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Why Saint Juan Diego, a Saint For Nobodies, Means so Much To the Houston Catholic Worker

Mark and Louise Zwick in front of the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Juliette Calabrese in Casa Juan Diego

Casa Juan Diego has been filled with joy over the canonization of Saint Juan Diego. The welcome of Mexico for the Holy Father on the occasion of his canonization reverberated in Houston, even in the news media, where several television stations celebrated the Pope’s visit and tied it together with what they called one of Juan Diego’s miracles, Casa Juan Diego. Channel 2 (NBC) had two programs, including a beautiful half-hour special on Sunday morning, August 3. Local FOX-TV featured Juan Diego and Casa Juan Diego together twice, and Channel 45 in Spanish included a news segment. Brian Sasser of Channel 2, Ned Hibberd of Fox 26 Houston and Amalia Torres of Univision spent many hours preparing the stories.

We were able to tell the people of Houston how much Juan Diego means to us, how his name was chosen for our work when we began. What a symbol he is for those who are nobodies in the eyes of the powerful but are greatly appreciated by God.

We, too, were nobodies as we began taking in refugees from the wars in Central America in the early 1980s. The immigrants and refugees who came and continue to come to us with only the shirts on their backs are wanted by so many only for their work, but are not considered human beings by many, as the first Juan Diego. Like Juan Diego, they do not speak the language and have no rights.

The work of Casa Juan Diego, which began in an old meat market, has grown to 15 “Casas,” thanks to the help of so many who have cared about those who come to seek refuge and assistance in so many ways. The television programs showed our food distribution to the poor of the community, English classes, our medical clinic in action and guests recounting their stories.

We were not able to attend the canonization, but have visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe a number of times. The shrine has always been filled with pilgrims from all over Mexico, some Latin Americans from other countries and a few English speakers. On occasion, English-speaking tourists have asked us what the place is all about, what is the significance?

The Time of the Appearance

At the time of the conquest, when Juan Diego lived, many of the invaders thought the indigenous people did not even have souls and that therefore did not have the right to own anything but should be subject. They were treated badly and enslaved. They were forbidden to speak their own language. (At least in Spanish-speaking countries, they were still alive, whereas in the United States few Native Americans survived.) With the conquistadores, however, came missionaries who wanted to share their faith with them. It was hard going, of course, because of the terrible treatment they were receiving. Only a very few natives had become Christian. One of those was Juan Diego, who with his wife had been baptized and frequently received the sacraments. Devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, was very much a part of the evangelization in Christ which Juan Diego had received. By the time Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to him, Juan Diego was a widower. His faith was an example of the sincere and profound conversion hoped for by the missionaries, who were worried that even those who had embraced the faith would fall back into idolatry.

Franciscan missionaries who worked hard to share their faith with the indigenous people also defended them, writing to the king of Spain and to the Pope to argue that they were human beings with souls; the missionaries described the cruelty, the corruption and hardness of heart of many of their own countrymen towards the people. One of these Franciscans was Juan de Zumárraga, Bishop of Mexico. (We have long been aware of Bishop Zumárraga’s concern for the people under his care because of original source material from the time that we have read in Spanish.)

Parts of Bishop Zumárraga’s letters to King Carlos V of Spain, in which he described the cruelty of some of his countrymen in New Spain are reprinted in a new book by Eduardo Chavez Sanchez which was sent to us by the priest from the parish which operates our Casa Juan Diego House of Hospitality in Matamoros, Mexico. The book is called Juan Diego, una vida de santidad que marcó la historia (Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 2002). In addition to excerpts from some of the most famous documents recounting the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Chavez includes original corres-pondence from the time.\

Sometimes the story of Mary’s appearances has been told as if there were no receptive Spaniards at all. Chavez’ book shows how the apparitions were an encouragement for and working with the already existing efforts of some of the missionaries.

Chavez recounts how as the people were enslaved and their women taken by soldiers, the people came weeping to the Bishop, who denounced the behavior in his weekly sermons where conquistadores attended Mass. The Bishop complained that they then fled from his sermons, no longer going to church, but attending banquets on Sundays, taking with them indigenous women by force. Because of his strong critique of the injustices, cruelty, thievery and corruption especially of those in charge of the Government of Mexico City, Bishop Zumárraga was threatened and lies were made up about him to discredit him and to try to have him replaced.

In 1529, one year and four months before the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, Bishop Zumárraga wrote to the king to tell him that the situation was so bad that only a miracle of God could save the situation and the earth: “si Dios no provee con remedio de su mano está la tierra en punto de perderse totalmente.” The missionaries prayed for a miracle.

As Sanchez writes: “The situation which resulted from the Conquest, and the discord which existed among the Spaniards gave no possibility of a way out; it could have resulted in a cataclysm of one world against the other–the Spaniards who felt questioned by their consciences and the indigenous who showed in their sorrow a profound fatalism. Only an intervention of another magnitude could create a new people, a new race.” (p. 51)

God Did Provide the Miracle

Shortly thereafter, God did provide the remedy to what might have been the total destruction of a civilization and culture through Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, sent to Juan Diego to bring God’s message to the Bishop, and through him, to all of the continents of America, leaving her own image, pregnant with the child Jesus, on his tilma as a sign of new life.

