Young Juan Diego was walking through Tepeyac, a place held sacred by his ancestors — a place of safety, of welcome, of peace.
He heard birds singing, then he heard a gentle voice.
He followed the voice to where the Lady was waiting for him.
Her clothes looked like the sun. The mesquite trees and cactus around her gave the impression of a quetzal feather.
These were holy symbols to Juan Diego’s people.
She spoke in his language, addressing him by name and as “my dearest son.”
Her skin and facial features were like his.
She was with child.
He didn’t know who she was. He figured he was in heaven.
She spoke: “I am the always-virgin Mary, Mother of God.”
The Creator of All used every sign available to validate her claim, as if to say, “This is the woman I chose to be My mother, and I am introducing you to her. Hear her. She has a message for you.”
The humble man was about to be sent on a mission that continues to this day.
“Juan Diego understood the language of the heart,” said Sister Ana Luisa Prieto Valdés of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.
She was speaking to a group at St. Peter parish in Jefferson City last year on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“He received the catechism of heaven,” she said. “If we open our hearts, we can be like him.”
An unlikely missionary
Sr. Ana Luisa holds a doctorate in social anthropology from the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City.
A native of Chihuahua, Mexico, she has been heavily involved in education and in indigenous and farmer ministries.
She was serving in the Jefferson City diocese last year when she gave a presentation on Our Lady of Guadalupe in English in Jefferson City and in Spanish in Sacred Heart Church in Columbia.
Our Lady’s miraculous apparitions of 1531 to a poor, indigenous man in what is now Mexico City is credited with bringing millions of people to Christ.
St. Juan Diego, humble messenger of Our Lady, had radical faith and an open heart — just what God’s own chosen mother needed to spread the truth of His love and salvation across two continents.
Juan Diego would be a missionary to his own people and to those who had led them to the cross by the sword.
“He didn’t know it yet, but the Virgin of Guadalupe knew that he was the one,” said Sr. Ana Luisa. “She was sending him on a very special mission.”
She dispatched him as a messenger to the local bishop.
“I would appreciate it so much for you to do the best you can,” she told him. “Tell him to construct a little house for me here, so people can come and I can give them my love and my peace and help them with all their needs.”
The young man responded, “My queen, I’m leaving to take your message.”
“I will lead you”
Juan Diego went to the bishop’s palace right away but was not immediately received.
He begged the servants to let him speak to the bishop.
Finally, the young man was given an audience.
He showed God’s servant proper reverence, then presented the Lady’s message about building her a little house at Tepeyac.
“And she wants to lead us and protect us and give us health and everything we need,” he added.
The bishop was skeptical and send him away.
Juan Diego went back to Tepeyac, a place that was safe like home to him.
She was waiting. “Hello, my son.”
He told her that with great difficulty, he presented her message to the bishop, but he did not receive it.
She asked him to try again.
“My queen,” he replied, “you are sending me to a place I do not know. Please send another, very important person.”
“I will lead you,” she told him.
By treating him with respect, she restored his God-given dignity and reinforced his mission to do likewise for his people.
He went again the next day, and he was again unsuccessful.
Juan Diego was overcome with sadness, knowing that he was carrying in his heart a message from one whom God had chosen to be His mother.
But his word wasn’t enough.
He returned to the Lady and asked her to give him a sign to share with the bishop, to help him believe.
She said, “Come back tomorrow morning, and I will give you a sign.”
Roses in winter
Juan Diego went home and found that his uncle was deathly ill and had lost the will to live — as had his people, their culture and the society that had built it.
Juan Diego’s uncle told him to call a priest, because he was dying.
The young man had to decide whether to do what his uncle told him or keep his appointment with the Queen of Heaven.
He decided that he would talk to the priest first, then return to Tepeyac to receive the promised sign.
He went by another route, to avoid seeing her.
“But of course, she could see him wherever he was,” Sr. Ana Luisa noted.
The Virgin came down the hill to greet him.
“Hello, my loved son,” she said warmly. “Did you sleep well? How is your day?”
He said it hurt him deeply to disobey her, but he needed to help his uncle before it was too late.
After listening with love, she said: “Let nothing disturb your heart or your face. Am I not here, your mother? Are you not under my shadow and my shelter? What else do you need? Your uncle will not die. Rest assured that he is already healed.”
She was addressing not only his concern for a family member but for his people, whose hearts were filled with sadness and who were convinced of their unworthiness.
His confidence restored, Juan Diego again asked for an appropriate sign to take to the bishop.
The Virgin sent him to the high part of a dry hill, where he found Castilla roses in full bloom.
It was winter, and the hills were dry. Flowers simply did not grow there.
Like the song of the birds that began his first encounter with the Lady, flowers were sacred symbols for his people.
“For him, for his culture, and for all of us, he knew this was heaven,” Sr. Ana Luisa pointed out.
Our Lady gathered up the roses and placed them in his cloak.
“The Spanish had brought the truth of their God to the people, and their God is truth,” Sr. Ana Luisa noted. “Their symbols were the cross and the sword.
“But in these symbols and the love of Our Lady, both ways of knowing and loving and understanding God are joined,” she said.
Juan Diego went to see the bishop. This time, he would not fail.
Was he received immediately? No.
The bishop’s servants saw that Juan Diego was carrying something in his cloak, known as a tilma.
But the Lady had said to show them only to the bishop.
“Our Lady sent me”
Finally, when granted an audience, Juan Diego unfurled his tilma and scattered the roses on the floor.
“The Lady of Heaven, Holy Mary, the Precious Mother of God, kindly agreed to send you this sign, so you will be able to believe my word,” Juan Diego told the bishop.
“With the sign, you will accept her will and also you will see the truth of my word and my message,” he said. “I am an Indian, a conquered, but you need to believe me because Our Lady sent me.”
At that moment, the bishop and his attendants saw the image of the Lady of Heaven, just as Juan Diego had seen her, emblazoned on his timla.
More than 300 years before photography was invented, the image surpassed the clarity of many modern-day cameras.
The bishop had an immediate change of heart.
“He knelt down and cried and asked pardon from Our Lady and Juan Diego because he didn’t understand the message she was trying to give him,” said Sr. Ana Luisa.
The bishop and his servants followed Juan Diego to his uncle’s house, where they found the uncle completely healed.
The miraculous image, now nearly 500 years old, remains intact and has been seen by millions of pilgrims in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Scientists can’t figure out the image, which is soft to the touch, unlike the stiffness of an oil painting.
Our Lady’s eyes, when magnified, show the reflection of people standing before her.
“A welcoming heart”
“We can all be like Juan Diego,” said Sr. Ana Luisa. “We can all realize that we are worthy to receive the message and tell other people of the goodness of God.”
She pointed out that every person needs to be shown that they have value and dignity in the eyes of God and His people.
“Our families, our parishes need to be places of welcome,” she said. “Each of us needs to have a welcoming heart for those we don’t know.”
Sr. Ana Luisa asked her audience three questions:
She noted that the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe — an exquisite 15th-century edifice and its neighboring modernistic counterpart — is a place of radical welcome.
Millions of pilgrims each year spend a day there just speaking to the Blessed Mother, who has the ear of her Son, Jesus.
“And she can hear everyone,” said Sr. Ana Luisa. “All the people who go there go back home happy.
“They feel at home. They are welcome in the shrine, and we can make it the same for them in our parishes and in the world.”