Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most wide-spread devotions in the Americas. Many of us are familiar with the events surrounding the apparitions of Our Lady in 1521. However, people are less familiar with St. Juan Diego, who was the one chosen by Our Lady to take her message to the bishop. He is a very interesting character because he lived at a time of seismic change for the peoples of Mexico and Latin American.
Here is a brief sketch of his life.
Juan Diego was born in 1474 in Tlayacac, Cuauhtitlan which is roughly 15 miles northeast of modern day Mexico City. He was given the name Cuauhtlatoatzin which means "talking eagle".
At the time of his birth, Tenochtitlán, which is where Mexico City is now, was a heavily populated city which served as the capital of the Aztec empire. The vast domain of the Aztecs was ruled by the emperor Montezuma.
Although his home town was part of the Aztec empire, Juan Diego was not an Aztec himself. He was a member of the Chichimecas which had arrived centuries before the Aztecs.
Through his own account, Juan Diego described himself as poor. However, it is possible that he meant poor in spirit. By owning and farming his own land as well as running a mat-making business, he probably would have been in the middle class. In addition, as education was compulsory in the Aztec empire, he would have received at least a very basic education.
Other than those facts, not much else is known about his early life. However, it is interesting to note that Juan Diego would have been around 22 years of age when Columbus first sailed into the Caribbean. The subsequent Spanish efforts to colonize the Americas would play a major role in the latter part of his life.
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The Mighty Empire Falls
When Juan Diego was 48 years old, life changed dramatically for the people of the Aztec empire. That year was 1521, and that was when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes defeated Montezuma and the Aztec empire. Assuming the role of governor, Cortes began an ambitious rebuilding program in the capital city which he had renamed Mexico City.
The pagan temples were torn down, and in their place, churches were built. One of the largest temples was located in Huitzilopochtli and dedicated to the Aztec god of war. In its place, the church of St. Diego, who is St. James, the patron saint of Spain, was built.
The first missionaries of the region were Franciscans. Prior to his conquest of the Aztecs, Cortes had discovered fellow Spaniards who had been captured by the Mayans. One of these was the Spanish priest Gerónimo de Aguilar who had been shipwrecked, captured, escaped, and then enslaved. He had learned the language of his captors and proved a helpful translator for Cortes during his conquest.
By 1524 when the Franciscan mission in Mexico City had begun in earnest, we know that Juan Diego was married to Maria Lucia. At that time 12 Franciscans had come specifically to share the Gospel with the native people.
From the Franciscans, Juan Diego, Maria Lucia, and his uncle Juan Bernardino received catechetical instruction. The attended mass at the church of St. Diego, and in 1525, all three were baptized there. Juan Diego and his wife were one of the first native couples to be baptized. It was at this time, that he changed his name from Cuauhtlatoatzin to Juan Diego. Sadly, Maria Lucia died two years later.
Our Lady gives Him a Mission
On December 9, 1531, while walking to attend mass, the widower Juan Diego was visited by Our Lady. She appeared to him near Tepeyac Hill as he headed toward Mexico City. She was surrounded by light and was dressed as she is depicted on the tilma. Our Lady spoke to him in his native language and used a diminutive of his name although Juan Diego was 57 years of age.
Our Lady asked Juan Diego to go to the bishop in Mexico City and to request that a church be built in order the she might manifest God to the people. The church would be a place where all those who called upon her for help would be aided by her.
Faithfully, Juan Diego went to visit the bishop. He was kept waiting for a long time and when he finally spoke with Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, the bishop requested that he be given time to consider the request.
On the way home, Our Lady again appeared to Juan Diego who explained that he had failed in his mission. Although he requested that she select someone else who could accomplish her goal, Our Lady assured him that he was the person she wanted for this job.
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A Second Visit
The next day, he again spoke with the bishop. Bishop Zumárraga was open to the idea of building the church, but he asked for sign in order to know that the message was indeed from Heaven.
Again, on his return home, Our Lady met Juan Diego and he reported the bishop's comments. Our Lady said that she would provide a sign on the next day.
However, the very next day, Juan Bernardino had become ill and Juan Diego stayed with his uncle to tend to him. By December 12th, his uncle's condition has worsened and Juan Diego set out to get a priest to minister to Juan Bernardino.
Embarrassed that he had not met with the Virgin Mary on the day before, Juan Diego tried to take a different route that avoided going past Tepeyac Hill in order to not meet Our Lady. However, Our Lady met him all the same.
A Sign for the Bishop
After explaining about his uncle to Our Lady, she gently scolded him for not turning to her for help, "Am I not here, I who am your mother?" She then reassured him that his uncle had recovered. Instead, she requested that he climb the hill to collect roses and to return to her.
Trusting in her word, Juan Diego found roses blooming in the winter at the top of the hill. He collected them in his tilma and returned to her. Our Lady rearranged the roses in his tilma and told him to take them to bishop as a sign.
Clutching his tilma to keep the roses in place, he hurried to meet with the bishop. When the audience began, Juan Diego proclaimed that Our Lady had given him the sign to share with Bishop Zumárraga. He opened his tilma and out poured the roses. However, although the Castillian roses in winter was a miracle, it was the image of Our Lady imprinted on the tilma that captured the attention of the bishop and the others in the room. Immediately, they all venerated the image.
The Miracles Begin
Within two weeks, a small adobe chapel had been built at Tepeyac Hill. The tilma which had remained with the bishop was then carried in procession to the chapel. The happiness of the occasion was marred by a stray arrow that wounded one of the Indians in his neck. (There had been a demonstration of martial arts as part of the ceremony.)
However, the man was placed before the tilma and prayers were offered for his recovery. The first miracle associated with the tilma took place when the man was fully healed.
It was just the start. Over the next 17 years, it is estimated that over 9 million heard the Gospel and received baptism.
As for Juan Diego, Bishop Zumárraga appointed him the first custodian of the chapel. A small one-room addition was added to the chapel. There Juan Diego lived for the rest of his 17 years of life. Throughout that time, he happily taught the faith and shared the story of Our Lady to all who asked to hear it.
In 1548, both Bishop Zumárraga and Juan Diego died within days of each other. Juan Diego was 74 years old when he died.
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Feast Day (Memorial): December 9th