The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a story about an amazing conversion. The missionaries in the New World were hoping to build a New Church, not simply transplant the church from Europe. Theirs was a mission of renewal, a way, in many respects, to start something new and fresh and to distance themselves from the Church in Europe which was, according to many, collapsing from much corruption and the divisions and confusions begun by the Protestant reformers. But the first missionaries, who came soon after the conquistadores, met with little success. They were the best and the brightest philosophers and theologians from the great universities of Spain, but their formal catechetical approach got nowhere, especially with the Wiseman of the native people. The missionaries did everything they could, but as hard as they tried, it seemed impossible for the Gospel to reach the indigenous people. In the 10 years between the conquista in 1521 until Our Lady appeared on Tepeyac Hill in 1531, many heroic efforts were made by the missionaries, but they produced very little fruit. In the seven years after Our Lady appeared, eight million native people were converted. But this amazing conversion – the conversion of a people – began, in many respects, with the conversion of one man, Juan Diego. And Our Lady of Guadalupe reveals the method of evangelization – God’s method – for touching the human heart and generating new life.
But wasn’t Juan Diego already a convert at the time he met Our Lady? Yes. Juan Diego was a 57-year-old widower and came from the lower class of Indians. “Juan Diego” was his baptismal name, and he was on his way to Mass on a Saturday morning when he heard the sound of beautiful music and a soft voice calling his name, “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” She said to him: “Juanito, the smallest of my children, where are you going?” He responds to her, “My dear child, I have to go to your house of Mexico, to hear about the divine things which are given and taught to us by our priests, the delegates of Our Lord.” So he recognizes right away that the house of God belongs to this woman. He doesn’t seem to have any doubt that this woman is who she says she is, “the ever holy Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom one lives, of the Creator of heaven and of earth.” We also know from the story that when he knew his uncle Bernardino was dying, Juan Diego was intent on finding a priest to give his uncle confession and the last sacraments to prepare him for death. So from all accounts, Juan Diego was a well-catechized, practicing Catholic, who understood the saving grace of the sacraments and the important role of the priests. He was devout and understood the teachings of the faith. But he still needed to be converted – at the level of the heart. He knew all the right things and did all the right things, but he didn’t see himself as loved or love-able. He wasn’t happy. He didn’t think his life mattered. Perhaps this was the consequence of the loss of his wife, the sickness of his uncle, of the suffering that came with being a member of an oppressed class of people. He is prompt in following Our Lady’s instruction to go to see the bishop and to tell him of her desire to build a temple or chapel where she asked. But as soon as things don’t go as he thinks they should – when the bishop tells him to come back another day and he doesn’t get to tell the whole story to the bishop, he is filled with great sadness. This “failure” totally crushes him. He wants to quit – give up. He tells Our Lady that she should choose someone else. He says to her, “This, I beg you, entrust your mission to one of the important persons who is well known, respected and esteemed so that they may believe him. You know that I am a nobody, a nothing, a coward, a pile of old sticks, just like a bunch of leaves. I am nothing. You have sent me to walk in places where I do not belong.” This is not an expression of humility but a cry from the heart to be wanted, loved, desired, valued, and esteemed, and belong to God. Deep down, we want to be loved simply because we exist – a love without conditions, but do we really think it is possible, even with God, when we’ve absorbed the mentality that our value is determined by the opinion of others and the “success” achieved by the works of our hands? Juan Diego almost expects an angry response by Our Lady – that he deserves to be dismissed, but Our Lady responds with great tenderness and affirms that Juan Diego, despite what he thinks of himself, is chosen, desired, and, in fact, preferred for this mission, “Listen, my son, the smallest of my children, I want you to understand that I have many servants and messengers to whom I can entrust this message, but in every aspect, it is precisely my desire that you seek help so that with your mediation, my wish will be fulfilled.” He goes back to see the bishop, but still doubts that he will be believed. He seems to be just doing