Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. This is an important feast in the history of the Catholic Church in the New World. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe itself is amazing and in many ways, defies explanation. The story goes that the Blessed Mother visited St. Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Catholicism. She asked him to make sure a church was built on that spot. For proof of her visit, she told him where to find roses growing (in December, oddly enough). When he picked them and brought them to her, she arranged them in his cloak. When he dropped the cloak to show the bishop the roses, the image of the Blessed Mother was imprinted on the cloak.
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is 450 years old, and yet is amazingly well-preserved. Of course now it is afforded all of the protection that a fine piece of art would get, but for the first couple hundred years, it was not even encased in glass. It has been subject to a bomb, to being folded up and hidden away during the persecution, and it has been subject to millions of flash photos taken of it. The radiation caused by flash photography is dangerous to the canvas which is why you would never be allowed to take a photo of the Mona Lisa! The other amazing thing is that the “canvas” of the image is nothing but a peasant’s cloak. It is made from cactus fibers and it should have disintegrated after only a few decades.
Over the centuries, people have made additions to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are golden rays shining from behind her painted in gold leaf. Studies of the image have shown that is is the later additions that are starting to flake off. The original image is remarkably well-preserved with no flaking. Infrared studies have also shown that there is no under sketch on this image.
The gospel reading for this feast is the visitation from the Gospel of Luke; the story of Mary traveling to visit her cousin Elizabeth. This is a great gospel for the feast of a Marian apparition because it reminds us that even today, our mother continues to visit us! She visited St. Juan Diego, and by extension the entire Aztec people, as one of them. Her face was not that of a white European woman, but rather was that of a “morena” or dark-skinned woman. She is wearing a black sash around her waist. Any Aztec would have recognized this as the sign for pregnancy. The colors and the presence of certain flowers on her tunic would have told the people that she is an Aztec princess and the sun shining behind her would have told them that she is from the heavens.
There are many amazing, even miraculous aspects to this image. Perhaps none is more amazing and miraculous than the aftermath of the apparition. In the years following the apparition, millions of Aztecs were converted to the Catholic faith. The Spaniards had already been in Mexico for years trying to get them to convert. It was the Blessed Mother who paved the way.
Mary is willing to go to her children right where they are and as they are. God calls us to service in the Church out of a particular cultural and social context. God doesn’t want cookie cutter priests! He wants priests who are able to visit his people where they are and as they are. God needs you and your language and your culture to be able to translate the gospel message to the world around you. If he is calling, ANSWER!