The apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Guadalupe in Mexico in the 1550s are unique in the annals of Marian apparitions because this Lady allegedly left physical evidence behind her. The evidence is the painting of the vision made by herself in an instant of time on the cloak of the only witness, Juan Diego. This image is called the Tilma.

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Proof (or Not) of Saintly Existence


On July 31, Pope John Paul II is scheduled to declare Juan Diego Cuauhtlahtoatzin, a humble Aztec better known simply as Juan Diego, to be a saint.

It is Juan Diego to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared in December 1531, and, when the local Spanish bishop demanded proof of the apparition, it was on Juan Diego's rough cloak that the heavenly lady miraculously imprinted her image, an image still displayed and revered in its basilica in Mexico City and now reproduced almost everywhere.

One might expect that the Rev. Stafford Poole, an American priest and author of "Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol" (University of Arizona Press, 1995), would be looking forward to July 31. He is not.

He is one of a number of scholars who do not question Juan Diego's holiness. They question whether he ever existed. Juan Diego, Father Poole says, is a "pious fiction."

David A. Brading, a Cambridge professor, author of "Mexican Phoenix" (Cambridge, 2001), a highly sympathetic study of the Guadalupe devotion, has said, "There's no historical evidence whatsoever that such a person actually existed."


The problem for historians like Father Poole or Professor Brading is that though the Guadalupe portrait and devotions surrounding it clearly date to the mid-1500's, it was not until 1648 that Miguel Sanchez, a creole priest, published the elaborate account of apparitions, Juan Diego and his miraculously transformed cloak. The same story, told more simply and movingly in Nahuatl, the native tongue, appeared a year later in a book produced by a friend of Sanchez.

Ever since then, Mexican churchmen have been trying fill this gap in the record. If these 1648-49 accounts were based, as some claimed, on oral traditions, why had not a single trace of them showed up in the huge mass of religious material, both in Spanish and in native languages, that had appeared in the intervening century? Missing documents, especially earlier versions of the Nahuatl text, were hypothesized; various explanations were offered for their absence. In 1666, depositions were taken from elderly Indians and Spaniards. (The ages of four Indian witnesses were given as 100, 100, 110, and between 112 and 115.)

Many people argued that the image, which unlike the Shroud of Turin has never been scientifically examined, could not have been created by human hands - and therefore was itself proof of the 1648 account.

Still, the questions and the controversies have persisted. Writing in Commonweal, a biweekly edited by Catholic laity, Father Poole stated, "More than forty documents are said to attest to the reality of Juan Diego, yet not one of them can withstand serious historical criticism."

Obviously the Vatican officials conducting investigations for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints do not agree. But Father Poole considers their procedures "one-sided, slanted and bordering on the dishonest." No recognized scholars questioning the traditional accounts about Juan Diego were consulted, he wrote; he found out that his own book had been criticized but he was not given a chance to reply.

Other critics have been "demonized," he said in an interview, and accused of racism or heresy. In a book he is completing he calls the canonization "a sad and tawdry spectacle that does little service to the Church's mission and credibility."

Professor Brading is on a somewhat different wavelength. In "Mexican Phoenix," he praises Father Poole and declares that the American priest with two other scholars has demonstrated that the 1649 Nahuatl account was based on Sanchez's 1648 Spanish text - "a devastating criticism," Professor Brading writes, of all theories about some earlier Indian-language source.

Still, Professor Brading is ambivalent about the battle over historicity. He is enamored of the theological creativity of thinkers like Sanchez, who conceived of Juan Diego "as another Moses and the image of Guadalupe as the Mexican Ark of the Covenant," showing that God's own mother had founded Christian Mexico.

The Guadalupe tradition has a theological truth, he says, that cannot be discerned by "ill-judged questions about historicity," but only by thinking of the image the way Eastern Orthodox Christians think of icons and thinking of the story the way that Catholic theologians now regard many of the miraculous Gospel stories about Jesus' birth.

So Professor Brading, in a letter to the London Tablet, a Catholic weekly, ended up, on the one hand, calling the story of the Virgin and Juan Diego "a sublime parable" and, on the other hand, concluding, "To canonize Juan Diego makes as much sense, and as little, as to canonize the Good Samaritan."

That leaves some important questions. First, can what Father Poole calls "a pious fiction" be transmuted by centuries of devotion into what Professor Brading calls "a sublime parable"? Second, can the church really sidestep the problem of historical fact? Christianity, after all, is notorious for considering itself a history-based religion.

