The 30th of May is the feast of Juan Diego, one of the most important saints for Latin America, albeit one that has been sparking discussion over centuries.
Born Cuauhtlatoatzin, Juan Diego, a native Nahua, received baptism in 1524 together with his wife by a Franciscan missionary. His story could have ended there. In 1531, however, he witnessed a 4-day apparition of the Virgin Mary on the hill of Tonantzin. The Blessed Mother sent him to tell the bishop to build a church for her on that very hill. Bishop Zumarraga, sceptical in the beginning, had trouble believing the story of the simple Indian widower, and sent him away. During the second apparition he witnessed, roses grew out of the ground where the Blessed Mother had stood, and Juan Diego collected them as proof of the supernatural. When he opened his coat, in which he had carried the roses to the Bishop, an image of the Virgin’s face appeared on the cloth. The Bishop believed and had the church built immediately.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has helped the Church in Latin America beyond all measures. People came to believe ever strongly, and the understandable original resistance against the foreign missionaries faded away after talk of the miracle spread all over the continent. The fact that the apparitions took place on the hill of Tonantzin, the Actez goddess called “our venerable Mother”, was a catalyzing factor as well. The Spanish had only just destroyed the old Actez temple on the same ground – the now following apparitions to a native Indian justified the claim of the Christian Missionaries in the eyes of the natives, and they came to believe that the only venerable Mother was the ever-Virgin, Mother of God.
But obviously, where there are miracles, there are sceptics. The history of Our Lady of Guadalupe has not stopped to be the source for conspiracy theories, and claims that Bishop Zumarraga made up the entire story by himself are still being heard.
The strand of criticism has never stopped the faithful from believing. Long before the Vatican officially recognized the apparitions in 1745, Our Lady of Guadalupe had become a destination for Latin American pilgrims. Today, as I just read, it is the largest Roman Catholic shrine in the world, with some 20 million pilgrims per annum. For resons of comparison, the shrine in Lourdes receives 6 million pilgrims a year, Fatima 2 million, Altötting 1.5 million, and Santiago de Compostela 12 million. The Santiago figures obviously have to be scrutinized carefully, as the recent popularity of walking to Santiago for reasons of lifestyle and trend is definitely distorting the figure of actual pilgrims.
From all I read, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s growth doews not come from detailed marketing strategies or heavy advertisement. It is rather an increase in the thirst for God and for devotion – and of course increased mobility of the faithful – that accounts for the huge amount of pilgrims coming to Mexico each year on a journey of faith. If time and money ever permit, I feel definitely called to do the same.
Hoffnung means hope…