The most popular Marian devotion among U.S. Catholics presently is the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is the most widely embraced Marian devotion in the entire American continent and perhaps the most revered religious icon in the world.
Although we could attribute her wide appeal to the fast-growing Hispanic population in our country — nearly half of all U.S. Catholics — Mary of Guadalupe has a special place in the hearts of Catholics from every culture, race and social location.
My first encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe was at a very young age when I heard the story of her apparitions. The text is beautiful and enthralling. It tells a story in which the human and the divine intersect seamlessly, as in the best of the biblical stories.
A woman, “the Lady of Heaven,” appears to an indigenous man, Juan Diego, in the year 1531. She treats him with love and respect, something that the conquistadores denied to his people at a time of much violence and suffering. He listens yet feels unworthy of her words and the tasks she gives him.
She insists that he be her messenger to the ecclesial powers of the time. He doubts himself; she affirms him. He eludes her; she reaches out again. He does not seem to understand why she chose him; she suggests that he does not have to understand it all.
After several interchanges of trusting and loving words, he acquiesces. She wants a temple. He conveys the message and she gets her wish. In the meantime, a divine sign occurs. The image of a young, pregnant and indigenous-looking maiden is miraculously imprinted in his tilma (cloak). She stayed with him. She remains with us.
The story enjoys the characteristics of a true drama. A Christian drama, one of the first of this nature in the continent for which we have a record! As in the larger Christian story, at the end the poor are lifted up, the oppressed find freedom, life supersedes death, despair is conquered by hope.
There is no doubt in my mind that these characteristics, all present in the story of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, explain why millions upon millions of people have embraced the devotion. They resonate with our daily human experience. We all are Juan Diego at some point.
Mary of Guadalupe is a powerful symbol of hope. I have seen this in the way many Catholics approach her story and venerate her image. She is a reminder that no matter how hard life is, God does not abandon us. God cares about the poor and downtrodden. As a pregnant woman, her body enshrines God’s ultimate hope for the world: Jesus Christ.
Mary of Guadalupe is a true symbol of renewal. At the time of her apparitions, the story goes, precious birds sang and beautiful flowers blossomed out of season. In the Nahuatl tradition, the presence of flower and song signified creation: a new creation. Through her, God signaled a new beginning in which justice, friendship and love would prevail.
The year 2020 was a tough year, no doubt. The pandemic brought illness, pain, isolation, despair and death to many. Recent social tensions reopened wounds inflicted by racism and reminded us that this evil will remain with us until we really decide to confront it. Our communities ache with division as our political system withstands unprecedented tests.
God knows that we need hope and renewal. I turn first to Jesus and in doing so I turn to Mary of Guadalupe. As she promised to Juan Diego, she remains with us. I know she does.
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Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.