DID YOU KNOW? St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the peasant who witnessed Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, was declared a saint just 10 years ago in 2002. The reason for the delay? A lack of quality evidence regarding Juan Diego. Proper evidence finally was established, making St. Juan Diego the first indigenous American to be declared a saint. To the north, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was declared a saint this year.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12: A simple peasant’s witness produced one of the Catholic Church’s most favored miracles—one that is exploding in popularity today, circling the globe from its longstanding Mexican roots: Our Lady of Guadalupe, an image of the Virgin Mary. One of the most widely visited pilgrimage sites in the world, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe sees upward of 6 million pilgrims each year, especially focused on the feast.
Of course, most of the world’s billion-plus Catholics can’t make it to Mexico, so countless adaptations have been made. Latino parishioners at St. John Neumann Parish in Pennsylvania have welcomed a replica—reproduced from a photograph taken by a designated artist at the Basilica, and then printed onto cloth.
The story goes that on the morning of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1531, peasant Juan Diego saw a young girl surrounded by light. Atop the Hill of Tepeyac, the girl spoke to Diego in his native language (Nahuatl), asking that a church be built at the site in her honor. (Wikipedia has details.) When Diego approached the Spanish archbishop with his request, he was ordered to demand a miraculous sign from the girl. The second time, the girl told Diego to gather Castilian roses—which were not native to Mexico and, even in Spanish gardens, were out of season—and bring them to the archbishop. Diego searched for the flowers, surprised to find them at the top of the Hill of Tepeyac, and stored them in his tilma cloak. When Diego returned to the archbishop, he opened his cloak: the roses fell to the floor, and in their place was an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, imprinted miraculously in the fabric.
One unique aspect of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the yet-unproven material evidence of the miracle: more specifically, the tilma of Juan Diego. Despite its rough, woven material—unsuitable for long-term preservation and the detailed depictions of the Virgin image—the cloak remains in pristine condition. Researchers, physicists and biochemists alike have tested the material, claiming that it should have lasted no more than 15 years before suffering degradation. In the early 20th century, an image was discovered in the Virgin’s eyes: when a duplicated image of the eyes was enlarged 2500x, researchers reportedly found 14 figures reflected in her eyes—assumed to be a mirror image of all the witnesses present when Diego opened his cloak. Moreover, the cloak has survived numerous disasters since 1531, including a significant ammonia spill and a bomb.
By 1995, the Virgin of Guadalupe was renowned in Mexico but lacked sufficient evidence to meet Vatican standards for the canonization of Juan Diego. That year, Father Xavier Escalada (a Jesuit writing an encyclopedia of the legend) produced a deerskin codex that illustrated the apparition, life and death of Juan Diego, also bearing the signatures of two well-known 16th century scholar-priests.
PRESERVATION IN FIRE
The sole remains of St. Augustin Chapel in Mexico, following a June 13 fire, were a concrete slab and blackened cinder blocks: except for a framed portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which remained in nearly perfect condition. As reported by Fox News last summer, the artwork was found lying face down in a corner of the church, brought to the Rev. Benjamin Gaytan by a fireman who had extinguished the flames. Gaytan declared: “It’s more than a miracle; it was extraordinary, considering everything else in the church was destroyed.”