“Idolatry!” “A great evil!” “One of the most pernicious things that anyone could sustain against the proper Christianity of the natives!”
The righteous indignation of an angry blogger still fuming over Pachamama and the Synod on the Amazon? No; rather, a sampling from the text of a 1556 sermon by Fray Francisco de Bustamante criticizing Alonso de Montúfar, archbishop of Mexico City, for promoting devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. December 12th is a time for Catholics to recall not simply the miraculous apparitions of Our Lady to Juan Diego in the sixteenth century, but the enduring call to the Church to follow the counsel of St. Paul in matters of culture as well as theology: “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21). Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe has stood the test of time, both within Mexican Catholicism and beyond; in 1999, St. John Paul II declared Guadalupe “Patroness of America” and “Star of the New Evangelization.”
With the spread of this devotion, the story of Juan Diego, Guadalupe and the miraculous image that survives as a record of the apparitions has entered the common patrimony of the Church. In 1531, Our Lady appeared to the native Mexican peasant Juan Diego, instructing him to ask the bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, to build a church in her honor on Tepeyac hill, the site of the apparition. After several rebuffs by the skeptical bishop, Juan returned with proof of the apparitions, a harvest of roses miraculously blooming in December. As he opened his cloak (tilma) to show the bishop the roses, pedals fell to the ground and revealed an even greater miracle: an image of Our Lady, appearing as a brown-skinned native princess. The miracle persuaded Zumárraga to build the church and initiated a wave of native evangelization, winning millions of souls for Christ.
Less well known is the history of the testing and the holding fast to the good of Guadalupe, a process that took centuries. The quotations above, from Timothy Matovina’s 2005 book, Guadalupe and Her Faithful, show that decades after the traditional date for the apparitions, the truth of Guadalupe remained very much contested among churchmen. The skepticism sounds eerily contemporary. Bustamante dismissed the “miraculous” image as the work of a native artist. The site of the apparition, Tepeyac, had been a pagan sacred site where natives worshipped the goddess Tonantzin; for Bustamente, this guilt by association spoke for itself. The devotion persisted, receiving papal support as early as the 1570s. Still, the tradition itself continued to develop fairly slowly, especially in light of its subsequent prominence. Written accounts of the story summarized above did not appear until the middle of the seventeenth century.
Even as skepticism began to recede, Guadalupan devotion faced persistent competition from other Marian traditions imported from Spain, most significantly that of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies). This history raises at least two questions: first, why did Guadalupe triumph over rival traditions; and second, what distinct purpose in God’s providential design could Guadalupe have served, given that perfectly legitimate ways to honor Mary were already available to Catholics in Mexico?
The first written accounts suggest one answer: Guadalupe served as a powerful means of evangelization of natives where previous methods had failed. This is something of an ex post facto explanation; it is difficult to reconcile the despairing accounts of sixteenth-century evangelists with later stories of mass conversions immediately following the original apparitions. What did Guadalupe bring to Mexican Catholicism that other traditions of Marian piety lacked? Though early promoters of the devotion linked the imagery of the tilma to images associated with the Immaculate Conception, the apparition accounts show little concern for general doctrinal clarification. In this, there is no cause for concern. Devotions serve primarily to nurture spiritual relationships that are irreducibly particular.
This particularity shines through in the first written accounts, where Juan Diego secures his place in the tradition. Luis Laso de la Vega’s native-language text, Huei tlamahuiçoltica (“By a great miracle”) (1649) emphasizes the intimate relationship between Guadalupe and Juan Diego. She addresses him both as “Dignified Juan” and “my son the most abandoned one;” though he insists he is unworthy, “one of those campesinos . . . the excrement of people,” she favors him over the great Spanish conquerors, including Bishop Zumárraga. Firmly rooted in the particularities of sixteenth-century New Spain, the theme of God favoring the lowly over the mighty is of course profoundly biblical; in the Magnificat, Mary identifies herself as the lowly servant, the handmaid of the Lord.
