[Author’s note: this article was originally published several years ago when I wrote as the Atlanta Creationism Examiner at Examiner.com. The article’s original contents have not been edited, requiring a correction: the tilma was not weaved from cotton, but agave plant fiber. As I say below, I’m not Catholic. I don’t need for this story to be true; I merely find the alleged details fascinating. Strangely enough, my atheist friends seem to desperately need the story to be false.]
I present the following information for your cogitation acknowledging that it is anecdotal in nature, but included there are some very interesting claims made by scientists involved in the story.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I’ve never been to Mexico to personally examine the tilma of Juan Diego.
Given the current climate and tendency of drug cartels to shoot or chop of the heads of people, I don’t consider it a tourist friendly travel destination. Therefore, I have planned no trips for the purposes of conducting a personal examination. Besides, we’ve firmly and cheerfully established my lack of credentials in certain natural sciences and my aversion to microscopes and lab coats.
My primary source of information for this story of Juan Diego’s tilma came from a book titled Divine Interventions by Dan Millman and Doug Childers.
Internet sources appear to confirm much of the information that I found in their book.
Juan Diego’s story begins on Saturday, December 9th, 1531 — the day Catholics celebrate as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
It is believed to be the day of Jesus’ conception, which is sort of odd considering I know Catholics also celebrate Christmas in December.
If accurately celebrated, it would be mean either the baby’s gestation period lasted a full calendar year. If the day celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is correct, according to the calendar Jesus should have been born in August or September.
Personally, I don’t think it matters when we celebrate Christmas, but that we recognize the birth and death of the promised Messiah.
But I could be wrong. It’s been known to happen.
An Aztec peasant converted to Catholicism, according to the story Juan Diego experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary at a specific hill approximately nine miles outside of Mexico City. The vision sent Juan Diego on a mission to convince the bishop of Mexico City to build a shrine for her at the site.
Although he spoke no Spanish, Juan boldly approached the bishop to relay her request. After listening to the translator with little interest the bishop summarily dismissed him. A dejected Juan Diego departed for home.
The vision of Mary greeted him with encouraging words on his return journey. Juan confessed his failure and begged Mary to find a more suitable and articulate replacement.
Undeterred, the vision sent Juan back to speak with the bishop a second time.
This time Bishop Zumarraga found it more difficult to simply dismiss the determined peasant. He was troubled by his persistence, but needed more proof.
He thoroughly interviewed Juan Diego through their interpreter. The bishop wavered before committing resources to build the remote shrine on the word of the Aztec peasant who could not even speak Spanish. The authors of Divine Interventions write, “Finally, he told Juan that he required a sign; let the Lady decide what kind of sign to give—but he, the bishop of Mexico City, could not build a temple based on fantasy.” (pg 157)
It seems that for a purportedly religious man, Zumarraga took a very cautious and skeptical approach. I respect his conservative point of view as opposed to taking a blind leap of faith.
Greeted by the vision on his return home, she told Juan Diego to relax. The following day a sign would indeed remove all doubt from Bishop Zumarraga so the church would be constructed.
Juan returned home, only to find the uncle who raised him as his own dying from an arrow wound. His uncle begged Juan to fetch a priest, in order to receive last rites. Juan hurried to find a priest for his uncle, but the vision of Mary stopped him on his way at the same hill.
She told Juan not to worry; his uncle would recover. She sent him to the crest of the hill. There he found a wide assortment of flowers that were blooming out of season.
He gathered the blooms in his tilma — a long thin cotton poncho — believing they were the miraculous sign the bishop expected.
Juan Diego arrived at the bishop’s residence, who at the time was hosting another bishop named Ramirez and the governor of Mexico.
The bishop’s staff ushered Juan Diego into the room. He explained through the interpreter how he found the flowers as their powerful scent filled the room.
Juan released the bottom fold of his tilma that he’d curled up to hold the flowers. The petals dropped to the floor.
After a moment of stunned amazement the other men in the room also dropped to the floor on their knees, stunned into reverential awe.
According to “legend”, Juan Diego looked down and saw that the flowers had left a perfect artistic impression of the Virgin Mary on the thin cotton fabric. According to Millman and Childers,
Modern experts say the fifty six inch tall on the tilma of Juan Diego equals the artistry and beauty of the works of Da Vinci, Raphael, and Rembrandt. But the manner of its appearance on the tilma is more miraculous than its eerily vivid lifelikeness. For Bishop Zumarraga testified that he saw the image of the Mother of Christ appear on the tilma at the very moment he looked up from the flowers. Four centuries would pass before modern technology would unravel even more mysterious aspects of this unparalleled work of spiritual and artistic perfection. (pg 159)
So now let’s try to separate fact from fiction. Here’s what we know is fact.
