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Our Lady of Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine and celebrations in Des Plaines, Ill. Photo courtesy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and CNA

Mexico City, Mexico (CNA/EWTN News)—It would be virtually impossible to travel to Mexico without seeing the colorful star-cloaked image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on street corners, in private homes, on restaurant walls, and certainly in church chapels.

Four hundred and eighty-seven years ago, the Virgin Mary appeared multiple times to St. Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Catholicism, in his native Mexico. The Mestiza Mary, who became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, spoke to Juan Diego gently as a mother and in his native language.

On December 12, in her last appearance to Juan Diego, she ordered him to gather the unseasonable roses from the top of a mountain and bring them to the archbishop as proof of her request to have a church built there. When Juan Diego let the roses fall out of his tilma (cloak), the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared imprinted on it, and the archbishop was convinced.

Since then the tilma has been venerated by millions of people every year, and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become ubiquitous with Mexican culture.

“Pretty much if you’re Mexican, you are Marian, devoted to Our Lady,” Deacon Jesus Valenzuela, F.S.S.P., a seminarian from Mexico at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Nebraska, told CNA.

But while she is originally from Mexico, her patronage and devotion have spread throughout the Americas and beyond.

Mother of Mexico and of ‘all the rest who love me’

Monsignor Eduardo Chavez, postulator of the cause of St. Juan Diego and a Guadalupe apparition expert, is not surprised that devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe has grown strong in the United States and throughout the world.

In fact, the Virgin Mary told Juan Diego herself that she desired to be the mother of more than Mexico alone, he said.

In introducing herself to Juan Diego, Mary says: “I am your merciful mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love me.”

“In 1531 there were no borders in the Americas. But just in case we need clarification, the Virgin herself said to Juan Diego ‘and of all the other people of different ancestries who love me.’ Then from the Virgin of Guadalupe herself it is declared that she is not only for Mexicans but for the whole world,” Chavez told CNA.

The Virgin of Guadalupe transcends cultures and countries because she comes bearing Christ, Chavez added.

“[Our Lady] puts Jesus in the heart of every human being, beyond language, traditions, customs, politics, beyond divisions, beyond all. She put Jesus Christ our Lord in the human heart, making us brothers.”

Her devotion gained significant followings outside of Mexico starting in the 20th century, when she was granted numerous titles by the Vatican.

In 1910 St. Pius X named her Patroness of Latin America, and in 1945, at the urging of bishops from the United States and Canada, Venerable Pius XII bestowed on her the title Empress of the Americas.

“Empress is perhaps the most impressive title, as it is limited to a small number of the leading Marin advocations across the globe, none of whom lay spiritual claim over two continents as is the case with the Virgin of Guadalupe,” said Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a specialist in Latin American Catholicism.

Later St. John Paul II formalized the invocation of Our Lady of Guadalupe as Patroness of the Americas and Star of the New Evangelization. In 1999 he declared that her feast day of Dec. 12 be celebrated in churches throughout the Americas, and in 2002 he canonized St. Juan Diego.

“She used to be called Empress of the Americas because by then the Americas were considered divided into the southern part with its Hispanic and Portuguese culture and the northern part with its English and French culture,” Chavez said. “But St. John Paul II named her in 1999 Patroness of all America, singularly, because for the love of God there are no divisions.”

How Guadalupe came to the United States

One of the strongest places of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, outside of Mexico, is the United States, where many shrines, seminaries, and parishes bear her name.

Although Chesnut has seen images of the Virgin of Guadalupe in churches throughout Latin America, “there is no doubt that devotion to the Mestiza Mary is strongest in Mexico and the United States.”

“Over the past few decades devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe in the United States has spread beyond parishioners of Mexican and Latino heritage to Americans of African, European, and Asian descent,” he said.

The simplistic version of the story of how the devotion spread north is Mexican migration, said Julia Young, an associate professor of history at Catholic University of America.

