Margaret Laird describes how a sixteenth-century vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe had a major impact on Mexico and beyond and looks at a poet who was inspired by this tradition

The advertisements on the back page of New Directions give ample evidence of the popularity amongst Catholic Anglicans of pilgrimages to Fatima and Medjugorje. However, the shrine which marks the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is probably less familiar to readers. The traditions which have developed around the Mexican Virgin are not well known in this country, and it is rather far away.

These reasons, however, do not excuse us from remaining ignorant about an ancient tradition which has had such an influence on the history and church of Mexico, where, despite scepticism and anticlericalism, the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe still remains a potent symbol of the modern nation.

The Virgin has also played an important role in the wider Church of that part of the world. This was recognized by Pope John Paul II when he proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe the patron saint not just of Mexico but of all the Americas. In recent publications too, specialists in Mexican Studies have stressed that the influence of what Professor Brading of Cambridge University describes as the ‘Mexican Phoenix’ (the title of his book on Our Lady of Guadalupe) must not be underestimated.

The miraculous appearance

Testimonies of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin ofGuadalupe abounded in the seventeenth century, although the event reputedly occurred in 1531. However, priority has always been given by historians to the account of the apparition given (originally in the Nahuatl language) by Laso de la Vega, who was the Vicar ofGuadalupe in 1649.

His version relates how, in December 1531, an Indian, Juan Diego was walking at dawn past the hill in Tepeyac, north of Mexico City, to attend Mass. He caught sight of a colourful rainbow and heard the sound of beautiful singing. As he turned towards the sound, the Virgin appeared and spoke to him, declaring that she was the Mother of God and that a temple should be established on the hill from where she might help him and those devoted to her. She enjoined him to give a faithful account of this to the bishop.

The bishop at first did not believe him and sought a sign. The Indian returned and unfastened his cloak, in which the Virgin had instructed him to gather flowers from the hill. The bishop then saw the image of the Virgin on the cloak and ordered a church to be built in the place where she had appeared – the very site where the indigenous inhabitants had once worshipped Tonantzin, an expiatory goddess whose name means bur mother’ in the native Indian language.

Patron of New Spain

Throughout the 17th century, a vast quantity of Latin and Spanish literature followed in praise of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Juan Diego’s cloak with the picture of the Virgin was seen as ‘a cloak of protection for the people of Mexico’. Another tradition identified her with that of the Virgin in the Apocalypse in Revelation 12.

The Jesuit missionaries who began to work in Mexico in 1572 were greatly impressed by the popular cult. It was due to the negotiations of a Jesuit that Pope Benedict XIV (after seeing a copy of the Mexican Virgin painted by Miguel Cabrera and marvelling at its beauty) issued the papal bull of 1754, approving the election of Our Lady ofGuadalupe as the principal patron of New Spain, and named her feast day as December 12.

Soon afterwards in 1767, Carlos III of Spain, fearing their increasing power and total obedience to the papacy, expelled the Jesuits from all his dominions. Many of the Mexican Jesuits found refuge in Italy, taking with them the Guadalupan traditions. The Latin poet and Jesuit priest Rafael Landivar was amongst the refugees. His father was a nobleman from Navarra, who had settled in the Spanish Colonies and married a criolla’ wife. Their son Rafael was given a Jesuit education and gained a theological degree in Guatemala. Then, moving to Mexico, he joined the Jesuits, was ordained and eventually became Rector of a seminary.

In 1767, he was amongst those who were cruelly deported without warning, and after arriving in Italy, he joined the community of Jesuits in Bologna.

Rafael Landfvar

Some years later, the ‘ten book edition of his Latin epic poem about his beloved Mexico was published. It included some vivid lines about the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe. He described how after she had shown Juan Diego a manifestation of her mercy, the Indian, ‘mentally disturbed and perplexed’ because of the miraculous event, was unable to find the places which the Queen had hallowed with her footsteps. In order to help him to guide his companions to the trail, the Virgin adorned the meadow with a health-bringing fountain and granted to the city ‘an everlasting pledge of her devotion’.

Why mention this obscure Mexican poet? Because his devotion to the Blessed Virgin remained with him throughout his life and inspired him to write two Marian poems. They have now been translated for the first time into English in The Epic of America – an Introduction to Landivar, published by Duckworth. The lines quoted below from Landivar’s ‘Ode in Honour of the Blessed Virgin’ demonstrate that the ideas he expressed about the role of Our Lady deserve to be more widely known. Perhaps they could even be incorporated into our own church tradition in praise of the Blessed Virgin.

See how the Father with just ordinance had long deemed to honour Mary, free from the sin of our first ancestor, and at once a Virgin and Mother, with his offspring. How the Virgin brought forth God for us; her breast was smitten with grim suffering inflicted by wounds and swords, and in shame she nobly positioned herself at the side of her Son.

In her kindness, she gave the people a formation in faith, she piously taught Christian ways; until borne up to heaven she departed, praised by Angelic song.

God the Creator gave her to the Angels as Queen, he too gave her to the Underworld as Mistress and to us, mercifully redeemed, as a Mother, outstanding in devotion.