- A church was built on that site.
- Juan Diego’s tilma still hung in the church when Divine Interventions printed in 1999.
- The normal life span of such a garment is twenty years.
- Though currently protected by a thin layer of glass, the tilma was exposed to candle smoke and other pollutants for hundreds of years without discoloration or ill effect.
- A bomb planted directly underneath the tilma exploded on November 14, 1921. Though the church suffered significant damage, witnesses reported not only was the garment unharmed, the glass protecting it didn’t even crack.
- Two fibers from the image were examined by the director of the Chemistry department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg. He concluded “no coloring agent of any kind [existed] in the fibers.” The authors added, “The source of the color was untraceable, being neither animal, vegetable, or mineral dye. Yet no synthetic coloring existed before the 1800s.” [pg 160]
- Scientists using a microscope examined the image and declared no visible brush strokes were present.
- Using an ophthalmoscope, Dr. Rafael Lavoignet examined the eyes in the image and announced in the cornea of the eyes, a human image could be seen that had been imposed with the correct optical imagery produced by a “normal” eye. The date the image was created has been established as 1531. The nature of corneal eye reflections were not scientifically verified until 300 years passed. The image has been identified by matching it to a painting of Juan Diego.
- In 1962, an optometrist and his wife magnified a photograph of the image 25 times and announced they had discovered two more faces reflected in Mary’s eyes: Bishop Ramirez and translator Juan Gonzalez, identified from painting of the men.
- Professor Philip Callahan examined the image using infrared technology in 1979. The professor, an expert in the field of infrared radiation and an accomplished painter, wrote about the image on the tilma, “it’s color rendering and the preservation of its brightness over the centuries are inexplicable. There is no sizing and no protective over-varnish present on the image. Without sizing the tilma should have rotted centuries ago, and without protective varnishing the picture should have been ruined long ago by prolonged exposure to candle smoke and other pollutants. Under high magnification, the image shows no detectable sign of fading or cracking—an inexplicable occurrence after 470 years of existence.”
Those are the salient facts about the story I can provide that can be easily verified: the age of the church, the approximate age of the tilma and its failure to adhere to normal laws of physics that govern entropy. Experts in their respective fields have made remarkable claims about the garment in question.
Several other anecdotes about the history of the shrine include:
- The vision of Mary appeared to Juan’s dying uncle and healed him as she promised Juan. She told the uncle her name was “the Ever Virgin Mary Tequetalope, an Aztec word meaning “Who saves us from the Devourer.” This last word in her name was phonetically translated into Spanish as Guadalupe.” (pg 159)
- The day after Christmas in 1531, during the celebration of the swiftly completed construction of the chapel, some celebrants fired arrows into the air in jubilation. One arrow allegedly struck a man in the neck and killed him.
Millman and Childers write,
“His corpse was carried into the chapel and laid beneath the sacred image. The crowd prayed aloud to Mary for a miracle. Minutes later, the man opened his eyes and rose, healed. Spaniards and Mexicans – mortal enemies – now embraced one another with joyous affection.” (pg 159)
Whether or not these two anecdotes are true, we know for a fact that within a few years, more than nine million Aztecs converted to Catholicism. An estimated one billion pilgrims have since visited the shrine over the past four centuries.
As with the Shroud of Turin, the known facts surrounding the tilma of Juan Diego are fascinating if true.
But they don’t really prove anything.
My own tendency is to emulate doubting Thomas. I usually need to see the wounds for myself before I really allow myself to believe a story like this. But I don’t have to go to Mexico City to see proof of a miracle. I’ve met Matthew Botsford in person.
When I first learned of his story on Biography Channel’s I Survived: Beyond and Back, it was hard to believe someone who looked that good could have ever been shot in the head.
The camera didn’t show everything, staying from the neck up. You couldn’t see his paralyzed left arm, or the leg brace on his left leg.
It was hard to believe he still had a bullet in his head until I held his most recent CAT scan image in my hand. When I saw his tracheotomy scars, I really began to believe the truth of his story that he’d been through hell and returned.
I can’t prove any of this: that Juan Diego’s tilma still hangs at the shrine for Our Lady of Guadalupe, or that the events happened as described. I can’t even prove the personal experiences that Matthew Botsford claims to have had are real.
For that matter, how do I prove that my own personal experiences are real unless I’m somehow able to apply the scientific method in real time?
Maybe life is just a figment of my imagination.