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The Tilma of Guadalupe

One of the most valuable relics
by Joseph A'Hearn, LC | Source:

This December 12 the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The image of Mary appeared on the Tilma, St. Juan Diego’s cape made of maguey plant fibers, in 1531, and can still be seen in Mexico City. The Mexican Center of Sindonology a couple of years ago donated a copy of the Tilma to the Diocesan Commission of the Shroud (Turin). The response from Giuseppe Ghiberti, President of the Commission, and from Bruno Barberis, Director of the International Center of Sindonology, was one of genuine gratitude. The Commission decided in a recent meeting to keep the precious replica in the church of the Holy Shroud.

   Those who visit this church and behold side by side the two most studied relics in the world may ask themselves if they really believe in them. Are these images authentic evidence of the miraculous, or are they just pious paintings for credulous Christians? Although worldwide discussion may never settle these issues, further consideration of what is known about the Tilma and the Shroud may be enough to convince individuals one way or the other.

   An account of the six apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe 9-12 December 1531 is no secret. She told Juan Diego to have the Bishop build her a church on that hill. Bishop Juan de Zumárraga asked for a sign to make sure the middle-aged native wasn’t making things up. When Juan Diego collected roses in his tilma, he was confident that fresh flowers in the winter would be convincing enough. As he unraveled this garment and let the roses fall to the floor in front of the Bishop, Mary imprinted her image on the Tilma, which to this day can be seen in the Basilica built at the spot the Blessed Virgin requested.

   The miracles, however, do not end there. The plant fibers tilmas are made of wear out after fifty years, but the Tilma of Our Lady has endured 480 years. For 116 years it was left unprotected from smoke, dust, heat, humidity, and continual contact with hands and other objects. Not even the accident in 1791, when muriatic acid fell on the Tilma, nor the terrorist attack in 1921, when a bomb was placed in front of her in a flower vase, have been able to destroy the Tilma of Guadalupe.

   NASA has stated that the image’s colors are not made from any material found on Earth. A laser that scanned the image even found that the colors float three tenths of a millimeter in front of the Tilma surface, without touching it.

   Microscopic analysis of the pupils of Our Lady of Guadalupe reveals what she must have seen in the instant her image appeared. She is surrounded by thirteen people. One of these is clearly identified as Bishop Juan de Zumárraga. Zooming in even more, to the point of examining the Bishop’s pupils, reveals the spectacle he saw: Juan Diego opening his garment in front of him.

   The Virgin exhibits qualities of a living person, too. Her eyes contract and dilate in response to light and darkness. The temperature of the Tilma remains stable at 98.6 degrees. A stethoscope has even measured the heartbeats of a baby in her womb.

   Science has no explanation for such phenomena. We are talking about something supernatural. Can the same be said about the Shroud of Turin? Whether the Shroud is an authentic miracle and portrays the image of Jesus Christ is a hot topic for debate. Even touching on all the points that science, art, and other disciplines have investigated about the Shroud surpasses the scope of this article. Let it suffice here to mention some inconsistencies of those who reject its authenticity.

   The scientists who performed the carbon-dating tests, taking a sample from a corner of the Shroud (which in 2005 was acknowledged not to be a representative part of the whole), declared that it must have been made between 1260 and 1390. Those who say Leonardo da Vinci made the image, however, can only consider a date during the lifetime of this artist (1452-1519). If one of his paintings matches it perfectly, that does not prove he was the author of both, but only argues for his exceptional skill as an artist. Many other paintings, from the 4th century through the 15th, closely resemble the face of the man of the Shroud. Anyone who has studied this enigmatic object knows there is not a single drop of paint on it. It even contains three-dimensional information, something not even photographs are capable of.

   For this reason those who are serious about denying that the man of the Shroud was Jesus resort to the theory that its falsifier had to scourge and crucify a man in order to get his desired result. Such a dissembler would have depicted several details of the Passion against an overwhelming consensus of tradition precedent to his forgery: nails in the wrists, the crown as a helmet, and the body without any garment, for example. His scientific capacities and intelligence would have had to have been far ahead of his time, including but not limited to knowledge of photographic negatives, infrared and ultraviolet light, and a method of imprinting the image. In fact, even today we are yet to discover exactly how the image was formed. As a result, theories about the formation of the image cannot presently be tested in laboratories.

   Facing the facts about the Tilma and the Shroud, no one can remain indifferent. Do all these pieces come together to form a marvelous puzzle that spells out the word “authentic,” or are they the most deceiving forgery a malevolent mastermind ever concocted? You decide.

   Believers would not hesitate before thanking God for revealing himself and his Mother to us. The Shroud of Turin can be nothing other than a portrait of Love made concrete in enduring the cruel torments of the Passion to redeem us from our sins. The Tilma of Guadalupe complements this manifestation of such divine love with the miraculous image of our Blessed Mother, Christ’s most precious gift to us, the gift he saved for last. By showing us there are reasons for our faith, he expresses his loving care in these two images, two images “not made by human hands.”

Joseph A'Hearn, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome.

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