One of the greatest Marian Helpers: St. Juan Diego

“Beloved Juan Diego, ‘the talking eagle’! Show us the way that leads to the ‘Dark Virgin’ of Tepeyac, that she may receive us in the depths of her heart, for she is the loving, compassionate Mother who guides us to the true God. Amen.” — Pope St. John Paul II at the canonization of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, July 31, 2002

On Dec. 9, we celebrate the feast of a simple Indian peasant who gazed upon the beautiful Mother of God on a hilltop in Mexico and followed, without objection, her instructions to bring the Good News to the world.

She was Our Lady of Guadalupe, and he was Juan Diego, “the eagle who speaks” (Cuauhtlatoatzin). In his humility and fidelity, courage and fearlessness, St. Juan Diego was a true Marian Helper.

A Church in turmoil
The story is well-known. The year was 1531. The capital city of Tenochtitlan (now the center of Mexico City) had been recently laid waste by Hernan Cortez and his conquistadors. Cities and temples had been decimated, and smallpox wiped out half the indigenous population. The Aztec wise men claimed the world was coming to an end.

Meanwhile, the first Bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga, clashed with the new Spanish government over abuses carried out against the natives, including widespread murder and enslavement. In 1530, he excommunicated members of the First Audiencia (Royal Court of New Spain) and fled from Mexico City, writing to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, “If God does not provide a solution by his own hand, this land is about to be completely lost.”

Tepeyac Hill
It was in the midst of this desperate situation that the humble protagonist of our story was quietly traveling at dawn around Tepeyac Hill, when he heard the most beautiful singing, like a chorus of birds but more beautiful than any song he had ever heard before.

“Juanito, Juan Diegito,” a voice called out to him. Wondering what it might be, he climbed the hill and found himself in the presence of a beautiful lady whose clothes were shining like the sun, and standing on precious stones that emanated light. She said, “I am the ever perfect Virgin Mary, who has the honor of being the Mother of the true God.”

Gazing upon him with tenderness, Our Lady asked Juan to go to the Bishop and tell him to build a church. Speaking of her Divine Son, she said, “I will show Him, I will exalt Him upon making Him manifest, I will give Him to all people in all my personal love, Him that is my compassionate gaze, Him that is my help, Him that is my salvation.”

Juan Diego did as she asked. Bishop Zumarraga was a holy and prudent man; he listened to Juan Diego attentively, but dismissed him, asking for a sign to prove that this message was truly from the Blessed Virgin.

Floral miracle
On Dec. 12 (now Our Lady’s feast), Juan Diego wrapped himself in a cactus-fiber tilma (cloak) to ward off the cold and set off in search of a priest to attend his uncle, who was gravely ill. As he approached Tepeyac Hill, he remembered his promised appointment with the lady. But he didn’t want to put off finding a priest, and took a different route.

As he hurried along the road, the Virgin descended from the hilltop and greeted him. She tenderly assured him that his uncle was healed, then asked him to climb Tepeyac Hill and collect the flowers at the top, so that he could bring them to the Bishop as the sign he had requested.

Juan did as she asked, and journeyed to the bishop’s residence, carrying the tilma full of sweet-smelling flowers. Kneeling before him, he explained what Our Lady had said. Unfolding the tilma, the flowers fell onto the floor, revealing on the rough surface of the tilma a most beautiful Image of the Blessed Virgin that had appeared miraculously.

All those present fell to their knees in astonishment, and Bishop Zumarraga, overcome with emotion, knelt in tears. The next day, he asked Juan Diego to take him to the spot where the Virgin wished to have her church built.

Before Our Lady’s visit, the Church had been struggling to evangelize the indigenous peoples of Mexico, exerting great efforts but yielding very meager fruits. That all changed through the fiat of one humble native and God’s loving mercy.

Spiritual lessons
With this inspiring story in mind, there are three very important spiritual lessons that we can learn from it.

First, humility. The primary obstacle to God’s grace in our lives is pride. Nothing is more detrimental to the fulfillment of God’s plan in our lives. It was Juan Diego’s meekness that made him a potent instrument in the hands of our Lord and Our Lady. If we are humble, God can do great things through us. Humility makes us like malleable clay in the hands of the Divine Potter, allowing Him to mold us into whatever instrument He needs.

Second, surrender. Juan Diego loved his uncle very much. Given the integral fatherly role uncles played in indigenous culture and Juan Diego’s own life, his uncle’s passing would have signaled more than the loss of a close family member. It would have meant the irrevocable loss of a part of his own identity, and so we can understand his anxiety and fear. Yet, as grave as the situation was, Juan Diego was able to surrender all into the hands of Our Blessed Mother with the simplest trust. The reward was an explosion of grace that would heal his uncle, and transform his life and homeland forever.

Finally, God can use you to accomplish great things, whatever your situation or limitations, if you trust in Him. Juan Diego was 57 when he found himself called to a privileged mission from Heaven. By the standards of his time, he was aged and gray, without formal education, desperately poor, and far from famous or influential. Yet God used him mightily to advance His Church in the New World and, over half a millennium, bring about the conversion of millions of souls.

May we, as Marian Helpers, be as receptive to Our Lady’s call and God’s loving mercy.

Saint Juan Diego, pray for us!

Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and the unborn, pray for us! 
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