Juan Diego was born in 1474 in a place called Cuautitlán. Once a part of the Aztec Empire, Cuautitlán was conquered by the Spanish and is now in present day Mexico City. Born before the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Juan Diego was an indigenous Mexican who was given the name Cuauhtlatoatzin at birth. When Franciscan missionaries arrived, Cuauhtlatoatzin and his wife were some of the first indigenous people to convert. At baptism, they were given the names Juan Diego and Maria Lucia. Juan Diego was not a slave but neither did he belong to any of the upper classes of priest, noble, or warrior. He owned a small piece of land and worked as a farmer and maker of mats.
After his conversion, Juan Diego walked a long distance from his home to church to attend Mass and receive religious education. During one of his trips, the Virgin Mary appeared to him on the road. Mary appeared not as European paintings showed her but as an indigenous woman with dark skin and hair. She revealed who she was to Juan and asked him to tell the bishop she wished a church to be built on that spot. Juan Diego did as he was told but was rebuffed by the bishop. On his return trip, the Virgin appeared again. Juan Diego reported his failure but she asked him to repeat the request again. He did so the next day and, this time, the bishop asked for a sign. When the Virgin appeared to Juan that evening, she informed him that she would give him the sign the next day. That night, Juan Diego’s uncle became gravely ill. In order to reach the church to fetch a priest for last rites, Juan avoided the spot where he’d seen Mary in the past. But the Blessed Mother appeared to him on this new path and gently rebuked him with the question, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?”
Mary assured Juan Diego that his uncle would be healed and asked him to collect flowers as the sign the bishop required. Juan found around him flowers in bloom long out of season. One tradition holds that the flowers were all Castilian roses. Another tradition includes roses, lilies, carnations, and many other flowers. Either way, Juan Diego gathered many flowers in his tilma, the cloak worn by indigenous mexicans. When he came to the bishop, Juan opened his tilma and poured the flowers at his feet. On his cloak was imprinted a beautiful icon of Mary with the moon beneath her feet. The bishop kept this beautiful image as proof of the truth of Juan Diego’s account. This appearance of Mary and the image she gave are now known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Popular throughout the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe is a beautiful picture of Mary’s motherhood over all people. Mary is the “Mother of God,”of course. But she is also the mother of all Christians and she desires more children. This is what is so wonderful about her apparitions to different people at different points in history. By taking on the appearance of indigenous Mexicans, Mary shows her great concern and advocacy for people who may be mistreated or forgotten.
In addition to this theme of universal motherhood, Juan Diego’s story is also a very personal one. In order to accomplish her purpose, Mary chose a single, ordinary man. The future saint recognized his unworthiness in the face of the Holy Lady but he still offered his tilma, his cloak. In this simple and tangible gesture, Juan laid down what he had to his Lady. Mary took the gift and filled it with blessings from her Son. She even transformed the cloak, changing the plain fabric into a banner bearing her image. It become a token and sign of her intercession. The story is a kind of spiritual chivalry, an entirely appropriate picture of Mary’s place in our faith. Christ is our King and Mary is our Lady, our patroness and intercessor before the throne.
When St. Juan Diego hurried past Mary in a rush to seek help for his uncle, Mary found him anyway and softly rebuked him with the question, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” I am sure our Blessed Mother asks me this often as I rush past her in my worries. St. Juan Diego can now answer her question with a resounding “Yes! You are my mother and I am ready to receive your help.” St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, like all saints, is an exemplary Christian. And he is also a son of Mary. Let us all ask Our Lady of Guadalupe to live as her children.