December 9: Saint Juan Diego, Hermit

Optional Memorial; Liturgical color: white
Patron Saint of indigenous people


<<<      Mary said to Juan: “Am I not here, I who am your mother?”      >>>

Good things happen to those who go to daily Mass. A very good thing happened to today’s saint on his long trek to daily Mass, something so extraordinary that it permanently altered a continent. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (the “Talking Eagle”) was born near present-day Mexico City in the pre-Colombian Aztec Empire, though he belonged to the Chichimec, not the Aztec, people. At the age of fifty, Juan received baptism from a Franciscan priest, about five years after those path-breaking missionaries had first walked barefoot from coastal Veracruz into the Aztec heartland. Juan must have quickly fell in love with his newfound faith, because he visited God as one visits a sturdy friend, more than just once a week.

On Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan was walking to Mass and crossed over a small hill called Tepeyac. A mysterious woman appeared to him speaking Nahuatl, the local language. The woman quickly identified herself as the “Ever-Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the true God” and asked Juan to approach the Bishop to petition that a shrine be built in her honor on that very hill. So the humble Juan went and knocked on the door of one of the most powerful men in the new Spanish dominion. The Bishop was solicitous but cautious and requested a sign to buttress Juan’s credibility and his request. A series of events then transpired which culminated on Tuesday, December 12. On that day, Juan presented the Bishop with flowers, carefully cradled in his poncho, which Mary had directed him to collect. When Juan unfurled his poncho in the Bishop’s presence, everyone saw then what everyone sees now in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City—the young, pregnant Mary of Tepeyac emblazoned, in full color, on Juan’s coarse poncho.

An early document holds that, after 1531, Juan Diego, whose wife had died by then, spent the rest of his days living the life of a hermit near the chapel on Tepeyac housing the miraculous image. Juan likely welcomed the first waves of pilgrims who visited the primitive shrine to pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is difficult to imagine anyone returning to his or her everyday existence after seeing, hearing, and conversing with God, Mary, or a saint. Some experiences are “before” and “after” events, their profundity divides life into halves or portions: a divorce, a dreadful medical diagnosis,  a financial collapse, a child’s death, a crippling accident, or, on the positive side and much more rarely, a divine locution, an apparition, or an unmistakable spiritual intervention, all divert the straight line of a life’s graph.

The days between December 9 and the vigil of December 12 are a kind of Mexican Triduum, when that nation celebrates founding events which have nothing to do with legal documents. Nation-building requires more than just a constitution or the winning of a key battle. Building an enduring people requires a shared language, a common history, an undivided religious outlook, and a unity of cultural expression. If there is a source of Mexican unity, it is found in the vision of the humble servant Saint Juan Diego. Millions of pilgrims endlessly process, day after day, year after year, century after century, before the miraculous image in the most visited Marian shrine in the world. These citizens don’t go to Mexico’s national archives to search for words on a faded parchment, but to a shrine to gaze in wonder at a young woman imprinted vividly on rough cactus fibers. The faithful arrive on pilgrimage, often on foot, to bow their heads, to light a candle, and to pray before the permanent miracle that is a simple Indian’s gift to the Church. They come to visit a person, not an idea, because a person can absorb our love and love us back.

Saint Juan Diego, we ask your humble intercession in heaven to assist all those who doubt the power of God and His saints. May your example of fidelity and service inspire us to holiness as much as your miraculous tilma. Amen.

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