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Saint Juan Diego

Saint Juan Diego
  • Century: 15th & 16th Century
  • Patronage: -
  • Feast Day: December 9th

St. Juan Diego was a 15th century indigenous Native American from Mexico, who saw a Marian apparition in 1531, now known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The apparition has had a significant impact on the spread of the Catholic Faith within Mexico.  He was canonized in 2002 as the Church’s first indigenous American saint.  

Juan Diego was born in 1474, in the Calpulli of Tlayacac in Cuautitlan, a small village 12 miles north of Mexico City.  His birth name was Juan Cuauhtlatoatzin, which translates as “Talking Eagle” in the Nahuatl language.  He was a farmer, landowner and weaver of mats, and witnessed the Spanish conquest of Mexico, by Herman Cortes in 1521.  He was 47 years old.  Following the invasion, in 1524, the first 12 Franciscan missionaries arrived in what is now Mexico City.  Juan Diego and his wife welcomed the Franciscans and were among the first to be baptized, he took the name Juan Diego, and his wife took the name Maria Lucia.  They then moved to Tolpetlac to be closer to Mexico City and the Catholic mission that had been set up by the Franciscan Friars.  

After hearing a sermon on the virtue of chastity, they reportedly decided to live chaste lives.  This decision was later cited as a possible reason for which the Virgin Mary chose to appear to Juan Diego.  In 1529, a few years after her baptism, Maria Lucia became sick and died.  As a widower now, Juan Diego walked every Saturday and Sunday to Church, an on cold mornings, wore a woven cloth called a tilma, or ayate made with course fibers from the maguey cactus, as cotton was only used by the upper class, Aztec.  

On Saturday morning, December 9, 1531, he reported that following.  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 there he saw a Lady, about fourteen years of age, resembling an Aztec princess in appearance, and surrounded by light.  The Lady spoke to him in Nahuatl, his native tongue.  The Lady asked Juan Diego to tell the Bishop of Mexico, a Franciscan named Juan de Zumarraga, that she wanted a “teocalli”, a Shrine, to be built on the spot where she stood, in her honor.  Where, “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”.  

Recognizing the Lady as the Virgin Mary, Juan Diego went to Bishop as instructed, but the Spanish Bishop, Juan de Zumarraga was doubtful and told Juan Deigo he needed a sign.  Juan returned to Tepeyac Hill and explained to the Lady that the Bishop did not believe him.  He implored the Lady to use another messenger, insisting he was not worthy.  The Lady however insisted that it was of the utmost importance that it be Diego speaking to the Bishop on her behalf.  On Sunday, Juan Diego did as the Lady directed, but again the Bishop asked for a sign.  Later that day, the Lady promised Juan Diego she would give him a sign the following day.  

He returned home that night to his uncle Juan Bernardino’s house, and discovered him seriously ill.  The next morning, December 12, Juan Diego decided not to meet with the Lady, but to find a Priest who could administer the last rites to his dying uncle.  When he tried to skirt around Tepeyac hill, the Lady intercepted him, assured him his uncle would not die, and asked him to climb the hill and gather the flowers he found there.  It was December, when normally nothing blooms in the cold.  There, Diego’s “Miracle of the Roses” occurred.  He found roses from the region of Castille in Spain, former home of Bishop Zumarraga.  The Lady re-arranged the roses carefully inside the folded tilma that Juan Diego wore and told him not to open it before anyone but the Bishop.  When Juan unfolded his tilma before the Bishop, roses cascaded from his tilma, and an “Icon” of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously impressed on the cloth, bringing the Bishop to his knees.  

Bishop Zumarraga acknowledged the miracle and within two weeks, ordered a Shrine to built where the Virgin Mary had appeared.  The Bishop then entrusted the image to Juan Diego, who chose to live, until his death at the age of 73, as a hermit near the spot where the Virgin Mary had appeared.  From his hermitage he cared for the chapel and the first pilgrims who came to pray there, propagating the account of the apparitions in Mexico.  

News of the apparition on Tepayac Hill spread quickly throughout Mexico, and in the seven years following, 1532 through 1538, the Indian peope accepted the Spaniards and 8 million people were converted to the Catholic Faith.  Catholics in Mexico and the rest of Latin America recognize the Virgin Mary as the patron saint of “All the Americas”.  What is even more amazing, during those same years, the Protestant Reformation was taking place in Europe.  As Europe was losing large number of Catholics, about the same amount of Catholics were converted in Mexico, maintaining the overall strength of the Catholic Church.  To this day, Latin America remains a major pillar of the Catholic Church, thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Juan Diego died on May 30, 1548.  he was declared Venerable on January 9, 1987, beatified on May 6,1990 by Pope John Paul II, and Canonized by Pope John Paul II on July 31, 2002.  Pope John Paul II said of him at his Canonization Mass at the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, that he had a simple faith nourished by catechesis.  He repeated the words of Juan Diego, “I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf”.  He said this shows Juan Diego was a model of humility.  

Practical Take Away

Juan Diego was a simple native Indian in Mexico City, that converted when the Franciscan Missionaries came to Mexico.  He and his wife were among the first to be baptised.  He went on to study the faith, and became very spiritual and active in the Catholic Church.  After losing his wife, he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she asked him to build a Shrine where she had appeared.  Today, we can go to that very spot, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.