In a different way, this quest for dignity informs the other major written account from this period, Miguel Sánchez’s Imagen de la Virgin Maria (“Image of the Virgin Mary”) (1648). Written in Spanish for clergy and the educated laity of Mexico City, this serves as an elite companion piece to the more populist native language account. Still, the Spanish elite of Mexico were considered among the lowly in the broader imperial context, particularly in comparison with those born in Spain. Sánchez wrote to invert that hierarchy and affirm the special privilege of colonial Mexico. Guadalupe was a manifestation of Mary that Spanish Mexicans could call their own. That being said, Sánchez was equally concerned to show that Guadalupe was more than a merely local devotion. His text is learned, his language is elevated; it incorporates Guadalupe into the patristic tradition of biblical Marian typology, most especially the “woman clothed with the sun” from the Book of Revelation.
These social-historical dimensions help to explain, without explaining away, the unique good served by Guadalupe. Again, devotions are about relationships. Through the eighteenth-century, Guadalupe continued to bring the people of Mexico to her, to her son and to each other. During the Mexican War for Independence, (1810-1821), patriots marched into battle under the banner of Guadalupe.
The declining fortunes of Mexico after independence would give a new resonance to the theme of dignity, particularly in areas of Mexico incorporated into the United States after the Mexican-American War. Mexican-descent Catholics living north of the Rio Grande found themselves in a new colonial relationship, governed by Anglo-Protestant conquerors who confiscated their property and rendered them near-aliens in a land their forefathers had called home. The old racial and class hierarchies compressed into the single category of “Mexican,” a people defined by a common economic impoverishment, socially marginalized by language and religion. Adding insult to injury, the new political situation brought Mexican-American Catholics under new authorities within the Church. Now part of the United States, by canon law still technically mission country, Spanish-speaking Catholics in the South West found themselves shepherded by missionary bishops, mostly French. This would soon spell trouble for indigenous Mexican Catholic traditions such as the devotion to Guadalupe.
After an initial honeymoon period, French bishops began to cast a critical eye on these traditions, seeing in them superstition at best, a vestigial paganism at worst. They set about replacing Mexican folk traditions with “legitimate” devotions, drawn from a list of standardized practices emanating from Rome as part of the papally sponsored “Catholic Revival” of the nineteenth century. Many of these newly universalized devotions had histories as particular, local devotions in Europe, particularly in France and Italy. The universalizing of a particular national style is perhaps nowhere visually clearer than in the Church’s adoption of the (French) Gothic as the favored architecture for new Catholic churches. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe, immortalized in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, is perhaps the most famous of these French church builders of the American South West.
Devotion to Guadalupe among Mexican Americans suffered somewhat from a lack of clerical support. Periodic waves of immigration from Mexico, particularly during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and Cristero Rebellion (1926-1929), would help to revitalize it through the middle of the twentieth century. The figure of Juan Diego would continue to inspire Mexican Americans who experienced poverty and social marginalization while America as a whole prospered in the decades following World War II.
Still, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Guadalupan tradition, the truth that speaks most powerfully to our own time, is the cultural particularity suggested by the miraculous image on Juan Diego’s tilma: Mary, the Mother of God, appearing as a native Aztec princess. Such particularity kept Guadalupe an “ethnic” tradition, little known outside of Mexican and Latin American Catholicism, until fairly recently. The Church’s endorsement of “inculturation” at the Second Vatican Council and the broader revival of ethnicity in post-1960’s America marked a twin retreat from the forces of assimilation and standardization that have characterized so much of modern life, including the life of the Church in the United States. In an apostolic exhortation delivered in Mexico in 1999, St. John Paul II celebrated “the mestizo [mixed race] face of the Virgin of Tepeyac” as a model of “perfectly inculturated evangelization.” His promotion of the Guadalupan tradition as a force for evangelization culminated in the canonization of Juan Diego in 2002.
Guadalupe reminds us of the Church’s unique ability to harmonize the universal and the particular. Different ages require different emphases, all according to God’s providential design. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, stands as a monument to mid-twentieth century, American Catholic universalism. The Byzantine/Romanesque Revival design broke with the Gothic style characteristic of nineteenth-century, immigrant-church era architecture and bore no trace of any recognizable ethnic particularity. Today, it is also home to some eighty chapels dedicated to Mary as represented in the distinct visual traditions of Catholic cultures from around the world. I think Our Lady of Guadalupe is smiling.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on Dec. 11, 2020, as a “The Past Present” column.)
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