On May 30, 1990, a grievously depressed teenager hurled himself from the balcony of his apartment in Mexico City, plunging 30’ to the pavement below. He suffered life-threatening head injuries and the doctors gave him a zero chance of survival. Hoping against hope, his family prayed urgently to Juan Diego for a miracle. Ten days later 19-year-old Juan Jose Barragan walked out of the hospital. The family was granted their miracle: Juan Jose was completely healed. The doctors were dumbfounded. And claimed that it was medically inexplicable.
Ironically, that same day in Rome, Pope John Paul ll was celebrating Mass for Juan Diego’s beatification! Twelve years later, on July 31, 2002, Pope John Paul ll travelled to Mexico City for his canonization Mass. According to the Financial Post (Aug. 2, 2002) twelve million people graced the streets of the city to welcome their beloved “Papa” who had come to Mexico for the canonization of Mexico’s first indigenous saint. Juan Jose’s cure was the requisite miracle for Juan Diego’s canonization.
During this process intensive research uncovered new information about Juan Diego: Contrary to common belief, he was not an illiterate, indigent peasant. He was of the macehual class (middle-class), he owned property, and ran a thriving mat-making business on the shores of Lake Texcoco. He was educated as education was compulsory in the Aztec empire. Although he was associated with the mighty Aztec empire, he was not an Aztec, he was a Chichimeca Indian, a people who had arrived in the Valley of Mexico three centuries earlier.
He was born in 1474 in Cuatitlan, a city 14 miles northeast of the capital. Cuatitlan was a member of the “Triple Alliance”with the Aztec empire. He would have been an eye-witness to the volcanic changes which enveloped Mexico after the arrival of the Spanish and their conquest of the immense Aztec empire in 1521. An event of dramatic significance which enabled Christianity to be introduced into the country. In 1524 the first missionary group arrived from Spain. They were twelve Franciscans famously known as “the twelve apostles.” By all accounts they were an exemplary group of priests. Robert Ricard, in his Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, speaks about the “exceptional worth of these friars.” They established the first mission headquarters at the church of St. James (the patron saint of Spain), at Tlaltelolco, the site of a former pagan temple which had been dedicated to Huitzilopochtili, the god of war.
Juan Diego and his wife, Maria Lucia (who died in 1529), were among the first Christians in the land. They were baptized in 1525 at Tlaltelolco after being catechized for several months by these same Franciscan friars. Juan and his wife sat spellbound as they listened to the friars teaching about “Our Lady and her precious Son” who loved them without measure. Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, was converted shortly thereafter. What a contrast to the frightful religion Juan had known all his life! The prophet Jeremiah could have been speaking of Mexico when he said “It is a land of idols.” (Jer.50:38)
Bernal Diaz, in his acclaimed first-person account, The Conquest of New Spain, records what the Spaniards witnessed as they penetrated into the country: He speaks of Tenayuca, a place which was called “the city of snakes” because they kept three serpents in their temple and worshipped them as gods. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were rife. Both were practiced on an enormous scale. “At Veracruz,” he said “they had just sacrificed two boys. Their cruelty upset us greatly!” He spoke frequently of temples filled with “idols of most hideous shapes” whose walls were “caked with blood.” They arrived at Tlaxcala “in such a state of terror” at what they had seen and heard. “Every province had its own idols—infinite numbers of them and they sacrificed to them all.” They believed that human sacrifice was necessary to appease their insatiable, vengeful gods. This: as opposed to the incredible, glorious, Christian teaching, “He gave His only Son out of His love for us” (John 3:16).
Juan was so devoted to Our Lady that he walked nine miles every Saturday before dawn to attend the Mass in her honor at Tlalteloco (and walked the same distance every Sunday as well).
It was there that he was heading on that Saturday morning on December 9, 1531. On this journey he encountered the remarkable “Beautiful Lady.” According to The Nican Mapohua, Juan heard a voice from the top of Tepeyac Hill calling him: “Dear Juan, dearest Juan Diego.” The Nican Mapohua is the earliest account of the apparitions, written in 1540. The author was Antonio Valeriano who was a mestizo (a man of mixed race) who may have spoken to Juan Diego personally. The description of the encounter continues: “Her clothing was shining like the sun,” Juan reported, and she called him “My son, my youngest son, Juanito” (a term of affection). One can only Imagine the effect these words must have had on him! This recent widower who was fearful that his beloved uncle (his only family) was about to die, was, by these words, being welcomed into a new family!
She revealed herself as the “Holy Virgin Mary, the Mother of the one true God.” She appeared to him three more times and reassured him that his uncle would be cured. At the exact moment that these words were being spoken his uncle reported that Our Lady also appeared to him and healed him! She also told him her name: “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. She continued to speak consoling words to Juan. Words that would comfort generations of believers throughout the centuries: “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” “Why do you worry? You are in the hollow of my mantle! You are under my protection!’
On December 12, 1531, a momentous event occurred: Our Lady’s image appeared miraculously on Juan Diego’s tilma (cape) in the presence of Bishop Zumarraga and several others. She appeared as a mestiza (a woman of mixed race). “And absolutely everyone, the entire city, without exception, trembled when they went to behold her precious image.” “They marveled at something divine,” reported The Nican Mapohua. Franciscan historian Fray Toribio de Benavente, one of the original twelve, declared that within a decade of the Guadalupe miracle nine million Indians had converted to the Catholic religion.
A small chapel—known as the chapel of Los Indios— was built at the base of Tepeyac Hill to house the image. Bishop Zumarraga appointed Juan Diego to be the perpetual guardian of the sacred tilma. A one-room addition was built on to the chapel which would be Juan’s home for the rest of his life. He would spend the next 17 years joyously teaching the truths of the Catholic faith to the millions who came to venerate the image. He died in 1548 and is buried in this chapel; the ruins of his dwelling can be seen at the present day.
Juan’s indigenous name was Cuauhtlatoazin which means “the eagle that speaks.” A fitting name for one who could be called the Saint Paul of Mexico! Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Marian shrine in the world. And the humble Juan Diego was the human instrument of it all.
Mary Hansen writes at MadonnasOfMexico.com. She is a former teacher and writes for the National Catholic Register, The Catholic Register and OnePeterFive. She has a B.A. from Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario) and an M.Ed. and a Master of Divinity from St. Michael’s (Toronto). She writes from Ontario, Canada.