Saint Juan Diego, Model for the Lay Apostolate

Juan's Roots

Juan was born around 1474 in the village of Cuautitlan. He was a Chichimeca of the Family of Texcoco. His Indian name was Cuauhtlatoatzin that means “He who talks like an eagle”. He received an early education and was later married and had children. He was a landowner, a small farmer and was involved in textile manufacturing. Juan converted to Christianity between 1524-25 and was baptized, together with his wife, Maria Lucia, by the Franciscan missionary Friar Toribio de Benavente. Maria died in 1529.

Juan lived before and after the Spanish Conquest of 1521. The Conquest was an apocalyptic event for the indigenous peoples. They lost their freedom, their land, their religion, their culture, their society and their great city of Tenochtitlan, present day Mexico City. Juan's life bridged two cultures from the pre-Conquest worship of false gods and the human sacrifices made to appease them to the post-Conquest worship of the one true God and the end of human sacrifice.

God's Messenger

Blessed Juan Diego will be canonized on July 30. He was a layman who was the apostle to Mexico and as such is the model for the lay apostolate, those who further the mission of evangelization, because the Queen of Apostles sent him as a messenger for God. The success of his mission can be measured by its fruits. Eight million indigenous peoples of Mexico were converted to the one true God in seven years, the practice of human sacrifice ended in Mexico and the indigenous peoples were reconciled to their Spanish conquerors, intermarried with them and formed the new Mexican race. It was the greatest evangelization in the history of the world and it's the second greatest story ever told.

The Apparitions and Mission

Ten years after the Conquest on December 9, 1531, 57-year-old Juan, a recent widower, began his nine-mile walk from his home in Tolpetlac probably to Tlaltelolco near Mexico City “in pursuit of God and His commandments”, according to the Nican Mopohua, the earliest account of the apparitions written in 1545. Juan was walking either to attend catechetical instructions or Mass or both. He approached Tepeyac Hill that was the former site of worship to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. His attention was drawn to the hill by the music of singing birds and a sweet feminine voice affectionately calling him, “Juan, dearest Juan Diego.” He climbed the hill and saw a beautiful young lady at the top. She later identified herself to his uncle, Juan Bernadino, as “The Perfect Virgin Holy Mary of Guadalupe.” Her dress shone like the sun and transformed the appearance of the rocks and plants on the barren cactus hill into glittering jewels.

Our Lady identified herself to Juan as “the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the only true God in whom we live” She entrusted to him a mission to request Bishop Zumarraga to build a church on the hill so that she could manifest her Son to all of the people. She said, “I ardently desire that a little sacred house be built here for me where I will manifest Him, I will exalt Him, I will give Him to the people through my personal love, through my compassionate gaze, through my help and through my protection. Because I am, in truth, your merciful Mother and the mother of all 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 have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping and their sadness and will remedy and alleviate their troubles, their miseries and their suffering.”

Twice the Bishop politely rebuffed Juan. He prudently requested a sign from Our Lady so as to believe her request for him to build the church. Juan returned to Our Lady and told her that he was unworthy of his mission. But Our Lady recognized his dignity and reassured him. She told him that she had many messengers who could “carry her breath” but “it is altogether necessary that you should be the one to undertake this mission and it will be through your mediation and assistance that my wish should be accomplished.”

She promised to give Juan the sign on December 11. However, on the appointed day Juan cared for his dying uncle, Juan Bernardino, and he stayed with him. On December 12, he left his uncle to get a priest to give him the last rites. As he approached Tepeyac Hill, Our Lady intercepted him and told him not to worry, that his uncle was well. She said, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son. Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety, or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? Are you not in the crossing of my arms? What else do you need?” She paused a moment and continued, “Do not let the illness of your uncle worry you because he is not going to die of his sickness. At this very moment, he is cured.”

Our Lady told Juan to go up to the top of the hill and cut and gather the flowers there. Juan obediently did so and found miraculous flowers growing in the middle of the frosty season that included Castilian roses that were native to the Bishop's homeland in Spain. He put them together and returned to Our Lady. She helped to place the flowers in his tilma (cloak) and said that they were “the sign to take to the Bishop. Tell him, in my name, that in them he will recognize my will and that he must fulfill it. You will be my ambassador, fully worthy of my confidence.”

