Saint Juan Diego, Protector of the Indigenous Peoples and Model for the Lay Apostolate

Born 1474.

Died 1548.

Canonized 2002.

Title: Protector of the Indigenous Peoples.

Feast day December 9.


He was an Indian who lived an honest and secluded life, and who was a very good Christian, fearful of God and his conscience, a man of very good habits and behavior.” Marcos Pacheco, Elder of the village of Cuautitlan, Juan Diego’s birthplace, in Canonical Process 1666.

Juan’s Roots

Juan Diego was born in 1474, eighteen years before Columbus discovered America. He was born in the village of Cuautitlan, Mexico located 14 miles north of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. He was a Chicameca of the Family of Texcoco. His Indian name was Cuauhtlatoatzin that means “He who talks like an eagle”.

Juan received an early education and was later married and had children. He was a landowner, a small farmer and was involved in textile manufacturing. He converted to Christianity between 1524-25 and was baptized, together with his wife, Maria Lucia, by the Franciscan missionary Friar Toribio de Benavente. Maria died in 1529 and Juan became a widower.

Juan lived in Mexico before and after the Spanish Conquest of 1521 and before the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English colony, in 1607. The Conquest was an apocalyptic event for the indigenous peoples. They lost their freedom, their land, their religion, their culture, their society and their great city of Tenochtitlan. Juan’s life bridged two cultures from the pre-Conquest worship of false gods and the human sacrifices made to appease them to the post-Conquest worship of the One True God and the end of human sacrifice.

Juan’s tribal family of the Chicamecas were part of the Triple Alliance with the Aztecs (Mexicas) and the Tlacopans. However, the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, assumed total control and made enmities of the other tribes. They later allied with the Spanish in the Conquest.

The Apparitions and Mission

Ten years after the Conquest on December 9, 1531, 57-year-old Juan, a recent widower, began his nine-mile walk from his home in Tolpetlac probably to Tlaltelolco near Mexico City “in pursuit of God and His commandments”, according to the Nican Mopohua, the earliest account of the apparitions written in 1545. Juan was walking to attend Mass and catechetical instructions.

Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan as he walked near Tepeyac Hill that was the former site of worship to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. In a series of apparitions between December 9 and December 12 she identified herself as “the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the only true God in whom we live . . . .” (See photo left) She entrusted to him a mission to request Bishop Zumarraga to build a church on the hill so that she could manifest her Son to all of the people.

Twice the Bishop politely rebuffed Juan. He prudently requested a sign from Our Lady so as to believe her request for him to build the church.

Our Lady promised to give Juan the sign on December 11. However, on the appointed day Juan cared for his dying uncle, Juan Bernardino, and he stayed with him. On December 12, he left his uncle to get a priest to give him the last rites. As he approached Tepeyac Hill, Our Lady intercepted him and told him not to worry, that his uncle was well.


Our Lady told Juan to go up to the top of the hill and cut and gather the flowers there. Juan obediently did so and found miraculous flowers growing in the middle of the frosty season that included Castilian roses that were native to the Bishop’s homeland in Spain. He put them together and returned to Our Lady. She helped to place the flowers in his tilma (cloak) and said that they were “the sign to take to the Bishop. Tell him, in my name, that in them he will recognize my will and that he must fulfill it. You will be my ambassador, fully worthy of my confidence.” (See photo left).


Mission Accomplished

For the third time, Juan requested the Bishop to build the church. He said, “Here is your sign,” opened his tilma and the roses fell. At that moment the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared on his tilma. The Bishop believed, the church was built, the miraculous tilma was displayed for the people’s veneration and it is still displayed today in the Basilica near Tepeyac Hill.

Our Lady was true to her promise and manifested her Son to the millions of indigenous people who converted to Him. For the next seventeen years Juan lived as a humble hermit in a hermitage at the base of Tepeyac Hill and cared for the nearby church that housed the tilma.

Because Juan was learned in Nahuatl and Christian doctrine, he was able to explain the Miraculous Image on the tilma that spoke to the natives as a pictograph. He explained its significance and the story of the apparitions over and over again. He spent hours in prayer to Jesus and Mary and cared for her Image. He lived a life of poverty, chastity and obedience and was revered by all. He was Our Lady’s messenger, “The Talking Eagle”, to the day he died.

