By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Who among us has gazed at an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and not wondered what she’s thinking; why she wears the garments she’s wearing, or why she has darker skin, eyes and hair than in those pictures of her we remember in the prayer books we had as kids? I’d be willing to bet the mystery of Our Lady of Guadalupe has puzzled folks since she first appeared to the Aztec Indian Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill 485 years ago.
About 100 people came to the Catholic Center April 1, to listen to one of the foremost experts on Our Lady of Guadalupe discuss some of the mysteries surrounding her. Msgr. Eduardo Chavez served as postulator for the cause of canonization of Juan Diego, the first indigenous Native American saint, canonized July 31, 2002, by Pope St. John Paul II.
Msgr. Chavez is the first dean of the Catholic University Lumen Gentium of the Archdiocese of Mexico; cofounder and dean of the Higher Institute for Guadalupan studies and an honorary Canon of the Guadalupe Basilica at the foot of Tepeyac Hill, nowadays in the heart of Mexico City. The Basilica is the most visited Catholic site and third most visited sacred site in the world.
Msgr. Chavez earned a doctorate in Church history in 1986 from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He credits his family’s deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe for igniting his curiosity and interest in the apparitions. His doctoral research studies increased his knowledge and understanding of the miracle of the appearance of God through the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and why she chose to appear to Juan Diego.
Using photographs, up-close detailed shots of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s face, her mantle and tunic, gestures and easily understood explanations filled with humor, he showed his audience that “Our Lady of Guadalupe came, not just for the indigenous natives of Mexico, but to offer the incarnate Word of God in her womb, to the whole world, then and now.”
Much of what is known about La Virgen de Guadalupe comes from a 16-page manuscript, the Nican Mopohuah, written in Nahuatl, the Aztec’s native language, most likely by Antonio Valeriano, one of the first baptized Indians who was educated by Franciscan missionaries. The manuscript, which has been dated to 1556, tells the story of the apparitions and the miracle of Juan Diego’s tilma or cloak on which was imprinted on the image of Our Lady exactly as she appeared to the Indian, a recent convert to Christianity, four times between Dec. 9 and 12, 1531. A very old copy of the manuscript is in the Public Library of New York.
The image on the tilma is that of a young, pregnant Indian girl, dark haired parted in the middle and worn long; dark skinned, her hands folded in prayer above the deep purple ribbon tied above her waist, signifying her pregnancy, dressed in an earthen rose colored tunic embroidered in gold flowers and wrapped in a mantel the turquoise blue of the skies emblazoned with stars. A brooch at her neck is of a plain cross, and her feet are bare. She is slightly turned away from the viewer, eyes cast down, and facing east. She stands in front of the sun and on the moon, held aloft by an eagle-winged cherub.
Msgr. Chavez was quick to point out the symbolism in the image. She appeared to Juan Diego, and to his uncle, Juan Bernardino, looking just like their people, the Aztec Indians. The ribbon tied above the child in her womb shows that Mary offered her son, Jesus Christ, to Juan Diego and his people as their God and savior, and hence to us. It also shows that she is our mother, too. She is venerated and enculturated all over the world, with Asians identifying her as Asian, Europeans as of their nations and, here in the Americas, she has become one of us.
The plain cross at her neckline signifies the end of the Aztec’s human sacrifice, as her son was a sacrifice for all on the cross. The flowers on her tunic are symbolic of several things, especially the floral clusters, which resemble a heart surrounded by arteries. She is at the heart of faith and love, reaching out to us through her son.
The tilma, object of veneration, study, experimentation, and art, has survived for 485 years, despite being woven of agave cactus fibers, which, Msgr. Chavez pointed out, normally would have disintegrated within about 20 years. In addition, the fibers are very coarse, which would have made it impossible for the image to have been painted on without a base coat. Studies, photographs and experimentation have proven there is no base coat. The image is imprinted like a stamp on the fibers, and the pigment is made of pressed flowers. Remember the roses that tumbled out of the tilma when Juan Diego opened it in front of Franciscan Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga? Roses don’t grow, let alone bloom, outdoors in Mexico in December, he said.
In 1921, a man placed a bouquet of flowers below the tilma, which is protected by glass and framed, hanging in the Basilica. Shortly after he left, a bomb exploded, damaging the altar, the altar furnishings and pews. The tilma however, was untouched.
Msgr. Chavez also discussed the stars on Our Lady’s mantle. Many scientists, priests and artists over the years considered the stars merely ornamentation. But wait, he said, the stars exactly mirror the positions of the constellations present in the sky at 6:35 a.m., Dec. 12, 1531, the last time she appeared to Juan Diego and told him to gather the flowers in his tilma to take to the archbishop as the sign he had requested.
He explained some of the scientific experiments conducted on Mary’s eyes, which show human reflections of a bearded man, the bishop, the translator, Juan Diego showing the tilma and a family, especially a baby carried on the mother’s back, just as our eyes reflect what we see.
He went on to decode the meaning of Guadalupe, the name Mary chose. Guadalupe unites both the Jewish origin of Mary, Miriam, illuminator and the Arabic for river. In other words, Mary was chosen by God to be the conduit to bring God to the world. She said as much to Juan Diego, “No estoy yo aqui soy tu Madre? Am I not here, who are your mother?”
The next day, April 2, Msgr. Chavez spoke during several sessions of “Santa Maria de Guadalupe, misionera del amor y la misericordia de Dios,” conference at the Kansas City Convention Center. Norma Molina, Assistant Director for Hispanic Catechesis of the Bishop Helming Institute, said about 500 people attended the conference. They came from parishes with large Hispanic parish populations on both sides of the state line, including Sacred Heart-Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Presentation in Lee’s Summit, St. James –Liberty, Holy Cross, St. Sabina in Belton and St. Matthew the Apostle in Grandview in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and All Saints, St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, Blessed Sacrament and Holy Cross in the Archdiocese of Kansas City-Kansas. One man drove up from Springfield because he had heard of Msgr. Chavez and wanted to learn more about Our Lady of Guadalupe, Molina said.
In his talks both April 1 and April 2, Msgr. Chavez discussed in detail some of the mysteries surrounding the apparitions, but warned his listeners that they would learn very little about Our Lady of Guadalupe in 90 minutes or even four hours. It took him 500 hours to complete his study of Dec. 9 – 12, 1531. That is almost 21 days, if he spent every waking minute studying.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, beloved and venerated throughout the world as Asian, Spanish, Italian, French Indian, African, of the Americas or the Pacific Islands, was declared Patroness of the Americas by Pope Pius XII in 1945. And here in Kansas City, she is celebrated and venerated by Catholics of many different cultures — Hispanic, Anglo, Asian, African American — at Tepeyac de Kansas City, Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine.