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On the American continent, Marian devotion is frequently centred around the figure of our Blessed Mother as she appeared in December of 1531 to the native American Saint Juan Diego at Tepeyac Hill in the area of modern-day Mexico City. Our Blessed Mother actually appeared four times to Saint Juan Diego and once to his dying elderly uncle, Juan Bernardino. The fourth appearance to Saint Juan Diego was the most wonderful. A brief account of the apparitions will help to appreciate better God the Father’s purpose in sending the Blessed Mother to the American continent at Tepeyac and the important meaning of devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The first apparition took place on December 9, which at that time was the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in the Spanish Empire, of which Mexico was then a part. Our Blessed Mother appeared to Saint Juan Diego, an older native American who had recently lost his dear wife. Juan Diego himself died in 1548, seventeen years after the apparitions, at the age of 74. On 6 May 1990, Blessed Pope John Paul, during his second pilgrimage as Pope to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, declared Juan Diego blessed.

ABOUT JUAN DIEGO
Juan Diego was a devout Catholic but a man of no particular prominence in the local society or the Church. He had been living with and looking after his uncle, Juan Bernardino, who was gravely ill.

FIRST APPARITION
On Saturday morning, 9 December 1531, Juan Diego was on his way to church to participate in the Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and in the catechetical instruction which would follow. As he reached Tepeyac Hill, he heard beautiful music and a beautiful voice calling out his name. Our Blessed Mother appeared to him as the “woman clothed with the sun” of the Book of Revelation, pregnant with the Child Jesus. She instructed Juan Diego to go to the house of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga and to request that a chapel be built in her honour on Tepeyac Hill so that she might show the infinite majesty and mercy of God to all His children of America.
Juan Diego went to the Bishop’s house at which he was received with great respect but also with hesitation regarding his story of the apparition and of our Blessed Mother’s request. The Bishop, who was praying and working to bring together the native Americans and the Spanish conquerors and settlers, requested time to consider the matter.

SECOND APPARITION
On Juan Diego’s return home, the Blessed Mother appeared to him for the second time. Disappointed that he had failed in his mission, he asked Our Lady of Guadalupe to send a more esteemed messenger to the Bishop, so that he would believe the message. Our Blessed Mother instructed Juan Diego to return to the Bishop with her request.

THIRD APPARITION
The third apparition took place on December 10. Juan Diego had gone to the Bishop for a second time. The Bishop responded by asking for a sign so that he might believe the Blessed Mother’s request. On his way home, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, and he told her of the Bishop’s request of a sign. Our Lady promised to provide the sign for the Bishop when Juan Diego would return to her on the next day. Juan Diego missed his appointment with Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 11 because he was looking after his uncle Juan Bernardino who was gravely ill. On December 12, he was hurrying to bring a priest to administer the sacraments to his uncle who was dying. He took a different route in order to avoid another encounter with the Blessed Mother, embarrassed that he had missed the appointment on December 11 and not wanting to be delayed in seeking spiritual help for his uncle.

FOURTH APPARITION
Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to him nonetheless, the fourth time, assuring him that his uncle was already cured and instructing him to gather flowers on the top of the hill as a sign to take to the Bishop. Juan Diego trusted Our Lady and found on the top of the frozen and barren hill the most beautiful flowers. He gathered them and Our Blessed Mother arranged them in his cloak, or tilma as it was called. Juan Diego then hurried to the Bishop’s house where this fourth apparition reached its fullness. When he opened his tilma to show the flowers to the Bishop, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared depicted on the tilma. The Bishop immediately understood the truth of Juan Diego’s message from the Blessed Mother and hastened to have the chapel built on Tepeyac Hill.

FIFTH APPARITION
The fifth apparition took place in the little home in which Juan Diego was living with his uncle. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Bernardino and cured him of his fatal illness.
In 1754 Pope Benedict XIV declared her Patroness of all of New Spain, and declared December 12 to be her feast. In 1810, during the Mexican War for Independence from Spain, the image of Guadalupe was first used as a national political symbol, on the banners of the Mexican fighters.10 In 1921, the image famously survived intact when a bomb was placed below it. Juan Diego was canonized a saint in a ceremony led by Pope John Paul II at the basilica in 2002.

Some 20 million people a year visit the Basilica of Santa María de Guadalupe, site of her apparitions to Juan Diego which is now the most visited Catholic site in the world. Guadalupe’s famous image, a brown-skinned woman in a starry blue mantle, hands folded in prayer, is ubiquitous in Mexico. She is a remarkable part of believers’ daily lives throughout the year, in their homes, churches, prayers and community life.  Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is manifest in a concentrated way during the days leading up to her feast, December 12. Newspapers claim that during these days, eight to 10 million people pass through the basilica to visit the image, enshrined above the altar, and the sites of the apparitions on and below Tepeyac, the hill where the shrine is built, in the northern part of what is today Mexico City.

Streets around the basilica complex are closed for quite some distance to accommodate them. The Calzada de Guadalupe, a boulevard leading to the basilica, is reserved for the continuous stream of pilgrims, many carrying pictures or statues of Guadalupe in their arms or strapped to their backs.
Whether that many millions visit these days is difficult to verify, but it is certainly true that a flood of pilgrims passes through. Most will only be able to spend a relatively short time in the basilica. They line up on the left side inside and are eventually carried by one of four parallel moving walkways that carry them under her image, often while Masses and other liturgies are taking place at the centre.  Many of the people who journey here, among those not from Mexico City itself, report that they have walked for days—many said five, six or seven days—and camped nearby as well, just to have a short time visiting their Mother. None complained, because the walking itself, and the visit, was their way of fulfilling a promise, a vow to her, or because they seemed simply happy to be there.

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