He died at the age of 74 in 1548 almost a century before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. He was probably buried in his hermitage next to the church that he had cared for so well. His tilma is still displayed today in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe near Tepeyac Hill.

Protector of the Indigenous Peoples

During Juan’s beatification ceremony, Pope John Paul II said, “We can invoke him as the protector and the advocate of the indigenous peoples.”

Pope John Paul II further remarked on this during his homily at Juan’s canonization Mass. He said, ‘The Guadalupe Event’, as the Mexican Episcopate has pointed out, ‘meant the beginning of evangelization with a vitality that surpassed all expectations. Christ’s message, through his Mother, took up the central elements of the indigenous culture, purified them and gave them the definitive sense of salvation’. Consequently Guadalupe and Juan Diego have a deep ecclesial and missionary meaning and are a model of perfectly inculturated evangelization.”

He also remarked on the formation of the Mexican people and said, “In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity, Juan Diego discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God. Thus he facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds and became the catalyst for the new Mexican identity, closely united to Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose mestizo face expresses her spiritual motherhood that embraces all Mexicans.”

Juan’s Virtues

Juan Diego is a saint not because Our Lady appeared to him, but because he exercised heroic virtues. In his beatification address, Pope John Paul II praised Juan’s virtues, “his simple faith, nourished by catechesis and open to the mysteries; his hope and trust in God and in the Virgin; his love, his moral coherence, his unselfishness and evangelical poverty.

“Living the life of a hermit here near Tepeyac, he was a model of humility. The Virgin chose him from among the most humble as the one to receive that loving and gracious manifestation of hers which is the Guadalupe apparition. Her maternal face and her blessed image which she left us as a priceless gift is a permanent remembrance of this. In this manner she wanted to remain among you as a sign of the communion and unity of all those who were to live together in this land. . . .”

Juan exhibited the Marian virtues of humility, obedience, charity, trust, patience, poverty and chastity.

Like Mary, who saw herself as the lowly handmaid of the Lord, Juan saw himself as a mecapalli, a burden-bearer. Like Mary, who obeyed and accepted to be a mother to carry Christ, Juan obeyed and accepted to be carrier of the message of Mary. Like Mary, who in charity cared for her elderly pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Juan cared for his elderly dying uncle, Juan Bernardino. Like Mary, who “trusted that the Lord’s promise to her would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45), Juan trusted Our Lady’s promise that the Bishop would recognize her will and fulfill it through the sign of the flowers. Like Mary, who patiently waited for nine months for the Lord’s promise to be fulfilled, Juan patiently waited for days for Our Lady’s promise to be fulfilled. Like Mary, who lived in poverty and chastity as a widow, Juan, the widower, gave up his possessions and lived in poverty and chastity until his death. Finally, like Mary, Juan didn’t argue with God’s will, he didn’t complain and he didn’t doubt. He simply did as he was asked, endured the derision of the Bishop’s servants and persevered in fortitude, as did Mary who endured the derision of the detractors who accused her of adultery.

At Juan’s canonization Mass, Pope John Paul II said, “With deep joy I have come on pilgrimage to this Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Marian heart of Mexico and of America, to proclaim the holiness of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the simple, humble Indian who contemplated the sweet and serene face of Our Lady of Tepeyac, . . . . Blessed Juan Diego, a good, Christian Indian, whom simple people have always considered a saint! …

“In this new saint you have a marvelous example of a just and upright man, a loyal son of the Church, docile to his Pastors, who deeply loved the Virgin and was a faithful disciple of Jesus.”

Before his final blessing, the Holy Father said, “You have now in your new saint a remarkable example of holiness. . . . May he be a model for you and others that you may also be holy.”

Model for the Lay Apostolate

An apostle is one who is sent to a nation as a messenger for God. Saint Juan Diego was canonized on July 31, 2002. He was a layman who was the apostle to Mexico and as such is the Model for the Lay Apostolate, those who further the mission of evangelization, because the Queen of Apostles sent him as a messenger for God. The success of his mission can be measured by its fruits. Nine million indigenous peoples of Mexico were converted to the one true God in nine years, the practice of human sacrifice ended in Mexico and the indigenous peoples were reconciled to their Spanish conquerors, intermarried with them and formed the new Mexican race. It was the greatest evangelization in the history of the world because of which he is the Model for the Lay Apostolate and an intercessor for the New Evangelization.

