Saint of the week

St Juan Diego, 9th December

Late in 1531, the year the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe began, the land that would one day become Mexico had entered its 12th bloody year of Spanish dominion.

Hernan Cortes, the Conquistador, was busy dismantling Aztec civilisation, and the Indians were continuing to resist the often brutal attempts to convert them to Christianity. In 1525, a year after the arrival of the first Franciscans, a young Indian and his fiancée became among the first of their race to receive instruction into the new faith, he taking the name Juan Diego and she, Maria.

It was three years after the tragic death of his young wife that Juan Diego first saw Our Lady. She spoke to him in his own language, saying her name was Tequantlaxopeuh (“she who saves from the devourer”), and she told him: “Know for certain, least of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near and far, the Master of Heaven and Earth. It is my earnest wish that a temple be built here to my honour. Here I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful Mother, the merciful Mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.”

When Juan Diego told the local ordinary, Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, of the apparition, which by that time he had seen on two occasions, he was treated with immediate suspicion and told to produce some proof. Our Lady then appeared to him a third and final time and she directed him to some roses which had mysteriously bloomed out of season. She told him to gather them up in his tilma (cactus fibre shirt) and take them to the bishop. The image of the Mother of God as a young olive-skinned Indian woman was revealed when he opened the shirt in the bishop’s presence and let the roses fall to the floor.

Bishop de Zumarraga believed instantly. He recognised the Virgin from the imagery of the Book of Revelation — pregnant, clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet. The illiterate Aztecs understood the message too. They worshipped the sun and the moon and here was the depiction of a woman who was more powerful than either of them, but who was not a god herself since she was looking down rather than straight ahead. They were also aware that her rabbit fur cuffs denoted royalty and some, perhaps, might have been aware that the arrangement of stars in her mantle reflected the constellation in the Mexican sky of December 1531.

Miraculous healings accompanied the unfurling of the image, and within years an Indian nation of about 15 million people had more or less abandoned their pagan gods and practices and had converted to Christianity. Ever since, their sons and daughters have visited Guadalupe each year to see and pray before St Juan Diego’s tilma, still intact and just as vivid as it was five centuries ago (a miracle in itself, according to scientists) and which today is on display over the high altar in the main basilica. They do so with extraordinary piety, often approaching the basilica on their knees after walking for days from some of the remotest parts of Mexico.

Today, Guadalupe is the most visited Christian shrine outside of Rome, attracting more than six million pilgrims every year, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is now honoured as the patron of the Americas. Previously, she has also been credited with stopping a flood of Mexico City in 1629 and ending an epidemic in 1736. She was awarded the rank of general during the nation’s struggle against their Spanish colonial overlords and after independence in 1821 Mexico’s Emperor Augustin de Iturbide gave thanks for her intercession by founding the Imperial Order of Guadalupe. The dictator Porfirio Diaz had her crowned Queen and the famous revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (immortalised by Marlon Brando in the film, Viva Zapata!) declared her his patron, as does nearly every Mexican engaged in the struggle for a just cause. Most recently, Our Lady of Guadalupe – a rare depiction of Our Lady heavily pregnant – has entered the international stage as the patron of unborn children; for as once she was credited with ending the practice of human sacrifice among the indigenous Indian tribes of Mexico, so today her devotees who dwell in the “culture of death” pray that she will help to bring the scourge of abortion to an end.

St Juan Diego, for his part, spent his final years tending to the gardens around a small chapel in Guadalupe, very close to the site where he first saw Our Lady. After his death his fellow Indians began to pray for his intercession and his canonisation.

The came in 2002 thanks to the inexplicable healing of the badly-fractured skull of a man who had attempted to commit suicide by hurling himself from the balcony of a second-floor apartment in Mexico City.

As he went over the top, his distressed mother grabbed hold of his leg and screamed: “Juan Diego help me, Juan Diego help me.” Her son, however, fell from the building and landed on his head. In hospital, doctors were astonished to find him still alive because his skull had been crushed by the fall, a finding confirmed by an X-ray. One doctor, who had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, told the mother to pray to Juan Diego in spite of her son’s imminent death, which she willingly did. Two days later, the doctors conceded that they could do no more for the young man and they turned off his life support system. It was the day after that, on 6 May 1990, that Pope St John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in the Basilica of Guadalupe. Shortly after the Mass had ended the youth woke up and started eating.

Fr Eduardo Chavez Gonzalez, the postulator of Juan Diego’s cause, said: “It frightened everyone in the hospital. They thought he should be dead, but instead he was hungry. Over the next four days, his cranium was healed completely, and exactly one week after the fall, he walked out of the hospital on his own.”

The miracle meant that St John Paul was able to return to the Guadalupe basilica to canonise Juan Diego on 31 July 2002.

“What was Juan Diego like?” the Pope asked in his homily. “Why did God look upon him? The Book of Sirach, as we have heard, teaches us that God alone ‘is mighty; he is glorified by the humble’ (cf. Sir 3:20). St Paul’s words, also proclaimed at this celebration, shed light on the divine way of bringing about salvation: ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world … so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor 1:28,29).”

He told the faithful that in St Juan Diego they have a “marvellous example of a just and upright man, a loyal son of the Church, docile to his Pastors, who deeply loved the Virgin and was a faithful disciple of Jesus”.

He said that Guadalupe and Juan Diego “have a deep ecclesial and missionary meaning and are a model of perfectly inculturated evangelisation”.

“In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God. Thus he facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds and became the catalyst for the new Mexican identity, closely united to Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose mestizo face expresses her spiritual motherhood which embraces all Mexicans.”

He continued: “Blessed Juan Diego, a good, Christian Indian, whom simple people have always considered a saint! We ask you to accompany the Church on her pilgrimage in Mexico, so that she may be more evangelising and more missionary each day. Encourage the bishops, support the priests, inspire new and holy vocations, help all those who give their lives to the cause of Christ and the spread of his Kingdom.

“Happy Juan Diego, true and faithful man! We entrust to you our lay brothers and sisters so that, feeling the call to holiness, they may imbue every area of social life with the spirit of the Gospel. Bless families, strengthen spouses in their marriage, sustain the efforts of parents to give their children a Christian upbringing. Look with favour upon the pain of those who are suffering in body or in spirit, on those afflicted by poverty, loneliness, marginalisation or ignorance. May all people, civic leaders and ordinary citizens, always act in accordance with the demands of justice and with respect for the dignity of each person, so that in this way peace may be reinforced.”