Photo: Melanie Williams

A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Mexico

A Pilgrimage to 'Mamma'

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The miraculous tilma with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the new Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Mexico.

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The baptismal font in which St. Juan Diego was baptized.

Three and a half years ago, I was blessed to be able to go on a pilgrimage to Mexico City, Mexico, to see the miraculous tilma (a sort of poncho or cloak) depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast we celebrate on Dec. 12. Growing up going to Catholic school, I had always heard of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I knew that she held a special place for those with Latino heritage, but I am not Latino, and so I mistakenly thought that this particular apparition didn't mean much to me.

My perspective changed through one pilgrimage in 2014. It all happened by God's providence. My then spiritual director was organizing the pilgrimage, and I knew in my heart that Our Lady was calling me to go.

We began our pilgrimage by visiting ancient Aztec pyramids and other sites, learning about the history of Mexico and its native peoples. The Aztecs were a pagan nation whom the Franciscans were trying to evangelize. The Spanish conquistadors were ravaging the native peoples with horrible atrocities, which turned many Aztecs away from the faith.

Saint Juan Diego was not one who turned away. He was one of the few native people that had converted to Christianity when the Franciscans first came to Mexico. A humble man, when Mary appeared to him, St. Juan Diego told her that she should appear to someone else because he was not worthy, not even worthy enough, in his words, to be "a string on a rope." But she chose to appear to him.

Why?

She wanted a chapel built in that spot in order to bring Jesus to the people. She told Juan to go to the Bishop Juan de Zumarraga to request this, giving him a sign to prove that she had really appeared, and really had made such a request. What was to be the sign? Our Lady arranged a bouquet of roses, of a type usually only found in Spain, in Juan's cactus fiber tilma. When he opened his garment before the bishop, the roses tumbled to the floor and Our Lady appeared on his tilma, looking just as Juan had previously described her to the Bishop. She was the sign from Heaven proving that God wanted to come to His people, that He was not indifferent to the sufferings of the native people.

She said to little Juan on one occasion, "Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest and dearest son, that the thing that disturbs you, the thing that afflicts you, is nothing. Do not let your countenance, your heart be disturbed. ... Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you."

Our tour leader spoke these words to us as we approached the basilica, and they were ringing in my ears as my heart felt pulled to get to the miraculous tilma as quickly as possible.

We were told that the tilma had been scientifically examined many times throughout history. The cloth is made up of a natural fiber that normally would not last more than a few decades before disintegrating — it has lasted for 486 years. There are no natural pigments on the cloth which could be found at that time, and after all these years, the colors are still fresh and vibrant. Scientists also could not find any detectable brush strokes. In her eye, you can see the Bishop who saw the image when Juan Diego showed it to him. The stars on her mantle are in the pattern that one would see from Mexico City in December, the time of year in which Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego. The flower pattern on her dress, just above her womb, is the same symbol the Aztecs used for the Sun God, the god above all, telling them that truly Jesus is the Son of God.

These are just some of the miraculous aspects of the image. But its fundamental message is simple: Mary comes as St. Juan Diego's mother, and our mother, too.

I had one goal in mind, and I was set on accomplishing it — I needed to see this image. I went into the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe set on finding her. Hidden behind and below the main altar, I found two moving walkways. I got on them and looked up, just like everyone else. I was struck by her beauty and an overwhelming sense of presence, which enveloped me in love. Everything else around me seemed to melt away. I saw my mother. She was, and is, Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, but for those moments, she became "Mamma." The words she spoke to St. Juan Diego came to my heart yet again: "Am I not here, I who am your Mother?"

I could have stayed there for hours or days with her. I didn't want to leave her. But my group was moving on, so I soaked in her presence as much as I could, holding in my heart her words, "Am I not here, I who am your Mother?" It was as if she was saying to me, "No matter where you go, I am always with you, in your heart. I always watch over you, guide you, protect you, pray for you, and love you. Be not afraid. Go in my peace, for I am with you."

Those moments of being so close to my heavenly "Mamma" will stay forever fresh in my mind and heart. Whenever I think of Our Lady of Guadalupe now, it is as if I'm still there in front of her.

I highly encourage you, if you ever have the chance, to go to her. She calls her children to come under her mantle and remain there, as she did St. Juan Diego, as she did me. If you are unable to physically or financially make the pilgrimage to her basilica in Mexico City, then make the pilgrimage in your heart. After all, St. Juan Diego's own uncle was sick and unable to go see the Lady with little Juan, but she appeared to him and healed him.

May Our Lady of Guadalupe pray for you and hold you close under her mantle of love and protection.

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