Thousands of people gathered in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe July 31, 2002, for the canonization of Juan Diego, to whom the Blessed Mother appeared in the 16th century. Pope John Paul II celebrated the ceremony at which the poor Indian peasant became the Church’s first saint indigenous to the Americas.
According to tradition, Juan Diego experienced his first vision of the Virgin Mary on December 9, 1531. While on his way to mass, he was visited by Mary, who was surrounded in heavenly light, on Tepeyac Hill on the outskirts of what is now Mexico City. She spoke to him in his native language and asked him to tell the bishop to build a shrine to her on the hill. The bishop did not believe Juan Diego’s story and asked for proof that Mary had appeared to him. On December 12, while searching for a priest to administer last rites to his uncle, Juan Diego was visited by Mary again. He told her of the bishop’s answer, and she instructed him to gather roses and take them to the bishop as a sign. She also informed Juan Diego that his uncle would recover from his illness. Juan Diego found many roses on the hill even though it was winter. When he opened his cloak while appearing before the bishop, dozens of roses fell out, and an image of Mary, imprinted on the inside of his cloak, became visible. Having received his proof, the bishop ordered that a church is built on Tepeyac Hill in honor of the Virgin. Juan Diego returned home and found his uncle’s health restored.
For the rest of his life, Juan Diego lived in a hut next to the church built in honor of Mary and took care of the pilgrims who came to the shrine. He was buried in the church, and his cloak can still be seen in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. His existence, which had been questioned by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, was confirmed by the Vatican, and Juan Diego was beatified on May 6, 1990, and canonized on July 31, 2002, by Pope John Paul II. Numerous miracles have been attributed to him, and he remains one of the most popular and important saints in Mexico.
God counted on Juan Diego to play a humble, yet huge role in bringing the Good News to the peoples of Mexico. Overcoming his own fear and the doubts of Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, Juan Diego cooperated with God’s grace in showing his people that the Good News of Jesus is for everyone. Pope John Paul II used the occasion of Juan Diego’s beatification to urge Mexican lay people to assume their responsibilities for passing on the Good News and witnessing to it.
The Holy Father called the new saint “a simple, humble Indian” who accepted Christianity without giving up his identity as an Indian. “In praising the Indian Juan Diego, I want to express to all of you the closeness of the Church and the pope, embracing you with love and encouraging you to overcome with hope the difficult times you are going through,” John Paul said. Among the thousands present for the event were members of Mexico’s 64 indigenous groups.
First called Cuauhtlatohuac (“The eagle who speaks”), Juan Diego’s name is forever linked with Our Lady of Guadalupe because it was to him that she first appeared at Tepeyac hill on December 9, 1531. The most famous part of his story is told in connection with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. After the roses gathered in his cloak were transformed into the miraculous image of Our Lady, however, little more is said about Juan Diego.
In time he lived near the shrine constructed at Tepeyac, revered as a holy, unselfish, and compassionate catechist, who taught by word and especially by example.
During his 1990 pastoral visit to Mexico, Pope John Paul II confirmed the long-standing liturgical cult in honor of Juan Diego, beatifying him. Twelve years later the same pope proclaimed him a saint.