When she appeared several times to Juan Diego to ask Bishop Zumárraga to build a church in her honor, the Señora del Cielo, as Juan Diego called her, affirmed the dignity of an oppressed people in an unmistakable way. She herself appeared with dark skin, speaking Nahautl, the forbidden language, affirming God’s love for Juan Diego and his people.

Much has been made in recent months in the press, often eager to embrace each new possible manifestation of skepticism, of the fact that there was not huge publicity about Our Lady’s appearance at the time of the apparition.

There was no need for the Spanish missionaries to publicize the news of the apparition among the native people. They quickly arrived by the thousands asking to be baptized.

Did Juan Diego Exist?

The oral testimony and tradition about the apparitions and about Juan Diego was overwhelming. As theologian Virgil Elizondo of San Antonio wrote recently in the Texas Catholic Herald (August 9, 2002, p. 13), “It might seem silly to even ask the question (about Juan Diego’s existence) when there are no doubts about his existence in the minds and hearts of the faithful. The constant tradition of the faithful gives testimony of his existence. However, some historians who question the authenticity of the entire Guadalupe tradition think that he is simply a legendary character created by the accounts of the apparitions first published in 1649 by Luis Laso de la Vega. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“First of all, the accounts published in 1649 were like an edited book composed of accounts that had been written much earlier. The earliest account of the apparitions and of Juan Diego’s role in them was written by the native Nahuatl scholar Antonio Valeriano in the late 1500’s-only a few years after the apparitions. This account is known as the Nican Mopohua. It is more probable that he recorded in a very precise and poetic way the account narrated by Juan Diego himself. Another account, the Nican Moctepana, was written by Mestizo Fernando Ixtlilxochitl in 1590. These manuscripts of the earliest account, along with many others, can be found in the Lennox collection of the New York Public Library.

“We also have the Codex Escalada which is a Nahuatl pictographic account which ws only recently discovered and which dates to 1548. Juan Diego is visibly present in this pictographic narration of the Guadalupe events. This document has been subjected to several scientific tests and all of them indicate that it is an original of that period of time.”

Bishop Zumárraga’s Testimony

Bishop Zumárraga’s corres-pondence to Spain and to Rome from the time also clearly reported that a great event had taken place. As Chávez writes (pp. 121 ff.):

“The light of the Star of the Evangelization was revealed as a moment of intervention of God in human history. If human persons, in spite of the divine intervention, continued with their limitations, infidelities and betrayals; there is no doubt that immediately after the date of the apparitions a marvelous change in regard to the conversions of the indigenous and the change of attitude of the Spaniards took place. A change in the depth of being of the inhabitants of Mexico.

“Fray Juan de Zumárraga, Bishop of Mexico, was the first person to manifest a radical change in soul and in courage. As we have seen before, in 1529 Zumárraga showed a great anguish, impotence and worry, not only that the indigenous might return to their idolatrous rites, but because of the disaster that his own brother Spaniards were causing, to whom it mattered little to go against the priests, even in the most elemental principles of their mission. After 1531, Zumárraga, showing a totally different attitude, wrote a letter to Hernán Cortés saying: And now I understand in my proceedings and in writing to Veracruz. It is impossible to write the joy of all. With Salamanca it is not necessary to write. I sent the Father Guardian to Cuernavaca. An Indian goes to Brother Toribio and all will be in praise of God … and all laudent nomen domini (praising the name of the Lord)…’

“I want to give the name to the Iglesia Mayor (major church) the title of the Conception of the Mother of God. On such a day God and his Mother have desired this mercy for this land that you won….” (Letter from Bishop Zumárraga to Hernán Cortés).

“Mariano Cuevas, who published this document, offers some commentaries: ‘the Bishop, coming out of his habitual seriousness and serenity of character … gives Cortés such a news, or better, presupposes his knowledge of this news about which “one cannot write the joy of all and all laudent nomen domini. It meant the great joy of the people, who were celebrating with religious feasts and expressed clearly a favor granted by the Most Holy Virgin, near the day of the Immaculate Conception; an extraordinarily great favor, granted to the land conquered by Hernán Cortés and very related to the Immaculate Conception.’ Cuevas, after making an exhaustive examination to clarify the date, concludes that this document was written at the end of December of 1531. Certainly, the Bishop elect, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, manifested a great difference in spirit and courage between the letter of 1529 sent to the king, which was signed as ‘the anxious and mournful elect,’ and this one of 1531 to Cortés in which he exclaimed, signing himself as ‘the rejoicing elect.’

