Franciscan Spirit Blog

Saint Juan Diego: New World Apostle

Mural of Saint Juan Diego

In July, 2002, Pope John Paul II visited Tepeyac, near Mexico City, to canonize a 16th-century Indian whose influence on the religion of the New World was immense and continues to exceed that of any other human. Juan Diego is more well-known than any king, queen, bishop, missionary or conquistador of that era. Though famous personalities pass away, Juan Diego continues to live in the memory of the people.

Until recently, very little was known except that Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego in December 1531. The apparitions occurred at Tepeyac, a small hill and a former sanctuary to the Aztec goddess Tonanzin. Mary asked Juan Diego to request that the local bishop build a church on that site. There she could be present with all her love and compassion for “all the inhabitants of this land.”

Not believing Juan Diego at first, Bishop Juan Zumarraga asked for a heavenly sign. On the day Mary promised that Juan Diego would receive this sign, his uncle Juan Bernardino was dying of a disease introduced by the Europeans. Instead of going to the Lady for this sign, Juan Diego took another route, seeking a priest to hear his uncle’s confession.

The Lady appeared to him, assuring him that his uncle had been healed, and that on the top of Tepeyac hill Juan Diego would find what the bishop requested. Juan climbed the hill and found its summit covered with beautiful flowers of all colors. He cut the flowers; the Lady arranged them on his cloak of very coarse fiber, known as a tilma, and sent him off to the bishop.

When Juan unfolded the tilma before the bishop and his assistants, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on it. A visit to Juan Bernardino revealed that she had appeared to him, healed him and called herself “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

This was the first of many miracles worked to this day through her intercession.

Why Identify Saints?

Who was Juan Diego and why should he be canonized? We might well push the question even further and ask why anyone should be canonized.

For us Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the one model we all seek to imitate and follow. In one sense, we need no other models. Yet because of human frailty and the changing demands of time, we do need secondary models, who are like us in every way but have also followed “the way” of Jesus in an extraordinary manner.

In different times and places, the Church identifies people who lived in a very holy way. In view of current struggles and problems, these saints offer us courage and hope that we too can be holy. Juan Diego was and continues to be just such an exemplary figure, and he becomes even more heroic when seen in the context of his time.

In many ways, Juan Diego does not need to be canonized. For millions of peoples across many generations, he has always been an exemplary hero, a messenger of Our Lady and an unquestioned saint to those people who do not await the Church’s O.K. before venerating holy people. Father Rudy Vela, S.M., who is doing a doctoral thesis on Juan Diego, states: “Were it not for Juan Diego’s tilma, we would not have Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

So why canonize him now, hundreds of years after he lived?

Proclaiming the Good News

Evangelization is one of the Church’s most urgent priorities—indeed, its very life and mission. Juan Diego’s role in evangelizing America has been pivotal and we can learn much from him. The apparitions occurred at a time when Spanish efforts to evangelize the New World’s indigenous peoples were facing insurmountable obstacles: totally different worldviews; the missionaries’ attempts to erase all signs of local, ancient religions; brutal, savage conduct by Spanish “Christians” and the painful trauma of the conquest.

Though the missioners were great and holy men, their message was not getting through. Juan Diego’s story and the miraculous apparition on his tilma brought about the conversion of thousands. A historian specializing in the period states that, 10 years after this event, nine million Indians had converted to the Christianity of La Moreñita (the beloved dark virgin)Christ now incarnated in the American soul.

In the hearts of the ordinary faithful, Juan Diego has always been considered a saint. After all, the Blessed Mother chose him as her beloved and cherished messenger. Precisely because he has served as a role model to Christians for centuries, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico City decided in 1984 to initiate the official process leading to canonization. For whatever reason, nobody had thought of doing the obvious: officially recognizing what the faithful knew in their hearts—Juan Diego is a saint!

But is he a mere symbol or a product of someone’s imagination, like Walt Disney’s characters? Father Jose Luis Guerrero, one of the chief investigators for the canonization, states, “A saint must be a real person.”

Yet some people question if Juan Diego even existed! Others have no doubts whatsoever, and a few people say it makes no difference since his symbolic presence is of ultimate importance. Fictitious persons, no matter how holy and inspirational they might be, cannot be canonized. In order to canonize Juan Diego, much more had to be known about him. The pious tradition about him, as beautiful and inspiring as it is, would not suffice.

Getting the Facts

Some 20 years ago, a historical commission was appointed; it included Father Jose Luis Guerrero, an expert on legal procedures as well as the ancient Nahuatl language and culture (the language of the apparitions). Father Eduardo Chavez, a professional historian, assisted him.

Their careful and meticulous research took them to many archives around the world. They carefully assembled a mosaic of evidence about Juan Diego as remembered by his contemporaries. Father Chavez says, “No one piece of evidence alone proves Juan Diego’s existence. When the pieces are put together, however, his existence and his life-type cannot be denied.”

I have been privileged to see photocopies of some original documents concerning Juan Diego. It is astounding to see the amount of clear evidence these researchers have accumulated. Of course, for those who do not want to believe, no amount of evidence will ever be convincing.

So who was Juan Diego? We know without doubt that he was an Indian, but we don’t know exactly what he looked like. There are no photographs of him; the first paintings do not appear until the 17th century. The traditional image presents him as an older man with a beard. The image to be used during the canonization ceremony is an early painting of him, but we are not quite sure what he looked like. Although he was an Indian, native peoples show a variety of looks and skin shades. His physical appearance is less important than the quality of his life.