Believers think oral tradition that allegedly goes back to the early sixteenth century, the existence of the picture, its remarkable preservation like God was protecting it, Rome suggesting the story was true by approving a Mass for the apparition in 1754 are okay evidences.  But it is wrong to even call this rubbish.  Spanish Jesuit Xavier Escalada supposedly had a drawing of the visions dated from the 1540s.  That is a good try but again that is not documentary evidence for we don't have the drawing. "The attentive reader will easily perceive, by means of this bibliography, the abundance and variety of Guadalupan writings produced in the course of more than four and a half centuries: manuscripts starting in 1531 and, from 1610, printed documents. The manuscripts mentioned show plainly that the eminent Mexican historian, Joaquín Garcia lcazbalceta, was mistaken when he thought that there were no 16th century documents extant proving the historical event of the apparitions and the subsequent devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Even if his assertion may have corresponded to the situation at the time when he was writing (1888), it cannot, of course, be reaffirmed today" (G. Grijales -E. J. Burrus, Bibliografia Guadalupana 1531-1984).   Believers cherry pick the data to pick what suits.  It is even argued that experts say the oral traditions were reliable despite the big time scale!  (Miguel León Portilla, El destino de la palabra. De la oralidad y los glifos mesoamericanos a la escritura alfabética, FCE, Mexico City 1996, pp. 19-71).  The material is often dated earlier than what it is and interpretations are fanciful.

The Cult of the Virgin Mary, Psychological Origins, Michael P Carroll, Princeton, New Jersey, 1986 page 193 states that the image was altered to fit the Juan Diego tale better. The story was woven around the image. It was popular practice in the past to put images painted on cloth in churches. The tilma is probably just another such image. The book points out that drugs were used in the area when Diego allegedly lived which makes it suspect that the story that when he was having his vision that the cactus leaves shone like emeralds and the pricks like gold could be true! (page 192).

In the absence of proof or even her testimony, it is assumed Mary painted the tilma.  When then?  It appeared in the sixteenth century which explains why there is typical paint on it from that time and expert in restoration and his peers,  Jose Sol Rosales, are clear on that..

In a shrine regarded as being authentic where Mary did paint herself there is a poor painting. How can Mary do so well at one painting and not another? The shrine began with the visions of Sebastian Schmid Schlager of Gutenstein. Mary was appearing to him and she took a sheet and put her face on it. Even the pope authorised the image as sacred and worthy of veneration. The only sensible view of the tilma is that it may be impressive – assuming the believers are not getting carried away – but it is not a miracle and raises the bar of what you would expect from a genuine miracle image. Mary has not said it had a magical or supernatural origin. Maybe it is a sign not a miracle where Diego lifted the wrong wrapping and thought it was his not knowing somebody had been painting on it. That would be unlikely but if you believe in miracles you must believe in far fetched coincidences too.
The vision and miracle and of Guadalupe is nonsense.  It is no miracle when God had to make a faulty image that needed touching up! Believing scholars admit there is no documentary evidence for the story or even the existence of Juan Diego.  They use weak evidence to defend the tall tale.

Believing in God, PJ McGrath, Millington Books in Association with Wolfhound, Dublin, 1995
Bernadette of Lourdes, Rev CC Martindale, Catholic Truth Society, London, 1970
Looking for a Miracle, Joe Nickell, Prometheus Books, New York, 1993
Miracles in Dispute, Ernst and Marie-Luise Keller, SCM, London, 1969
Miracles, Ronald A Knox, Catholic Truth Society, London, 1937
Spiritual Healing, Martin Daulby and Caroline Mathison, Geddes & Grosset, New Lanark, Scotland, 1998
St Catherine Laboure of the Miraculous Medal, Fr Joseph I Dirvin C.M., Tan, Illinois, 1984
The Incorruptibles, Joan Carroll Cruz, Tan, Illinois, 1977
The Sceptical Occultist, Terry White, Century, London, 1994
The Supernatural A-Z, James Randi, Headline Books, London, 1995
The Wonder of Guadalupe, Francis Johnson, Augustine, Devon, 1981
The Cult of the Virgin Mary, Psychological Origins, Michael P Carroll, Princeton, New Jersey, 1986
THE WEB Saints Preserve Us! www.forteantimes.com/articles/159_saintspreserved.shtml

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