December 11, 2018. At midnight tonight, some five million pilgrims will gather around the Basilica of Guadalupe near Mexico City to sing Las Mananitas, the traditional Mexican birthday song, to the Virgin of Guadalupe in honor of the 487th anniversary of her appearance on Tepeyac Hill, just behind the present-day site of the Basilica.
The dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, known also as Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, is Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural icon. Many children, both boys and girls are named Guadalupe (Lupe, Lupita) to honor her and to bestow her blessing on those children. The name is often combined with names of the Holy Parents, as in María Guadalupe or José Guadalupe.
This is the story of her appearing: It was December 12, 1531 when a beautiful young woman appeared to Juan Diego, a recent indigenous convert to Christianity, on a hill near the Tepeyac desert outside Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City. She told him to build a church on the spot where they were standing. Juan Diego ran to the bishop to tell him of the vision. The bishop asked him to bring proof. He returned to the hill, and the young woman appeared once more. He told her that the bishop wanted proof of her appearance.
There were roses blooming on the hill, even though it was too cold for roses. “Pick them up and take them to your bishop,” the woman said. Juan Diego used his blanket-like outer garment made of cactus cloth to collect the roses, and the heavenly lady arranged them with her own hands. He hurried back to the bishop, holding the flowers closely in his garment. When he reached the church, he released the garment to allow the miraculous roses to fall to the ground. When they did, an image of the young woman had been imprinted on the cloth. This is said to be the image that can be seen to this day, almost five hundred years later, in the Basilica, one of the world’s most visited shrines.
Although many are devoted to the story of her miraculous appearance, The Virgin of Guadalupe is controversial among religious historians, including a number of noted Catholic scholars. There is no mention of the image in Church historical records until 1556. The chapel had been built on the site of a temple to Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin, destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. Indigenous converts came to worship there, but they continued to call the Virgin Mary Tonantzin.
In 1556, Francisco Bustamente, head of the Franciscans, who had been appointed guardians of the Tepeyac chapel, argued before the Viceroy that Archbishop Alonso de Montufar, a Dominican, was promoting superstitious regard for a painting by native artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino. Montufar countered that he was simply promoting devotion to the Virgin Mother, whose image was conveyed in that painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Montufar and the Dominicans prevailed. The Franciscans were relieved of their custody of the shrine, the church was enlarged, and the image was mounted and displayed in enhanced surroundings. In 1883, noted historian and biographer Joaquín García Icazbalceta, after an extensive investigation of documents for Bishop Labastida, stated his conclusion that Juan Diego, whose name first appeared in the historical record in in 1649, never existed.
In spite of these doubts, Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990, but in a 1996 interview with the Catholic magazine Ixthus, Guillermo Schulenburg, abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, said that Juan Diego was “a symbol, not a reality.” Schulenburg, who was 83 years old at the time, was forced to resign. Juan Diego was declared Saint Juan Diego Cuahutlatoatzin in 2002.