Simon Caldwell tells the story of the Blessed Juan Diego, who is to be canonised this month What is it about our candidates for sainthood today? It seems that whenever the Church believes one of her members deserves to be recognised for a life of heroic virtue, a body of opinion strangely emerges to claim the contrary.
Recent narratives from these devil's advocates include various attacks on the probity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a woman held to be a saint even in her own lifetime, as well as the claims that Padre Pio, who was declared a saint last month, was a womaniser and a charlatan. But of all the unfair charges that have permeated the popular press in recent years, one of the most bizarre is the claim that Blessed Juan Diego, who received apparitions of Our Lady in Mexico in 1531, never existed at all.
This claim, was finally put to rest last December and the way is now clear for Juan Diego's canonisation to take place this month. Oddly, opposition to this event, craved by generations of indigenous Mexican Catholics, came not from the secular enemies of the Church, but from four Catholic priests, one of whom, Fr Guillermo Schulenburg Prado, was the retired Abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The group wrote to the Vatican last year in a final attempt to halt Diego's cause, saying that because of the paucity of any evidence to show he ever existed a move to canonise him would harm the Church's credibility.
The Vatican rejected their plea because it had already resolved the issue. It had earlier employed a commission of historians to study the matter and in 1998 they reached a "positive conclusion". Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City, meanwhile, had also conducted his own investigation, in which, with the help of the Mexican bishops, he dispelled the claims by successfully tracing Juan Diego's descendants. He concluded as a result that there was "absolutely no doubt about the existence and sainthood of Juan Diego", and he was encouraged by the compelling evidence of a truly wonderful miracle.
The miracle involved the case of a depressed young man who in 1990 attempted to commit suicide by throwing 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 the Venerable Juan Diego in spite of her son's imminent death, which she willingly did. Two days later, on 5 May, 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, on 6 May 1990, that the Pope 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 man, who went on to complete a computer engineering degree and is now living in the United States, may well be among the seven million people expected to throng the streets of Mexico City when the Pope declares Blessed Juan Diego a saint on July 31 in the Basilica of Guadalupe, a huge church built at the bottom of Tepeyac Hill, the place where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared some 471 years ago.
At the time of the apparitions, 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 instruc tion 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 in the December of 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 Juan Diego's tilma, still intact and just as vivid as it was five centuries ago (a miracle in itself, according to scientists) and 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.
oday, 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. Her previous accolades include being 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 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.
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 eventual canonisation, but has taken a very long • time for his enemies to have fallen silent. Now that they have, this humble, devout and holy man, the "least" of Our Lady's sons, will receive the recognition he has always deserved.
He will be recognised by one of the greatest popes in history as a saint of the Catholic Church, and will become for Mexico one of its greatest heroes: a truly Indian saint for a truly Indian and Catholic nation.