“Mexicans, whenever they came to the United States, brought their faith with them and their own religious identity and religious practices, and where they could, they found places of worship or they opened new places of worship. And often . . . they named them for the Virgin to whom they were most devoted: Our Lady of Guadalupe,” she said.

The Cristero War, which took place in the late 1920s, was a rebellion of Catholic clergy and laity against the anti-Catholic and anti-clerical Mexican government. The conflict made political and religious refugees out of a large number of Catholic clergy and religious, Young said, who came to the United States seeking safety and brought their devotions with them.

Mexican migration to the United States continued after the Cristero war until Mexico became the top country for immigration to the United States, Young said.

Although they may not be building as many new churches as in the earlier years of immigration, today’s Mexican immigrants to the United States still bring their religious devotion with them.

“That’s why you go to, say, Southbend, Ind., and you see a church built by Polish immigrants that now has an altar or a side altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The newer Mexican immigrants are coming into the older Italian and Polish immigrant churches and they’re bringing the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

Her many patronages

As she’s gained popularity in the Church in the United States, numerous Catholic organizations and causes that transcend cultures and even countries have chosen her as their official patron saint.

When Carl Anderson was named Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus Catholic fraternity in 2001, he brought the board of directors and the organization’s officers to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City to place the Knights under the protection and intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“I wanted to emphasize the international character of her message and the international character of the Knights of Columbus,” Anderson told CNA.

He was also inspired by St. John Paul II, who called Guadalupe “an example of perfect inculturation and [who] placed the entire hemisphere under her protection, so it seemed to me that this was the right thing for the Knights of Columbus to do,” he said.

The Virgin Mary has often been invoked as a special protectress and patroness of priests. In Nebraska, at an international seminary for the Fraternity of St. Peter, the priests-to-be are under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe, for whom the seminary is named.

Valenzuela said that this patronage speaks to the “international character” of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which is a worldwide congregation of priests specifically formed and trained to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass.

Our Lady of Guadalupe has a special place in the hearts of seminarians, Valenzuela said, because “the work of Mary is pretty much the work of priests.”

“Our Lady of Guadalupe, from what I know, is the only apparition of Mary where she’s pregnant, so what she does . . . is to bring Christ into the hearts of man. That’s what priests do; we bring Christ to other people,” he said.

Her feast day at the seminary, which is home to seminarians from South, Central, and North America, is a full day of celebrations, beginning with the liturgy and complete with piñatas, a Mexican feast, fireworks, and a mariachi band.

“It’s a pretty big feast day,” Valenzuela said.

Our Lady of Guadalupe has also been popularized as the patroness of the pro-life movement, particularly in the United States and Canada, “because she is a pregnant woman and she carries Jesus Christ our Lord in her immaculate womb; she is the patroness of life from the moment of conception,” Chavez said.

Valenzuela said he also looks to Guadalupe for encouragement against the “culture of death.”

“Pope John Paul II called the culture in this present time the culture of death. And Our Lady of Guadalupe, she is the symbol of life. Why? Because she bears life, Christ himself, in her womb.”

The message of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the Church today

Chavez said the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to grow and spread and is evident in the variety of international pilgrims at her shrine in Mexico City.

Her message, he noted, is one of unity and love.

“That is why she is making a new civilization—of God’s love—where there are no borders or divisions, where we are all the one family of God. Her dark skin, her mestizo skin, also signals she is the mother of all people,” he said.

Anderson, who co-authored a book on Guadalupe with Chavez titled Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love (Doubleday, 2009), said that amid divisions and tensions in the United States and the world, the Virgin is ever urging peace and reconciliation.

“She came at a time when there was a tremendous conflict between the Europeans that had arrived in the New World and the indigenous people, and her message was one of hope, reconciliation, unity, and healing,” he said.

“That message has carried through centuries, and I believe it’s just as relevant today.”

Valenzuela said the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe for Catholics today is also one of total confidence in the love and protection of Mary.

“I think she has a universal message . . . and this is very important for all Catholics, this confidence in Mary,” he said, “because she tells Juan Diego: ‘nothing should frighten you. Let your heart not be disturbed.’”