The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is one of the great Marian shrines in the world and is visited by as many as 20 million pilgrims a year. The enormous basilica has the capacity to hold 10,000 pilgrims at one time. What attracts all these worshippers to the shrine? The come to view the tilma (cloak) of St. Juan Diego which bears the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin, the only truly authentic portrait of Our Lady in existence.

The story began on Dec. 9, 1531, as Juan Diego, a newly baptized Aztec Indian was on his way to morning Mass. When he arrived at Tepeyac Hill, Our Lady appeared to him—much to his astonishment—with a message of joy and hope, offering all her love, compassion and mercy! She also asked that a church be built on the site, formerly the location of a temple honouring the Aztec goddess of earth and corn.

Not surprisingly, the Bishop of the area, Bishop Zumarraga, was skeptical when told of this revelation. Secretly, and unbeknown to Juan Diego, the bishop had been praying fervently to the Blessed Virgin Mary for an urgent intention. He had asked for an impossible sign— that Castilian roses be sent to him as a sign of her intercession. The fact of the matter, however, is that Castilian roses were unknown in Mexico at that time. To make the matter even more difficult, roses of any kind could not grow in Mexico City at this time of year!

Juan Diego was also begging Our Lady for a sign: to prove the authenticity of the apparitions! In his next apparition, Our Lady told him to pick some Castilian roses from the hillside and present them to the bishop. Imagine, then, the stupendous surprise of the bishop when Juan Diego uncovered his cloak which was holding the miraculous Castilian roses! And there was another incredible miracle: there on the cloak was emblazoned an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary exactly as she appeared to Juan Diego. She appeared as an Aztec maiden.

It was this image which not only attracted millions of devoted pilgrims over the centuries, but was also the catalyst for the conversion of nine million Aztec Indians within a decade. This was at the same time that the Catholic Church in Europe was losing five million Catholics to the Protestant Reformation.

The fact that the image is still intact and visible to us after four centuries is an outstanding marvel in itself. The tilma, an outer garment worn by the Aztecs of Juan Diego’s time, is made of the delicate Ayate fibres which originate from the Maguay cactus plant, whose normal lifespan is 20 years. Furthermore, it shows not the slightest indication of decay or colour fading.

Scientific investigations have  continued to amaze many, believers and unbelievers alike. Richard Kuhn, German Nobel prize winner in chemistry in 1936 discovered that there was no colouring of any kind in the image’s fibres. The materials used to produce the existing “colours” were unknown to science, being of neither animal, vegetable or mineral origin.

Advanced computerized technology in ophthalmology has revealed more marvellous findings: photographic studies of Our Lady’s eyes, under intense magnification, demonstrated the reflection of the 12 people who were present in the bishop’s room at the time of the miracle.

In 1979 modern scientific research conducted at the University of Florida, utilizing infra-red photography, revealed some startling results, findings which defied science: the scientists were simply mystified by the brightness of the colours (seemingly impervious to fading) and the complete absence of any surface cracking after 400 years. Professor Callahan from the University of Florida summarized his results: “It may seem strange for a scientist to admit this but as far as I’m concerned, the original picture is a miracle.”

It seems that not only is Mary’s image being miraculously preserved, but through modern science and computer technology, our appreciation of the miraculous event that happened over 4 centuries ago is being ever more enhanced!

This article is the first article I wrote on Our Lady of Guadalulpe and is re-printed with permission from THE CATHOLIC REGISTER.