Juan Diego, a giant in Mexican lore, is made a saint

May 13, 2009

Sainthood affirms Juan Diego’s role Pope to canonize first Indian saint today
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Wednesday, July 31, 2002

CUAUTITLAN, Mexico — Some doubt he ever existed. Others quarrel over how he should be depicted. No one can deny his influence on Mexico.

Today, Pope John Paul II will make it official. A canonization Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe will make a saint of the hugely popular, sometimes controversial Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. The 16th-century peasant’s vision of the Virgin Mary helped spread Catholicism over Mexico and Latin America in a way Spanish missionaries could promote, but never match.

“This is something solid that God in his mysterious way did to show we’re his children,” said Facundo Trajo, 45, who lives here in Juan Diego’s hometown. “It fills me with hope.”

Trajo is like many in this community, just outside of Mexico City. He is seeing a surge in tourists coming to visit what is said to be the ruins of Juan Diego’s home, and he is feeling a swell of pride that the town’s favorite son is about to become the first full-blooded Indian saint.

Cuautitlan resident Raquel Moreno Guterez, 77, is so devoted to Juan Diego that she named the first of her 14 children after him.

Such reverence is common. People make the sign of the cross when they pass the many small shrines to Juan Diego and the Virgin. Pilgrims approach the Basilica de Guadalupe, where the sacred image of Mary is enshrined, on their knees, and pictures of Juan Diego are outnumbered only by reproductions of his famous vision of the Virgin.

Guterez has made so many needlepoint renderings of the placid Virgin framed by a oval rainbow that she can do it from memory without having to paint the mat first.

Today’s canonization of Juan Diego is the latest step in the 470-year history of the church recognizing Juan Diego’s powerful sway on Mexico, the world’s second-most Catholic country.

The church was initially reluctant to accept an Indian version of Catholicism.

In 1531, 10 years after Hernando Cortez defeated the Aztecs, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego on a hill and spoke to him in his native tongue, according to the story. She instructed him to tell the bishop to build a church dedicated to her on that site. When the bishop didn’t believe the peasant’s story, it is believed that the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again and arranged flowers on his cloak.

Tradition holds that when Juan Diego unfolded the cloak in front of the bishop, an iridescent image of Mary appeared. The bishop ordered a church built.

Nine million Indians were baptized in the following 15 years, according to T.R. Fehrenbach, author of Fire and Blood; A History of Mexico.

In 1737, the plague struck Mexico City, and the Virgin was declared its patron.

Ten years later, she was declared patron of the whole country. In 1945, Pope Pius XII called her the empress of the Americas.

In 1990, Juan Diego was beatified, an important step toward becoming a saint. In February, the Mexican bishops petitioned Rome to have Juan Diego canonized.

It’s a powerful story of a humble peasant whose faith elevated him to a pivotal role in the conversion of millions, but some say it isn’t true.

“He didn’t exist,” the Rev. Stafford Poole said of Juan Diego. “He is a figure of fiction, pious fiction.”

Poole is author of Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797, a work that sheds doubt on Juan Diego’s existence.

“You do not really find any evidence of the story or of his existence until 1648, 100 years after his death,” Poole said. “The most that you can say is that it’s very dubious.”

Guillermo Ortiz, auxiliary bishop of Mexico City, acknowledged that the story was passed on orally for several generations before it was written down, but he said there were several witnesses passing on the story, and it was legally recognized at the time by church and civil authorities.

Jim McDonald, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said he does not doubt the pope’s good intentions, but he also sees the canonization of Juan Diego as a way to institutionalize the church’s strong hold on Mexico.

“The church is actually losing its grip on big parts of Mexico right now, and this is a way to re-establish their strong presence,” said McDonald, who specializes in Mexico. “Without a doubt there’s a market share element to it.”

The Rev. Bob Pelton, an expert on Latin American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., said he sees the canonization more as an official recognition of a beacon of Christianity to Mexico and Latin America.

“It’s something deep within the psyche of Mexicans to begin with, so I think it’s going to affirm them and strengthen them,” Pelton said.

The pope agrees. This canonization fits into the vision of Catholicism that he has been carrying out for years, experts said. The pope has canonized 463 saints.

Kenneth Woodward, author of Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, said the pope has put a priority on canonization petitions from countries and peoples that do not have their own saint.

“It is part of his evangelization effort. He’s a great evangelist,” Woodward said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Here is yet another way that you can be a disciple of Christ.’ ”