Mission Accomplished

For the third time, Juan requested the Bishop to build the church. He said, “Here is your sign”, opened his tilma and the roses fell. At that moment the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared on his tilma. The Bishop believed, the church was built, the miraculous tilma was displayed for the people's veneration and it is still displayed today in the Basilica near Tepeyac Hill.

Our Lady was true to her promise and manifested her Son to the millions of indigenous people who converted to Him. For the next seventeen years Juan lived as a humble hermit in a hermitage at the base of Tepeyac Hill and cared for the nearby church that housed the tilma.

Since Juan was learned in Nahuatl and Christian doctrine, he was able to explain the Miraculous Image on the tilma that spoke to the natives as a pictograph. He explained its significance and the story of the apparitions over and over again. He spent hours in prayer to Jesus and Mary and cared for her Image. He lived a life of poverty, chastity and obedience and was revered by all. He died in 1548 at the age of 74 and was probably buried in his hermitage next to the chapel that he had cared for so well.

Juan's Virtues

Juan Diego is a saint not because Our Lady appeared to him, but because he exercised heroic virtues. In his beatification address, Pope John Paul II praised Juan's virtues, “his simple faith, nourished by catechesis and open to the mysteries; his hope and trust in God and in the Virgin; his love, his moral coherence, his unselfishness and evangelical poverty.

“Living the life of a hermit here near Tepeyac, he was a model of humility. The Virgin chose him from among the most humble as the one to receive that loving and gracious manifestation of hers which is the Guadalupe apparition. Her maternal face and her blessed image which she left us as a priceless gift is a permanent remembrance of this. In this manner she wanted to remain among you as a sign of the communion and unity of all those who were to live together in this land.

“Juan Diego too shines before you, raised by the Church to the honors of the altar; we can invoke him as the protector and the advocate of the indigenous peoples.”

Juan exhibited the Marian virtues of humility, obedience, charity, trust, patience, poverty and chastity.

Like Mary, who saw herself as the lowly handmaid of the Lord, Juan saw himself as a mecapalli, a burden-bearer. Like Mary, who obeyed and accepted to be a mother to carry Christ, Juan obeyed and accepted to be the messenger of Mary to “carry her breath.” Like Mary, who in charity cared for her elderly pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Juan cared for his elderly dying uncle, Juan Bernadino. Like Mary, who “trusted that the Lord's promise to her would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45), Juan trusted Our Lady's promise that there were flowers at the top of the hill and he climbed it in trust. Like Mary, Juan trusted Our Lady's promise that the Bishop would recognize her will and fulfill it in the sign of the flowers. Like Mary, who patiently waited for nine months for the Lord's promise to be fulfilled, Juan patiently waited for days for Our Lady's promise to be fulfilled. Like Mary, who lived in poverty and chastity as a widow, Juan, the widower, gave up his possessions and lived in poverty and chastity until his death. Finally, like Mary, Juan didn't argue with God's will, he didn't complain and he didn't doubt. He simply did as he was asked, endured the derision of the Bishop's servants and persevered in fortitude, as did Mary who endured the derision of the detractors who accused her of adultery.

Lay Apostle

Juan Diego was a model lay apostle who foreshadowed those described in The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity of the Second Vatican Council. In his person and mission he understood the power of God, the intercession of Mary and her love for all mankind to whom she leads her Son. Juan may become known as one of the great saints in the history of the Church. He should be recognized as something of a Patriarch, like Abraham or Moses. Of course, he didn't lead thousands to the Promised Land but he led millions to the Promised One through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Pope John Paul II said at his beatification ceremony, “Similar to ancient Biblical personages who were collective representations of all the people, we could say that Juan Diego represents all the indigenous peoples who accepted the Gospel of Jesus, thanks to the maternal aid of Mary, who is always inseparable from the manifestation of her Son and the spread of the Church, as was her presence among the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.