Juan Diego was a model lay apostle who foreshadowed those described in The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity of the Second Vatican Council. Juan may become known as one of the great saints in the history of the Church. He should be recognized as something of a Patriarch, like Abraham or Moses. Of course, he didn’t lead thousands to the Promised Land but he led millions to the Promised One through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Pope John Paul II said at his beatification ceremony, “Similar to ancient Biblical personages who were collective representations of all the people, we could say that Juan Diego represents all the indigenous peoples who accepted the Gospel of Jesus, thanks to the maternal aid of Mary, who is always inseparable from the manifestation of her Son and the spread of the Church, as was her presence among the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.

“The recognition of the veneration that has been given for centuries to the layman, Juan Diego, assumes a particular importance. It is a strong call to all the lay faithful of the nation to assume all their responsibilities in the transmission of the Gospel Message and in the witness of a living and operative faith. . . .

“The lay faithful share in the prophetic, priestly and royal role of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 31), but they carry out this vocation in the ordinary situations of daily life. Their natural and immediate field of action extends to all the areas of human coexistence and to everything that constitutes culture in the widest and fullest sense of the term.”

Juan Diego is the model for the lay apostolate and like him all of the lay faithful are called to be witnesses to spread our own personal roses of humility, obedience, charity, trust, and patience in our own time and place.

“The mission of the Church pertains to the salvation of men, which is to be achieved by belief in Christ and by His grace. The apostolate of the Church and of all its members is primarily designed to manifest Christ’s message by words and deeds and to communicate His grace to the world.” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity ch. 2, no. 6). The Queen of the Apostles, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and her apostle Juan Diego carried out this mission to the greatest degree known in the history of the world.

“Whether the lay apostolate is exercised by the faithful as individuals or as members of organizations, it should be incorporated into the apostolate of the whole Church according to a right system of relationships. Indeed, union with those whom the Holy Spirit has assigned to rule His Church (cf. Acts 20.28) is an essential element of the Christian apostolate.” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity ch. 5, no. 23).

Juan Diego received the mission from Our Lady of Guadalupe who called him and sent him with her words, “I urge you to go to the Bishop . . .” The Holy Spirit anointed Juan as an individual but he exercised his role in union with the whole Church through his Bishop just as the Council requested over 400 years later.

The Holy Spirit usually breathes in less dramatic ways. But the experience of Juan Diego shows that the inspirational grace for a great work may first come to a layperson who then cooperates with the hierarchy. Because he did so, it is appropriate that he is the model for the lay apostolate. His life story exemplifies the meaning of the lay apostolate. He is truly worthy to be “The Model for the Lay Apostolate” because he was the only person on earth to whom the greatest laywoman of all time gave her own Image.

Intercessor of Miracles

On May 6, 1990, at the very moment the Holy Father was proclaiming Juan Diego Blessed, Juan José Barragán Silva, a drug addict in his twenties stabbed himself with a knife at home in Mexico City in his mother’s presence and went to a balcony to jump from the window.

His mother, Esperanza, tried to hold him by the legs, but he freed himself and plunged thirty feet head-first to the ground. He then was rushed to the intensive care unit of Durango Hospital in Mexico City.

Esperanza said that when her son was falling she entrusted him to God and Our Lady of Guadalupe. She invoked Juan Diego and implored, “Give me a proof . . . save this son of mine! And you, my Mother, listen to Juan Diego.”

Suddenly and inexplicably, three days after the fall, her son was completely cured. Subsequent examinations confirmed that he had no neurological or psychic effects, and the doctors concluded that his cure was “scientifically inexplicable”.

Medical experts said the youth should have died in the fall, or at least been left seriously handicapped. J.H. Hernández Illescas, regarded internationally as one of the best specialists in the field of neurology, and two other specialists, described the case as “unheard of, amazing, and inconceivable”.

This miracle was the decisive factor in the recognition of Juan Diego’s sainthood. Our Lady promised Juan that she would reward him for his efforts on her behalf. She told him, “Yes, I will enrich you, I will glorify you.” Her promise is now fulfilled. Pope John Paul II canonized Juan on July 31, 2002 in Mexico City. His Feast Day is December 9, the date of Our Lady’s first apparition to him.

Dan Lynch copyright 2003

Permission granted for non-commercial use


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