The original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe impressed on the cloak of St. Juan Diego is seen in the basilica in Mexico City.
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In 1531, Juan Diego would have been considered an old man since he was in his 50s at a time when most people died much younger. We know that by 1531 Juan Diego was certainly a widower. He definitely belonged to the ancianos (venerated elderly) of his people. We are told in the narrative that he was a Macehual, which means he tilled the soil and was a man of the land. This designation also connotes that he lived a simple and dignified life.

His native name Cuauhtlatoazin (“one who speaks like an eagle”) means that he spoke with great authority. We know he was from Cuauhtitlan,the people who served as guardians of the ancient wisdom. The people of Cuauhtitlan were known as hard-working, honest people who possessed a healthy sense of self-dignity.

Although his neighbors probably saw Juan Diego as a “wise man,” he was almost certainly considered inferior and backward by the invading Europeans, who regarded the ancient wisdom as diabolic rubbish.

Understanding His Struggles

To appreciate the virtues and struggles of Juan Diego, we must situate him in his times. In 1521, Cortez defeated Mexico’s Aztec people, signaling the enslavement and subjugation of all native peoples. This was not simply a conquest but rather the destruction of their civilization. The native peoples began to suffer great physical hardship and cruelty, plus the deep humiliation of feeling totally abandoned by their gods. Their pain and futility were so great that many simply wanted to die.

Juan Diego came from the conquered and humiliated peoples of the New World. With the rest of his people, he suffered the deep trauma of the conquest and its resulting mass confusion.

The natives had been a deeply religious people, but now their conquerors’ priests were saying the native gods had been false. How could this be true? The Aztec gods had spoken to their ancestors, as the God of the Bible had spoken through Abraham, Moses and the prophets. Their gods had provided them with life, crops and protection. How could they be false?

The missioners, perhaps the greatest of all time, tried to convert the natives to the God of love, but the lifestyle of the European Christian conquistadors frequently contradicted that love. Totally different from the conquistadors, the missioners, however, came from the same group and religion. This very apparent contradiction led the Indians to question the missioners’ credibility.

The Indians had been a deeply religious people. Changing their religion meant abandoning their people. Juan Diego was one of the few who dared to accept the new religion. It must have been extremely difficult for him, yet he had the courage to begin a road toward something radically new.

Yet the nagging question remained in his heart: Did he really have to renounce all the sacred traditions of his ancestors in order to accept the new? Even though very few conversions had taken place by 1531 when the apparitions took place, Juan Diego was a baptized Indian receiving further catechetical instruction.

According to people who had heard about him from their parents or grandparents, even before the apparitions Juan Diego was a very virtuous man who led an exemplary life. People often asked him to intercede for them because of his holiness.

Growing up in a very Mexican barrio of San Antonio, Texas, I remember well elderly men and women whom we considered very saintly. Often we would ask them to pray for us; it seemed they were closer to God than we were.

His Link to Mary

The investigations of Father Chavez clearly demonstrate that, immediately after the apparitions, a cult to Juan Diego began. The rationale of the people is both simple and profound: Our Lady chose him; she conversed with him in a very tender way; she made him her messenger. Therefore, Juan Diego must be very special.

People cannot imagine La Moreñita without Juan Diego’s tilma. Because of this tilma, she has been present to us for generations. In the Indian cultures of that time, the tilma was the exterior expression of the innermost identity of the person. By being visible on Juan Diego’s tilma, Mary became imprinted in the deepest recesses of his heart—and in the hearts of all who come to her.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is not simply an image on the tilma, as miraculous as this might be. She has become part of her children’s innermost identity.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe who appeared at Tepeyac, site of the ancient goddess Tonanzin, Juan Diego could reconcile the best of his ancestral religion while experiencing the deepest and purest core of the new religion: love, compassion, dignity and radical equality. He who had been crushed by the conquest was now uplifted by La Virgen (the Virgin Mary). And even more, an uncle dying of a new disease brought over by the Europeans was healed and restored to life.

Dying people have a new hope. They will not die and disappear but will survive. They will not have to abandon their cherished traditions and religious expressions but can combine them with new ones in such a way that both will become better! It will be neither destruction nor imposition, but a new creation. This new mestizo (mixed) religion (Christianity by way of the Incarnation) marks the beginning of a new people and their unique expression of Christianity.

In theological terms, this marked the birth of a new Church: the Word of God enriching the situation and bringing newness out of the old, beauty out of the chaos, family out of previous strangers and enemies.

Juan Diego saw and heard the Virgin; Juan Diego presented her to us on his tilma. Juan Diego told the story not only to the bishop but also to the thousands of people who began venerating the miraculous image. Juan Diego’s tilma and testimony have led millions to the Christian faith in America and beyond. Through his mediation, Christianity took on flesh in America, coming to life in a new way. Christianity no longer opposed the religious expressions of the natives to those of the newcomers but instead combined them in a fascinating way to enrich both.

Enduring Message

In Juan Diego we see the Scriptures come alive: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:7). And even more so: “Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

During a pastoral visit to Mexico in 1990, Pope John Paul II recognized the long-standing liturgical cult to Juan Diego—the equivalent of beatification. The pope said: “Similar to ancient biblical personages who were collective representations of all the people, we could say that Juan Diego represents all the indigenous peoples who accepted the Gospel of Jesus, thanks to the maternal aid of Mary, who is always inseparable from the manifestation of her Son and the spread of the Church, as was her presence among the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.”

The conquered and humiliated Indians, apparently without anything valuable to offer except slave labor for enriching the newcomers, suddenly have the best and most valuable gift to offer: the precious mother of all the land’s inhabitants. Juan Diego is not only the first evangelizer of America, but also the hope of the downtrodden in today’s world.

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