Is there a link between Guadalupe and the Immaculate Conception? From the time of the apparition and first glimpse of the Miraculous Image on the tilma of Bl. Juan Diego, Catholics, Spaniards and Indian, American and European, have always believed there is a relation between Mary Immaculate and Guadalupe.
But toward the end of the “age of enlightenment,” the eighteenth century, voices increasingly more strident have denied any such connection. Clearly, these “voices” are often identical with those who doubt or deny the historicity and/or supernatural nature of the apparitions. The arguments they use and the conclusions they reach exactly parallel those of modernists who claim one can deny the historicity of the infancy narratives, but still believe as a Catholic in the “symbolic” value of Marian dogmas such as the divine motherhood and perpetual virginity.
As so frequently happens, those attacking the truths of Faith unwittingly draw the attention of believers to the importance of facts easily discovered, yet commonly overlooked, which justify the traditional belief. In this case it is the role played by the Franciscans who assured that the link, intended by Our Lady, would be seen. That link has been explained over the centuries to rest upon the Franciscan influence in Spain and the New World.
During the first two hundred years after the apparition, belief in a link between Guadalupe and the Immaculate Conception usually is evident in discussions of the “Woman clothed with the sun” (Apoc. 12,1 ff) plainly recalled by the Miraculous Figure of the Mother of God on the tilma. By 1531 it was commonplace among Catholics to identify the Woman of the Apocalypse the Woman who crushes the head of the serpent (Gen. 3,15), with the Mother of God, Coredemptrix and Queen, under the title of Immaculate Conception.
The popular awareness of that identity and of its significance is the result of the role played by the Franciscan Order. It was the Franciscan theologian, Bl. John Duns Scotus (1266?-1308), who worked out the classic theology of the Immaculate Conception. Since then, Franciscan preachers and missionaries, guided by his profound insights, effectively contributed to the acceptance of his “thesis” throughout the Church. A good example of this kind of “borrowing Franciscan insights” without mentioning the Franciscans, is to be found in the writings of the Mexican Miguel Sanchez (1594-1674). As long as one is aware of and accepts the assumptions of the Franciscan “thesis” about the Immaculate, then the reference to the text of the Apocalypse mirrored on the tilma clearly says: She is the Immaculate Woman.
More recently, defenders of the tradition have brought forward arguments based on the words which our Lady used to identify herself to Juan Bernardino. Thus, Helen Behrens popularized the view that in identifying herself Our Lady used, not the Spanish name Guadalupe, but a word in Nahuatl: Coatlaxopeuh, i.e., I am the one who has crushed the head of the serpent (who demands human sacrifice). To Spanish ears that word spoken by Juan Bernardino would have sounded like Guadalupe; whence the link with the Spanish shrine and the popular name of the Mexican shrine.
Now, the meaning assigned Coatlaxopeuh in this thesis (crushing the head of the serpent) has come under considerable fire from students of Nahuatl and of Aztec culture. The sometimes heated exchanges, concentrating on what is a secondary point in regard to our theme, distract from the essential contribution of Helen Behrens. She called the attention of the English speaking public to some true facts.
First, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico really is the Immaculate, the “Perfect Virgin” of the Nican Mopohua. In bringing about the conversion of nations to Jesus she does in some real sense crush the head of the enemy of the Savior and our salvation, whatever form this opposition takes. She, the Mother of mercy, because she is the Immaculate, intervenes in history to secure the conversion, sanctification and salvation of all peoples.
Second, Coatlaxopeuh, the word used by Juan Bernardino, whatever it means in Nahuatl when pronounced does sound like Guadalupe in Spanish! But to say that the link between Guadalupe and the Immaculate is based only on the misunderstanding of the word Guadalupe is a capital error. This fails to take into account the role played by the Franciscans at both Guadalupan shrines.
By the end of the fifteenth century the Franciscans had placed in the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extramadura a statue of the Immaculate Conception, one which soon became a popular object of veneration. There is also good evidence that the same statue had already been made known by the Franciscan missionaries in Mexico to the Indians and that perhaps a reproduction was already venerated in the vicinity of Tepeyac.
Now, the similarity between the depiction of the Immaculate in the statue placed by the Friars Minor in the sanctuary of Extramadura and the Image on the tilma is extraordinarily close, so close that anyone from the region of Extramadura, like the Spanish translator in the Bishop’s palace, hearing what sounded like Guadalupe, would have spontaneously associated this Image with the Immaculate Conception statue in Spain.
In the Franciscan tradition the Immaculate is Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, whose Portiuncula (Little Portion) was the chapel where Angels were often seen to descend and ascend, waiting on their Queen and her clients, “the rest of her offspring,” i.e., the rest of the Savior’s brethren (cf. Apoc. 12:17). This is the place where St. Francis came to understand his vocation, found his Order and where he died.