what he is told – following instruction, but without a happy heart. The bishop again does not believe him and asks for a sign that it is really the Blessed Mother who was sending him with this message. Juan Diego asks him what sign he would like so he can ask the Lady for it, but the bishop dismisses him without giving him any more instruction about the sign. Juan Diego reports it all to Our Lady, and she tells him to come back the next day to take the bishop the sign which he has asked for. Juan Diego does not return the next day because he is attending to his dying uncle, but when he was on his way to town the following day in search of the priest, Our Lady meets him along the way. Juan Diego is embarrassed that he tried to avoid her, gives her the excuse that his uncle is dying, and promises to do what she asks tomorrow. She says to him, “Hear me, my son, that which scares you and causes you anguish is nothing; do not let your heart be troubled, do not be afraid of that sickness, Am I not here who am your Mother?” What is most scary and fills us with anxiety is the thought that our life is limited, that death is the end, and that there is nothing we can do to fix it. What Mary says to Juan Diego is an echo of what Jesus said to the disciples at the Last Supper when he announced his betrayal and his imminent death: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God, have faith also in me.” Juan Diego’s distress is a sign of a lack of faith – a lack of faith that God is with him and that he is loved. Juan Diego is embraced by the Mother of Mercy. Mercy is being loved in our weakness – loved and wanted when we’ve done nothing to deserve it. Her embrace awakens him to God’s love for him – the nearness of God – that he is not alone and that he doesn’t have to fix this problem himself. No one more than a mother communicates a love without condition. Mothers love us no matter what. Mothers love us simply because we are their sons and daughters – simply for existing. Mothers reveal the place where we feel “at home” – where we belong – where we have a place. Mothers look at us with great affection. In Mary who brings God to the world in the flesh, Juan Diego can recognize who it is he is made for – she is the sign that reveals the personal love of God – that he belongs to the family of God – that he is a beloved son – that his life has meaning and value. As Elizabeth was surprised by the joy of the encounter with Mary, was moved interiorly, and was filled with the Holy Spirit, Juan Diego is consoled by the presence of Christ and filled with joy. This time he goes with happiness in his heart and has no doubt that he would be believed by the bishop. He wasn’t anxious but waited patiently to see the bishop. This is an amazing change in Juan Diego. His happiness is no longer based on what the bishop thinks or the “success” of his mission. Juan Diego knows he is loved, and therefore can go forth in hope. The sign that convinced the bishop was not the roses but the image drawn before his eyes on the tilma. The sign that convinces us about the presence of God – that moves us to faith – is not something we can plan or arrange; it is not something we can produce; it is beyond what we would ask for, but when it is seen, it brings us to our knees and makes our heart leap, because it is unforeseen and unforeseeable, but perfectly and beautifully corresponds to our desire to be loved, defended, and protected. Mary is the great sign that appears that communicates God’s surprising, merciful, love in the flesh – in a way we can experience and understand, but like Juan Diego and the Bishop, it is up to us in our freedom to recognize the gift and to accept it. When we do, our souls will proclaim the greatness of the Lord and rejoice in God our savior. We may not think that we need to be converted because we practice the faith, go to Mass, receive the sacraments, believe and follow the teachings of the church, but do we experience and know the freedom and joy of being a son or daughter of God? Do we believe deep down that our life matters? That we are loved by God? Do we think we are only as good as what others think of us or that our value is based on our achievements, social standing, and the things we can produce? If that is the case, we’ll be crushed by the smallest failure. Let’s pray to Our Lady for the grace to recognize the need of our heart and say yes to the surprising mercy of God that fulfills it – that God is near! It is this amazing conversion that is not the product of an intellectual argument or a system of rules but the fruit of an encounter with love that speaks to the heart that can ignite a fire that brings conversion to a family, a church, and even a nation. Let’s draw close to Mary and listen to Mary who reveals God’s Word and abiding presence to us. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of the Americas, and mother of the new evangelization, pray for us! ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!