St. Juan Diego

By Renae Kranz

During the difficult times of our lives, we look for someone to turn to for help. We turn to our mothers or fathers when we’re young, probably our friends during our teens and twenties, and then to a spouse or trusted friend over most of our adult years.

But there is one person whom the saints turned to over and over but we often forget—Mother Mary. Saint Juan Diego learned during one of his four visitations from Mary that he could always trust and depend on her motherly love in times of trouble. We can depend on her, too.

Juan Diego by Miguel Cabrera

Juan Diego was born in 1474 in Mexico with his native Aztec name Cuauhtlatoatzin. His father died early, leaving Juan Diego to live with his beloved uncle.

Even though he was raised in the pagan religion of the Aztecs, others noticed the signs of a mystical life and religious fervor in him. Before becoming Catholic, he had a respectful attitude toward Mary and the bishop of the region, Bishop Juan de Zumarraga.

Juan Diego and his wife Maria Lucia converted to Catholicism when a group of Franciscan missionaries came to Mexico in 1524. They were some of the first to be baptized in the country and took their new faith very seriously. He even walked many miles to learn about it from Franciscans at the missionary in Tlatelolco.

During that time when missionaries were converting many indigenous people, it was common for the converts to keep some of their cultural traditions. Juan Diego and his wife did the same thing. The Church even today has no problem with many cultural traditions becoming part of the life of faith communities all over the world.

God loves our uniqueness. Keeping those cultural traditions is one of the beauties of our faith, giving it richness and making it easier for native communities to make the transition to a new faith tradition.

Two years after Juan Diego’s wife died, he experienced a series of visitations from Mary. On December 9, 1531, she appeared to him while he was on his way to Mass to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in a nearby town. She stopped him as he hurried along, looking radiant and beautiful, and told him in his native language that she was the “ever-perfect holy Mary, who has the honor to be the mother of the true God.”

What a shock this must have been to him! She told him she was the mother of all the people of this land and asked him to make a rather significant request of local Bishop Zumarraga. She asked that a chapel be built in her honor, right there where he conversed with her. The place was Tepeyac Hill where a former pagan temple had once stood.

Juan Diego had great doubts about what she was asking him to do. He went to the bishop and recounted what he had seen and what Mary had asked for. He was sure he was not the man for the job since he carried little influence with anyone, much less Bishop Zumarraga. The bishop indeed doubted what he told him and told Juan Diego he would think about his request.

Later the same day, Juan Diego was greeted again by the Virgin Mary. He told her about his meeting with the bishop and how he failed to convince him to grant her request for a chapel. When he told her he was the wrong person to deliver the message because he wasn’t a person of influence in the community, she would hear none of it. She knew he was the right person to deliver her message to the bishop.

He went to the bishop again the next day to see if his request had convinced him. It had not. The bishop asked Juan Diego for a sign that his visitation from Mary was real. He needed proof.

Engraving published in the book Happiness of Mexico in 1666 and 1669 (Spain) representing Juan Diego revealing the Virgin Mary’s image to Bishop Juan de Zumarraga.

After talking with the bishop, Juan Diego went to Tepeyac, and Mary once again appeared to him. He told her the bishop wanted proof. She agreed to provide it the next day (December 11) if Juan Diego would return to the same place one more time.

The next day did not go as planned for the future saint. His uncle suddenly became very sick and Juan Diego feared he would die soon. He had to stay home and care for him. He knew he wouldn’t be able to return to Mary at Tepeyac.

What a terrible position to find yourself in. He was likely distraught over the idea of losing his beloved uncle, and yet he had promised the Mother of God he would return for the sign the bishop had asked for that day. I can’t imagine the anxiety he must have felt. What would I have done? Probably the same thing he did.

Juan Diego went out the next day to try to find a priest for his uncle. He traveled a different road because he felt shame in missing his meeting with Mary. But she was aware of what was happening and appeared to him anyway on his alternate route.

Mary asked Juan Diego what had happened to keep him from meeting her the day before. After explaining what was going on with his uncle’s health, he promised her he’d come back after he found a priest. Mary had other plans.

She asked Juan Diego a question at that moment that she could also ask any one of us. “Am I not here, I who am your mother?”

Mary sought out Juan Diego when he didn’t return to her as she had asked. She comforted him in his fear by reassuring him that as his mother, she would always be there when he needed her.

She promised him that his uncle would be healed at that moment. Then she instructed him regarding the proof the bishop needed to believe that Juan Diego was telling the truth. She told him to climb the nearby hill and gather flowers that grew there. When he climbed the hill, he was surprised to find many flowers blooming in the poor soil even though it was December.

When he returned to Mary, his tilma filled with the flowers, she arranged them and sent him to the bishop to show him this sign. When he arrived in front of the bishop, he opened his tilma. The flowers tumbled out revealing the miraculous image of the Blessed Mother imprinted on his tilma.

Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as it currently appears on the tilma.

The bishop saw and believed Juan Diego. Bishop Zumarraga kept the tilma, eventually displaying it in the church he built for the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill as she requested. The tilma remains perfectly preserved to this day.

As for Juan Diego, he returned to find his uncle completely healed of his illness. His uncle also saw a vision of Mary in which she told him that she wanted to be known by the title of Lady of Guadalupe. 

Juan Diego lived a humble, solitary life of prayer and hard work until his death on December 9, 1548. Many thousands of indigenous people in the area converted through the news of the apparitions of the Lady of Guadalupe.

St. Juan Diego was beatified on May 6, 1990, and canonized on July 31, 2002, by Pope John Paul II. He was the first indigenous saint from the Americas and is the patron of indigenous people.

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