“The recognition of the veneration that has been given for centuries to the layman, Juan Diego, assumes a particular importance. It is a strong call to all the lay faithful of the nation to assume all their responsibilites in the transmission of the Gospel Message and in the witness of a living and operative faith.

“The lay faithful share in the prophetic, priestly and royal role of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 31), but they carry out this vocation in the ordinary situations of daily life. Their natural and immediate field of action extends to all the areas of human coexistence and to everything that constitutes culture in the widest and fullest sense of the term.”

Juan Diego is the model for the lay apostolate and like him all of the lay faithful are called to be witnesses to spread our own personal roses of humility, obedience, charity, trust, and patience in our own time and place.

“The mission of the Church pertains to the salvation of men, which is to be achieved by belief in Christ and by His grace. The apostolate of the Church and of all its members is primarily designed to manifest Christ's message by words and deeds and to communicate His grace to the world.” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity ch. 2, no. 6). The Queen of the Apostles, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and her apostle Juan Diego carried out this mission to the greatest degree known in the history of the world.

“Whether the lay apostolate is exercised by the faithful as individuals or as members of organizations, it should be incorporated into the apostolate of the whole Church according to a right system of relationships. Indeed, union with those whom the Holy Spirit has assigned to rule His Church (cf. Acts 20.28) is an essential element of the Christian apostolate.” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity ch. 5, no. 23).

Juan Diego received the mission. Mary called him and sent him with her words, “I urge you to go to the Bishop . . .” The Holy Spirit anointed Juan as an individual but he exercised his role in union with the whole Church through his Bishop just as the Council requested over 400 years later.

The Holy Spirit usually breathes in less dramatic ways. But the experience of Juan Diego shows that the inspirational grace for a great work may first come to a layperson who then cooperates with the hierarchy. Because he did so, it is appropriate that he is the model for the lay apostolate. His life story exemplifies the meaning of the lay apostolate. He led the indigenous peoples to their spiritual mother who in turn led them to her Son. He is truly worthy to be the model for the Lay Apostolate because he was the only person on earth to whom the greatest laywoman of all time gave her own image.

Intercessor of Miracles

On May 6, 1990, at the very moment the Holy Father was proclaiming Juan Diego Blessed, Juan José Barragán Silva, a drug addict in his twenties stabbed himself with a knife at home in Mexico City in his mother's presence and went to a balcony to jump from the window.

His mother, Esperanza, tried to hold him by the legs, but he freed himself and plunged thirty feet head-first to the ground. He then was rushed to the intensive care unit of Durango Hospital in Mexico City.

Esperanza said that when her son was falling she entrusted him to God and Our Lady of Guadalupe. She invoked Juan Diego and implored, “Give me a proof save this son of mine! And you, my Mother, listen to Juan Diego.”

Suddenly and inexplicably, three days after the fall, her son was completely cured. Subsequent examinations confirmed that he had no neurological or psychic effects, and the doctors concluded that his cure was “scientifically inexplicable.”

Medical experts said the youth should have died in the fall, or at least been left seriously handicapped. J.H. Hernández Illescas, regarded internationally as one of the best specialists in the field of neurology, and two other specialists, described the case as “unheard of, amazing, and inconceivable.”

This miracle was the decisive factor in the recognition of Juan Diego's sainthood. Our Lady promised Juan that she would reward him for his efforts on her behalf. She told him, “Yes, I will enrich you, I will glorify you.” Her promise is now fulfilled. Pope John Paul II will canonize Juan next July 30 in Mexico City. His Feast Day is December 9.

Please see the contact information below to join a pilgrimage to witness the canonization of our first Native American, The Protector and The Advocate of the Indigenous Peoples and The Model for the Lay Apostolate.

Dan Lynch is Director of the lay apostolates of The Missionary Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and The Jesus King of All Nations Devotion. He is a Judge, author, video and audio producer and a public speaker.

For information on making a pilgrimage to Juan Diego's canonization visit Mr. Lynch's Website, call toll-free 1.888.834.6261, or write to him at 144 Sheldon Road, St. Albans, Vermont 05478.

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