When, therefore, the good Bishop beheld the roses spilling on the floor, it was not only a sign that he could believe Juan Diego, but an answer to his own prayer for a sign assuring the success of the evangelization and the pacification of the two peoples. When he saw the image of Our Lady supported by an angel at her feet on the tilma, he could not help but recognize the Franciscan mode of conceiving the Immaculate as Queen of the Angels. The link between Guadalupe in Mexico, Guadalupe in Spain and the Immaculate Conception was fixed. The core of the Perfect Virgin’s message at every authenticated appearance since, because she is the Immaculate, rests upon her maternal mediation as Dispenstrix of God’s mercy and grace. It is she upon whom the Angels wait, the Angels venerated at both Guadalupe shrines.
The association between Guadalupe in Mexico and the Immaculate Conception was perceived immediately, not only in Mexico, but in Europe as well. More and more as the Miracle came to be known representations of the Immaculate Conception reflected the likeness on Bl. Juan Diego’s tilma. With the decisive victory of the Christian fleet over the more powerful Moslems at Lepanto, lifting the threat of the infidels over the whole of Europe, through a copy of the Icon, the Immaculate Conception came to occupy center stage in the Catholic counter-reformation. She is the Auxiliatrix Christianorum—Help of Christians.
This, therefore, is what the tradition uniformly assumed. To get around the obvious, skeptics interpreted references to the Woman of Apocalypse, such as those of Miguel Sanchez, the seventeenth century commentator, as inspired by criollo patriotism, rather than as they always have been understood: testimonials to the common belief in the Immaculate Conception reflected by the Image on the tilma. There is no indication that Sanchez or Bl. Juan Diego or our Lady anticipate a liberation theology interpretation of the Magnificat. The proof is all to the contrary.
The role of Franciscan piety in the origins of Guadalupe is understandable in the context of the Franciscan influence in Spain and Mexico, an influence explicitly and almost aggressively “Immaculatist.” At the time of the apparitions the Franciscan Order was popularly known as the one which “preached the Immaculate Conception.” Our Lady appearing at Tepeyac made use of Franciscans and their long tradition of devotion to the Immaculate, first of all in the person of Bishop Zumárraga, who openly supported the building of the first church at the site which she indicated.
The Franciscan spirituality, plus the urgency of the times, inspired and impelled Christopher Columbus, a Third Order Franciscan, in his expeditions. He was quite familiar with the Apocalypse, in particular chapter 12, with its account of the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in heaven and the appearance of the Woman clothed with the sun, who literally is the Ark. This is the same biblical reference which played so central a role in the iconography of the tilma. There Our Lady blots out the sun, indicating she is greater than the sun god whom the Aztecs worshiped. She has the moon beneath her feet and stars on her robe which places her above and beyond mere terrestrial creation.
Guadalupe is not an explanation of the Immaculate Conception as such. Rather it is a heavenly confirmation of the basis for her universal maternal mediation as the Immaculate One, and so provides the key to the understanding of the successful evangelization of Mexico and of all people and nations. It is no accident that in every authentic appearance of our Lady since 1531, in some way these two themes, Immaculate Conception and Marian mediation, are involved. In a word, the appearance of the Perfect Virgin declares the wonders of divine grace and glory over a world darkened by sin, the degradation of false worship involving human sacrifice, and the enslavement of neighbor through unjust amassment of riches.
Similarly, today vast numbers of souls are enslaved by the idolatry of sensual pleasure. Instead of worshiping the Child of the Virgin as Our Lady of Guadalupe asked, they sacrifice their offspring and their fecundity to the demands of lust and greed. How needed it is to look upon and listen to the Mother of Tepeyac, the Mother of Life and heed her requests to build a temple for the Holy Spirit in their souls in imitation of the Immaculate Virgin’s purity, modesty and chastity.
Guadalupe, then, is no mere symbolic myth as one prestigious anti-apparitionist claims and this book refutes. Guadalupe is above all a person, the Perfect Virgin, our Mother of mercy, a model to be imitated, and a living Mother who anticipates our needs as when she intervenes in our history for the sake of our salvation and for the sake of our welfare as pilgrims in this world. As a Mother to all she deliberately spoke in a way that both nations, Indian and Spanish, would understand the same mystery at Extramadura and at Tepeyac—the Immaculate Virgin in her unique role as Mother of all men.
Before airing questions of inculturation, politics, economics, etc., there is need for unity of Faith in her Son. This is possible only when she is humbly acknowledged to be the Mother of God, as in Mexico, by both nations through the erection of a temple in her honor. Where this is not recognized, there will be constant conflict and revolution. The genius of Catholicism, of Catholic political philosophy and culture, is the Perfect Virgin.
“Behold your Mother” Jesus says to St. John (Jn 19:26). To all his “beloved disciples” could He not also be saying before the tilma of Bl. Juan Diego: Behold the Woman of Revelation, the Immaculate? The more we grasp and live this mystery, the foundation of the Virgin’s compassionate and motherly mediation, the greater our understanding of the person and work of her Son and Savior, and our sharing in His life. Blessed, indeed, those who behold their Immaculate Mother and, as the Son asks, take her into their homes by true devotion to Mary, by total consecration to the Immaculate.
Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, F.I., a member of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, is an internationally known lecturer on Marian doctrine who has appeared on EWTN and is past editor of the international Marian magazine founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe, Miles Immaculatae. This article first appeared in the publication A Handbook on Guadalupe, Academy of the Immaculate, 1997.