This month Pope
John Paul II hopes to visit 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
This was the first of many miracles worked to this day through her
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
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
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’
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
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.
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
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.
Read Father Virgilio Elizondo’s article “Our
Lady of Guadalupe: A Guide for the New Millennium.”