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Juan Diego, First of the Mexican People

Mary Ann Sullivan

January 30, 2002 / MEXICO CITY —January 30, 2002 / MEXICO CITY — Rodolfo Beltran, a Mexican-American from Lemon Grove, Calif., felt pride when he learned that Blessed Juan Diego, a Mexican Indian, will soon be canonized.

“I’m happy. Very happy,” Beltran said, “because he represents all the Mexican people.”

Beltran was responding to Pope John Paul II’s Dec. 20 approval of the decree of miracle of Blessed Juan Diego, a layman, husband and father to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on the mountain of Tepeyac outside what is now Mexico City in the 16th century.

To go from being Blessed Juan Diego to St. Juan Diego, the visionary needed to have a miracle attributed to him. That miracle occurred in Mexico City, May 6, 1990, at the exact time when the Pope was beatifying him. A marijuana addict named Juan José Barragán Silva, in his early 20s, had stabbed himself in front of his mother and then jumped off a balcony about 32 feet high. As her son was falling, the boy’s mother, Esperanza, entrusted him to God and the Virgin of Guadalupe, saying, “Give me a proof ... save this son of mine! And you, my Mother, listen to Juan Diego.”

Barragán hit the ground headfirst and was taken to the intensive care unit of Durango Hospital in Mexico City. Three days later, he was suddenly and completely cured, with no neurological or psychic damage remaining. Medical specialists called the cure “unheard of, amazing and inconceivable.”

People everywhere, particularly in Mexico, now wait for the Pope to set the time and place for canonization.

Msgr. José Luis Guerrero Rosado, a canon at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, who worked on the commission studying the cause of sainthood of Blessed Juan Diego, told the Register, “I was filled with joy when I heard, because Juan Diego is a hero for the Mexican people. He is like a founder of our nationality. It was Juan Diego who made the reconciliation between the Indians and Spaniards possible. We, the Mexican people are Mestizas, both Indian and Spanish. Juan Diego was the instrument of God who made this possible.”

Msgr. Guerrero plans to attend the canonization ceremony, and admitted he and many others hope the canonization will occur when the Pope visits Canada in July. “Our desire is for the Holy Father to come here to Mexico. Many Mexicans are poor and can’t afford to go to Rome, or even to Canada. They are hoping the Holy Father will come to Mexico.”

Most of what we know about Juan Diego comes from a literary document called Huei Tlamahuitzoltica (also called El Nican Mopohua) written in the Aztec language by the native Mexican scholar Atonio Valeriano in the mid-16th century.

According to this text, Juan Diego was born in 1474 in Cuatitlan, a small Indian village 14 miles north of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). His Indian name was Cuauhtlatoatzin, which means “The eagle who speaks.”

A farmer, landowner and weaver of mats, this humble Indian witnessed the conquest of the capital city of the Aztecs by Cortez in 1521, when he was 47 years old. As a result of the invasion, in 1524, the first 12 Franciscans arrived in what is now Mexico City.

Cuauhtlatoatzin and his wife welcomed them and responded quickly to the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. The couple were among the first to be baptized — he taking the Christian name of Juan Diego; she, Maria Lucia.

Not much is known about Juan Diego’s family life; it is accepted that he was a father, though it is not certain how many children he and his wife had.

In 1529, a few years after their baptism, Maria Lucia became sick and died. Two years later the remarkable and well-known events of Mary’s apparition to Juan Diego as Our Lady of Guadalupe took place on Tepeyac hill.

News of Our Lady’s apparition spread quickly; and in the seven years that followed, 1532 through 1538, the Indian people accepted the Spaniards and 8 million people were converted to the Catholic faith. Said Daniel Lynch, director of the Apostolate of the Missionary Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “An amazing thing happened. Indians became reconciled to Spaniards. And we had a new race of people. Mixed blood. Mestizos. Our Lady of Guadalupe had appeared as a Mestiza. They call her the dark virgin, the little brown one.”

Did He Even Exist?