“But this letter is not the only manifestation of the important change which occurred at the end of 1531; there is another clear, concrete, objective sign that this joy penetrated to the depths: the conversions of the indigenous people, which from this moment could be counted in the thousands. This is verified by historical sources; in his Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España, for example, Friar Toribio Motolinia after pointing out that the hard work of the Franciscans had resulted in a certain number of baptisms of indigenous people, could not deny that in the first years the Indians remained opposed to converting to Catholicism. The missionary declared, “there were about five very cold years in Mexico.’ Besides, he was conscious of the insignificance of their resources in the face of the enormity of the work, the terrible problems and the insecurity of whether the conversions were sincere; the fear that the Indian piety was a masked idolatry subsisted for a long time in all the missionaries and became for some, like Friar Diego de Durán, an obsession.

“Motolinia told, however, of the great numbers of natives who asked for baptism after these first years, and in this moment, inexplicably, by the thousands: ‘Friar Juan de Perpiñan and Friar Francisco of Valencia–those baptized by each of these was more than a hundred thousand…’ Motolinia continued counting the thousands and thousands who had been baptized and arrived at the conclusion that the total for the year of 1536, would be ‘until today the baptized are about five million. On his part Friar Juan de Torquemada in his work Monarquía Indiana gives the information that ‘so many were baptized,a thousand in a day.’ …

“Without a doubt, this massive conversion of the indigenous people was a surprise for the missionaries … an was their seeking of not just the sacrament of Baptism, but also Confession: It occurred that-said Mendieta (Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta, Historia Eclesiastica Indiana)-by the roads, mountains and deserted spots a thousand or two thousand Indians followed the religious, just to go to confession, leaving behind their homes and properties; and many of them pregnant women, and so many that some had their babies on the way, and almost all carrying their children on their backs. Other elderly people who could hardly stand even with a supporting stick, and blind people, walked 15 or twenty leagues to search for a confessor. The healthy came thirty leagues, and others went from monastery to monastery, more than eighty leagues. Because on every side there was so much to do, they found no entry. Many of them brought their women and children and their little food, as if they were moving to another area. And they sometimes waited one or two months . . .

The numbers seeking baptism were so great that the missionaries stopped the baptisms to write to Rome to ask how to proceed in such an unprecedented situation.

One reason, according to Chavez, that there was not immediate great publicity among the Spaniards of the apparitions was the concern of confusion of Mary, Juan Diego’s Señora del Cielo with idolatry. She did, after all appear on the hill called Tepeyac, where devotion to a goddess had existed. Not all of the Franciscans embraced the apparitions. One who actively opposed devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe was Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who called it a “satanic invention,” because of his fear that the idigenous would return to their old idols. Chavez argues that this rejection and silence among some missionaries, rather than undermining the truth of the apparitions, actually shows that the devotion was not something brought from Spain to subjugate the Indians and trick them into embracing Catholicism:

“This silence and direct rejection of the first missionaries, appeared to be something contrary to the devotion, but this is not so, in fact, it helps to confirm that the Guadalupana of Mexico was not a devotion brought by the Spaniards in order to conquer the Indians, because this silence of the first missionaries and even their direct attack against the devotion would be contradictory. Our Lady of Guadalupe is a devotion which arose from Tepeyac and only is similar in name to that of Extremadura, Spain” (pp.131-132).

After the apparitions, Juan Diego dedicated his life to the service of Christ and to Our Lady of Guadalupe, requesting and receiving Bishop Zummáraga’s permission to build a small house or hut next to the church which had been built in Our Lady’s honor. He lived there the rest of his life, sweeping and keeping the place clean, recounting the story to those the many who visited. He was respected throughout the indigenous population as a saint from the beginning.

Like Eduardo Chavez, Dorothy Day (quoting then Archbishop Miranda during her pilgrimage to the Basilica), pointed out that devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe led to the formation of a new people: ‘We have the answer to the problem of color which confronts the East and the West,’ Archbishop Miranda, primate of Mexico said to us in an interview on the last day. ‘Our Lady answered it then. There is no problem in Mexico. Where there was the Indian, there is now the Mexican. There is a new people, a new race. There was intermarriage from the first.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe is for all people, however, especially all of the Americas. In his book Chavez sings of the meaning of her appearances and what San Juan Diego means today: “Juan Diego continues spreading to the entire world the great Guadalupan Happening, a great message of peace, of unity and love that continues to be transmitted through each one of us, converting our poor human history, full of tragedies, betrayals, divisions, hatred, wars, in a marvelous History of Salvation, because in the center of the sacred image, in the center of the heart of the Most Holy Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is found Jesus Christ Our Savior. It is precisely she, the Mother of God, our Mother, who presents her son Jesus Christ, brings him to us among flowers and songs, robed in the sun, dressed in stars, standing on the moon, among the clouds like a great treasure who comes from the invisible and which in her is made visible. It is she who, choosing a humble native Indian, Juan Diego, who had had little time to embrace the faith, invites us to embrace our God and Lord.

“Juan Diego completes fully his work as intercessor and model of holiness, because each one who contemplates the image and message of Our Lady of Guadalupe brings us the love of God, through which we prepare ourselves as other ‘Juan Diegos’ who treat the Mother of God as our Mother, our Niña del Cielo” (182-183).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 5, September-October 2002.