diego is depicted gathering a shower of roses from Our Lady of Guadalupe.


St. Juan Diego is depicted gathering a shower of roses from Our Lady of Guadalupe.

As we prepare to celebrate the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we can benefit from an even-deeper look at the historical context of Mary's appearance. Well known is the fact that Diego's first visit to the local bishop to pass on Mary's request for a church to be built at Tepeyac was a bust. The bishop was skeptical of the story and the request.


Indeed, the bishop may not have been such a hard-hearted skeptic as some may think. Reports of Marian apparitions by recent converts to the Catholic faith were fairly common in the area. Local people had taken to Marian devotion with some eagerness as it shared common threads with the female deities of fertility in their traditional religion.

Miri Rubin, in her landmark history of Marian devotion, Mother of God, writes, "It was easy to merge Mary with indigenous deities, and this is what the bearers of Christianity feared most." Apparent Marian devotion sometimes tended to be more akin to goddess worship than like a proper veneration of the woman who is closest to her son, the Son of God.

Rubin notes that more than 50 years after the Guadalupe apparitions, a bishop's visit to local Catholics in nearby Chiapas concluded that the local Marian rituals were more diabolical than pious.

The established Church believed it was right to be wary about unlearned recent converts distorting proper Marian piety.

This wariness can be traced back even further to its origins in Spain where Catholicism had only in recent memory put an end to 700 years of Muslim rule. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were Catholic heroes for their role in firmly re-establishing the Church in Spain.


"Firmly" is a gross understatement. To ensure the purity of the Catholic faith in an environment where many "converts" clung, secretly or openly, to Muslim or Jewish beliefs, the king and queen launched the Spanish Inquisition as an arm of the state. If there was suspicion of recent converts in the "New World," such suspicion had already been established in the homeland.

Although the Inquisition was a Catholic reign of terror, the faith of Ferdinand and Isabella was genuine and deep. Somewhat novel as well.


Rubin tells of a Marian altarpiece made for Isabella in the 1490s with 20 panels. Instead of the usual images of Mary suckling her divine son, this altarpiece depicted scenes from the life of Christ and in the early Church with Mary as an associate and partner with Jesus in spreading the Good News. It was a harbinger of the role Mary would soon play in converting the Aztecs.

The Spaniards brought Mary, along with Jesus, to the Americas. Indeed, she was often more prominent than was Jesus in spreading the faith. The troops of conquistador Hernándo Cortés were led by a banner of Mary as they laid the Aztec civilization to waste in 1519-20.

It is impossible to square this abuse of the Holy Virgin with the Mary who appeared to Juan Diego a decade later, presenting herself as the friend and protector of the weak and dispossessed.

Today, it is the Mary of Tepeyac Hill, rather than the Mary of the conquistadores, whom we venerate and see as the star of the new evangelization. Still, we ought not forget the other story, one whose dark shadows provide a background for understanding the devotion which grew out of the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe.