In the Catholic Church, there is a whole branch of theology called Mariology that deals with the nuances of the life of Mary, the Mother of God: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin birth, and other such ideas. As important as these issues undoubtedly are, most Catholics understand Mary through direct experience of her love as their mother.
Mary has appeared to many different people over the years: in Lourdes, France to a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette; in Fátima, Portugal to three shepherd children; and in Knock, Ireland to a group of Irish peasants who had recently come through the devastation of the Irish Famine. What stands out from each of these stories is that Mary, Mother of God, chose to appear not to religious leaders or major Church patrons, but to the poor, the outcast, the people living quietly through their daily struggles. Let me draw your attention to the story of one such person named Juan Diego, from Mexico.
In December 1531, Juan Diego, a poor, indigenous Aztec peasant was walking on Tepeyac Hill, close to current day Mexico City, when a young woman appeared to him and began speaking to him in his native tongue of Nahuatl. She told him that she was the Virgin Mary, and she asked him to go and see the local bishop and ask that a shrine be built in the exact spot where she was standing. Juan Diego hurried to the bishop to do as she asked, explaining all that he had seen and heard. The bishop hesitated to believe him, and asked for a sign and proof that she was indeed Mary and that the shrine was her will.
Juan Diego returned to the site where he had seen the Virgin, and found her there again, waiting for him. He explained the bishop’s response, and questioned whether the Virgin should appear to someone with more power, with more chance of altering the bishop’s mind. But Mary told him that she had chosen him for a reason, and that she would provide him with a sign. Although it was winter, she led him to a rosebush in full bloom on the hillside, telling him to gather roses and bring them to the bishop; that would be his sign. Juan Diego did as she asked, gathering the flowers in his cloak, called a tilma.
He hurried to the bishop, and when he arrived, he opened his tilma before the bishop and let the roses fall at his feet. The bishop rose in astonishment, not at the roses, but at what had appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma: a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary, imprinted into the fabric. At this, the bishop went with Juan to the spot and quickly began building the shrine that Mary had asked for.
The image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) has been a uniting religious and cultural symbol for Mexico ever since, not simply because Mary appeared to someone from Mexico, but because she appeared to an indigenous peasant living in the recently conquered Mexico, and spoke to him in his own language. The tilma is still preserved today in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, reminding us that Mary is everyone’s mother, particularly the poor.