This month, Pope John Paul II will visit Mexico 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 person.
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?
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
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."
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.