Some historians think Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (his last name means, “the eagle who speaks”) was an Aztec prince. When he was 47, in 1521, the conquistador Hermán Cortés took Mexico for Spain. Being an opportunist, Cortés allied himself with some indigenous peoples while he fought with others.
Soon after establishing rule, Cortés asked the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1556) to send only Franciscans and Dominicans to the newly conquered lands. Although Cortés did not live an exemplary Christian life himself, he wanted Christianity to be established in the New World. Because the diocesan priests of Spain had a reputation for indulging in vices, he insisted that only priests from mendicant Orders (under a vow of poverty) would be effective missionaries.
The King sent a Franciscan friar, Juan de Zumárraga, as the first Bishop of Mexico in 1528. Unfortunately, Bishop Zumárraga was sent before he was actually consecrated, making him a bishop in title only. He was also given the title of “Protector of the Indians,” with the duty to protect the indigenous peoples from the abuses of civil authorities and merchants. However, because he was not officially a bishop, his opinions and decrees held little sway over the rich and powerful Spanish in Mexico.
Two of the converts from the Franciscan missionaries were Juan Diego and his wife, Maria. Maria died in 1529 at 55 just a few years after their conversion. Having no children, Juan Diego went to live with his elderly uncle, Juan Bernardino, who had raised him after his parents’ deaths. The two men were dedicated to their newfound faith and were as involved as they could be with the Franciscan community, which was 11 miles away.
On December 9, 1531, on his way to a Saturday morning Mass, Juan Diego heard beautiful music as he passed the hill of Tepeyac. As he became more enraptured with the music, he saw a brilliant cloud and rainbow. The singing suddenly stopped and he heard a woman’s soft voice, calling him from the top of the hill.
When he reached the top, he saw a stunning indigenous maiden. She spoke to him in his native language. “Know it, be sure, my son, that I am the always perfect Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God by Whom one lives, the God who is the Creator of all people,” she said.
She told him to go to the Bishop of Mexico and tell him to build a church for her on that hill. Juan Diego immediately went to Bishop Zumárraga. The bishop was skeptical, but he agreed to think about what Juan Diego had said.
The next day, a Sunday, Juan Diego saw Our Lady again. She told him to return to the bishop with the same message. Juan Diego repeated everything to the bishop who asked for a sign.
Juan Diego returned to the Lady that afternoon. She told him to return the following day when she would give him more information about the sign for the bishop. However, on that Monday morning, Juan Diego’s uncle became seriously ill with a fever. His condition worsened through the day and night. The morning of Tuesday, Dec. 12, Juan Diego left his uncle’s side to get a priest for Last Rites.
Afraid that Our Lady would not be pleased that he had not returned on Monday, Juan Diego tried to go a different way around the hill to the Franciscan mission, but she still appeared to him. He explained to her about his uncle’s illness and why he did not obey her wishes.
She was not angry. Instead, she replied, after calling him her son, “Let your face and your heart not be disturbed; do not fear this disease or any other disease, or painful piercing thing. Am I not here, who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything else?”
After encouraging Juan Diego with the news that his uncle was healed, she told him to gather flowers from an area of the hill that was usually barren, especially in winter. He filled his tilma – a long apron worn by the indigenous peoples – with fragrant, sumptuous flowers and brought them back to Our Lady. She arranged them and told him to take them to the bishop.
As he unfurled his tilma before the bishop, an image of Our Lady just as she appeared to him as a radiant young indigenous woman was emblazoned on the cloth in brilliant detail. This was not only a declaration that Juan Diego’s message to build a church on Tepeyac was true, but also that the truth of Christianity was for every person for all time, just as the Ever-Virgin Mary was Mother of all.
When Juan Diego returned to his uncle, he found him healed as Our Lady promised. In fact, she visited Juan Bernardino and told him that the image of her was to be known as the Perfect Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.
A temporary church was built in less than two weeks. Juan Diego gave his possessions to his uncle and built a hut next to the church so that he could live near her image. For the rest of his life, he served the church and helped pilgrims. He was well loved for his patience, kindness and faithfulness.
By 1538, just seven years after the initial vision, it was estimated that 8 million indigenous people converted to Christianity.
Juan Diego died peacefully on May 30, 1548. He was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II in 2002.
St. Juan Diego is the patron saint of indigenous people. His feast day is December 9.