MEXICO CITY — From tortillas and skateboards to tattoos on drug lords, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is omnipresent in Mexico, and let’s face it: Despite the pontiff’s love for the poor and the peripheries, it’s the Virgin of Guadalupe who truly brought Pope Francis to Aztec soil.

“How could I not come?” Francis asked the Mexican bishops Saturday. “Could the Successor of Peter, called from the far south of Latin America, deprive himself of seeing la Virgen Morenita?” (“The brown-skinned Virgin”).

During his six-day visit to Mexico, Francis will meet immigrants at the US border, the local indigenous population, and youth. He’ll also visit a prison and a pediatric hospital, all destinations he chose personally.

All these appointments, however, came after he decided to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It wasn’t until the afternoon of his second day in Mexico that the pope finally got to see her, celebrating a Mass for 40,000 people at the Guadalupe shrine.

In his homily, Francis referenced the themes of his visit: poverty, migration, and crime.

With the apparition of Mary, he said, “God roused the hope of the little ones, of the suffering, of those displaced or rejected, of all who feel they have no worthy place in these lands. God came close and still comes close to the suffering but resilient hearts of so many mothers, fathers, grandparents who have seen their children leaving, becoming lost or even being taken by criminals.”

According to the Guadalupe tradition, Our Lady appeared to a young Indian named Juan Diego in 1531. The fact that she not only spoke in his native language, but appeared to be wearing the dress of an Aztec princess, is credited with producing millions of conversions to the Catholic faith in less than seven years.

“Just as she made herself present to little Juan, so, too, she continues to reveal herself to all of us, especially to those who feel, like him, ‘worthless,’” Francis said in his homily on Saturday.

“This specific choice — we might call it preferential — was not against anyone, but rather in favor of everyone,” the pope said. “The little Indian Juan who called himself a ‘leather strap, a back frame, a tail, a wing, oppressed by another’s burden,’ became ‘the ambassador, most worthy of trust’.”

Francis said that many times Juan Diego told the Virgin that he wasn’t suited to oversee the building of the shrine she had requested, but that Our Lady was persistent and eventually prevailed.

“We are all necessary, especially those who normally do not count because they are not ‘up to the task’ or ‘they do not have the necessary funds’ to build all these things,” Francis said.

The pope played off the imagery of the large basilica today devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, saying that God’s real shrine is his children, in whatever condition, “especially young people without a future who are exposed to endless painful and risky situations, and the elderly who are unacknowledged, forgotten, and out of sight.”

“The Shrine of God is our families in need only of the essentials to develop and progress,” he said. “The Shrine of God is the faces of the many people we encounter each day.”

Local accounts hold that Juan Diego first saw The Virgin on Dec. 9 as he was walking on Tepeyac Hill, an Aztec landmark. The young woman asked him to tell the bishop about her, who in turn asked for a sign to prove what he had seen.

The Virgin told him to go to the hill the next day, promising he’d find flowers he could bring to the bishop. But his uncle had fallen deathly ill, so Juan missed the appointment. Two days later, as he was on his way to find a priest for his ailing relative, Juan Diego passed Tepeyac again, and the Virgin told him not to worry and to do what she had asked.

He went to the top of the hill, and as Mary foretold, he found roses growing, even though it was winter. He collected them in his tulpa, a traditional cloth garment, and when he arrived at the bishop’s residence, he opened the cloak revealing that the roses had left an imprint on the garment that’s come to be known as the Guadalupana.

It’s that 500-year-old cloth that Pope Francis venerated on Sunday.

The mystery of how the image came to be, and how a simple cloth has survived 500 years intact, is considered a scientific enigma. Perhaps only the famed Shroud of Turin has been a more investigated Catholic relic, and to this day no one has been able to explain how someone could have painted the 13 human figures reflected in the eyes of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The name “Guadalupe” comes from the indigenous word “Coatlaxoepuh,” which means “the one who defeated the serpent,” as the image in the cloth portrays.

In 1737, Our Lady of Guadalupe was declared patroness of Mexico, in 1910 Patroness and Empress of the Americas, and some years later, Patroness of the Philippines. That’s why the basilica in Mexico City displays the 24 flags of every American country, from Canada to Argentina, plus the Filipino flag.

After celebrating Mass at the Shrine, one of the largest in the three Americas, Francis spent 15 minutes alone with the image, as he had requested.

Francis wasn’t the only one who had a special place in his heart for Saturday’s date with Our Lady.

The Rev. Andres Enrique Sánchez Ramirez, chaplain of the shrine, told Crux that the pope’s desire to see her “encourages the Mexican people to continue in the veneration of the Mother of God and commits us to want to be better children of our great Mother.”

That joy was evident during the 40-minute popemobile ride Francis took from his Mexico City residence to the shrine, with hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, filling streets to see the pope, in numbers that seemed even bigger than his arrival Friday night.

Throughout the year, the Guadalupe shrine celebrates 24 Masses every day. Confessions are heard from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and constant blessings are offered to pilgrims — whose numbers can reach up to 5 million every Dec. 12, the feast of the Madonna of Guadalupe.

As in Italy, where Mafiosi can often be seen at Marian processions, drug lords and low-level criminals in Mexico are equally devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

According to Sánchez, that’s a pastoral challenge for the Church.

“There is a strong sense of devotion to the Virgin Mary,” Sánchez said. “It is a pastoral challenge to make it clear to those who are involved in organized crime and drug trafficking that the only way to be considered as true sons and daughters of God and Our Lady of Guadalupe is the path of conversion and a change in life.”

However, Sanchez said, the fact that members of drug gangs have a spiritual restlessness that leads them to the Lady of Guadalupe is actually a sign of hope.

“Evil,” he said, “couldn’t extinguish in them the desire to be good.”