In 1666, at a Church hearing called the Informaciones Guadalupana, Juan Diego was called a holy man, and in 1723 a formal investigation into this life was ordered by Archbishop Lanziego y Equilaz. On Jan. 9, 1987, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared Juan Diego venerable, and Pope John Paul II beatified him May 6, 1990, during a Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, declaring Dec. 9 the feast of Juan Diego and invoking him as “protector and advocate of the indigenous peoples.”

Controversy over the historical authenticity of Juan Diego was stirred in 1996 by Father William Schulenburg, a longtime abbot of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who called Juan Diego a mythical character.

The Vatican subsequently established a commission of 30 researchers from various countries to investigate the question. The commission successfully proved that Juan Diego had indeed existed, and the results of their research were presented to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints on Oct. 28, 1998. Among research documents submitted at that time were 27 Guadalupe Indian documents. One called the “Escalada,” co-authored by Valeriano and Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun, contained a death certificate of Juan Diego.

Was He a Noble?

Another controversy arose recently over whether Juan Diego was poor. Said Daniel Lynch, “Though oral tradition has it that Juan Diego was poor, new information says he was noble. Translations of the Nican Mopohua, use the word poor, but some say that might mean poor in spirit. There are other reports out there that he was a prince and had a concubine, but no Church documents support that.”

Lynch puts this latest controversy into perspective, “Whether he was poor or noble is not important. That’s just something people talk about in academia. Saints are saints because of their virtues. Juan Diego is a saint because he imitated Our Lady’s virtues of faith, hope, love, poverty chastity, obedience and humility.”

Gloria Vincon, from St. Charles Church in San Diego, agrees. Born in Guadalajara, she recalls: “Ever since I was a little girl, I learned the history of Juan Diego. All my life I have been close to him. When I heard that he was going to be canonized I was so pleased. “I don’t care about the controversy. To me, he not only represents the Indians and the Hispanic generation, but he also represents humility, obedience and patience.”

The Apparitions of Tepeyac Hill

Juan Diego, a pious man and a widower, was prone to long periods of silence. He walked every Saturday and Sunday to church, and on cold mornings, like other members of his Indian tribe, wore a woven cloth called a tilma, as a mantle.

On Saturday morning, Dec. 9, 1531, as he was walking to church, he heard the sound of birds singing on Tepeyac hill and someone calling his name. He ran up the hill, and saw Our Lady, dressed like an Aztec princess.

Our Lady spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native tongue. She called him “Xocoyte,” her little son. He responded by calling her “Xocoyata,” his littlest daughter.

Mary asked Juan Diego to tell the bishop of Mexico, a Franciscan named Juan de Zumárraga, that she wanted a “teocalli,” a sacred little house, to be built on the spot where she stood. Juan Diego obeyed the Virgin, and went immediately to the bishop’s palace, but the bishop was doubtful and told Juan Diego he needed a sign.

Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac hill and explained to the Virgin that the bishop did not believe him. He implored Our Lady to use another messenger, insisting he was not worthy. Mary insisted he return to the bishop. On Sunday, Juan Diego did as Our Lady directed, but again the bishop asked for a sign. Later that day, the Virgin promised Juan Deigo she would give him a sign the following day.

Returning home that night to his Uncle Juan Bernadino’s house, Juan Diego discovered his uncle seriously ill.

The next morning, Juan Diego decided not to meet with Our Lady, but to find a priest who could administer the last rites to his dying uncle. When he tried to skirt Tepeyac hill, Mary stopped him, assured him his uncle would not die, and asked him to climb the hill and gather flowers. It was December, and very cold; nevertheless, Juan Diego found an abundant number of roses, collected them into his tilma and brought them to the bishop’s palace, at the Virgin’s request.

When Juan Diego unfolded his tilma in the presence of the bishop the rare roses scattered on the floor and an image of Our Lady appeared miraculously on the humble Indian’s garment.

Yet another sign occurred that day. As Our Lady promised, Juan Diego’s uncle was cured.

Within two weeks, the bishop erected a small chapel on the spot where Our Lady appeared, entrusting the image to Juan Diego, who chose to live, until his death — on May 30, 1548 — in a small hermitage near the spot where Mary appeared to him.

Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register. All rights reserved.

Mary Ann Sullivan is based in New Durham, New Hampshire.

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