One of the most impressive elements of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s December 12 feast is the dramatic representation of her apparitions to St. Juan Diego. I witnessed this ritual for the first time in 1992, at San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral. The congregation observed with hushed reverence the climactic moment when Juan Diego dropped roses that grew out of season and presented the image of Guadalupe that miraculously appeared on his tilma (cloak). As the previously unbelieving bishop and his assistants fell to their knees in veneration, applause erupted throughout the cathedral.
Pope Francis declares that encounters like Juan Diego’s reveal the “mystery of mercy” at the heart of God’s entry into our lives. Such encounters are, as the pope puts it, “the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us.” We are each called to imitate God’s boundless mercy and make the church a home of mercy. Citing Thomas Aquinas, Pope Francis goes so far as to avow in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that “mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies.” The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe reveals the wonder of mercy and is a call to each of us to be ambassadors of God’s mercy in our own lives.
The mercy Guadalupe extends to Juan Diego is a challenging one. In one of the most moving passages of the narrative, Juan Diego returns to Guadalupe after his first interview with the unresponsive bishop and asks her to send another messenger “who is respected and esteemed.” She replies, “It is absolutely necessary that you personally go and speak about this, and that precisely through your mediation and help my wish and my desire be realized.” Her direct response to Juan Diego’s sense of lowliness and, by extension, that of anyone who questions their own goodness as a creation of God is an unexpected act of mercy in and of itself.
The bishop in the apparitions account, Juan de Zumárraga, seemingly presumes he is not in need of mercy. In his mind, his life is already right with God; the unschooled natives have nothing to teach him. This is what makes Guadalupe’s offer of mercy all the more remarkable. Zumárraga’s story reminds us that those who struggle most to accept God’s mercy are the religious and the righteous. To the bishop’s credit, in the end he is convinced by the neophyte Juan Diego and opens his heart to receive Guadalupe. Mercy humbles him and enables him to accompany Juan Diego to Tepeyac and build the new church Guadalupe desires. The story is a reminder that none of us can put ourselves above our neighbor. No matter how faithful we might be, we share with one another a burning need for God’s mercy.
In another interaction during the apparitions account, Guadalupe responds to Juan Diego’s distress for his ill uncle, Juan Bernardino, with what has become one of the most frequently quoted passages: “Do not fear that sickness or any other sickness or anxiety. Am I not here, your mother?” Guadalupe’s maternal love is inescapable. She reminds us that divine mercy is infinite, relentless. Our problems may seem insufferable, our pain too much to bear. We may think our situation is hopeless or our sins beyond forgiveness, but Guadalupe teaches us that nothing could be further from the truth. No pit that we can dig or fall into is deeper than the abyss of God’s mercy.
Mercy is neither superficial nor sentimental. It never condones injustice. Like God in the book of Exodus, Guadalupe appears in a dark moment of history. She goes to the periphery and, through Juan Diego, unleashes the power of mercy within an oppressive colonial reality. She asks that a temple be built on the hill of Tepeyac where she “will show and give to all people all my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection.” Not just the natives. Not just the conquering Spaniards. Not just the enslaved Africans, nor the mixed raced children. All people. Guadalupe’s offer of mercy addresses the entire social order. It is not merely a source of comfort, it is a call to action.
How can we respond to such a loving mother and powerful exemplar of divine mercy? The answer is simple: We must become more like her. More loving. More compassionate. More merciful. It all starts with prayer. When we prayerfully recognize the infinite mercy that has been given to us, we will be freer to extend mercy to our sisters and brothers. As Pope Francis and Aquinas teach us, a host of other virtues flows from mercy. The joy of being in right relationship with God and neighbor diminishes our faults and magnifies our witness.
Guadalupe entices us to embrace the core of the good news: God’s mercy changes everything. It extends to all places and peoples. It reaches every part of our lives: our Juan Diego feelings of unworthiness, our Juan de Zumárraga tendencies to self-righteousness, and our Juan Bernardino brokenness and need for healing. Mercy can transform lives, communities, and whole societies. It is what makes us human, more reflective of the divine image in which God created us. It is both a gift and a calling.
As San Fernando Cathedral devotees can testify, to encounter Guadalupe is to encounter mercy. The drama of Juan Diego and Juan de Zumárraga reveals God’s overflowing mercy. It also reminds us that, although the final resolution of this drama has yet to be realized, its resolution has already dawned. Mercy will have the last word. In the applause that erupts at San Fernando and in our grateful souls, Guadalupe enables us to glimpse this grand vision of God’s saving power. May it fill our hearts and help us build the household of mercy that she and her son Jesus Christ desire.
This essay comes from a presentation offered for the Saturday with the Saints series of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life.