Juan Diego (1474-1548) was an Aztec Indian who in 1531 experienced a vision of the Virgin which proved a vital stimulus to conversion in Mexico, and still remains integral to Catholicism in that country.
The Spanish conquistadores were generally brutal adventurers, hardly exemplars of any form of religion. Nevertheless, from Columbus on, nearly all of them were conscious of a duty to claim the population of the New World for the Church.
Moreover, many priests, of whom Bartolomé de las Casas is merely the best known, showed a deep concern for the fate of the Indians. Among them were the Spanish Franciscans who arrived in Mexico in 1524.
One of their converts was Juan Diego, an Indian widower formerly named Cuauhtlatoatzin (“Talking Eagle”).
According to an account written down more than 130 years after the event, Juan was already 57 when, on December 9 1531, he heard a voice calling to him from the sacred hill of Tepeyac, some five miles north of Mexico City.
He climbed up and discovered a dark-skinned girl of about 14, who instructed him, in his own Náhuatl dialect, to tell the bishop to build a church on the spot. “I am your merciful mother,” the girl elaborated, “and the mother of all nations that live on this earth. Therefore I will hear their laments and remedy their misfortunes.”
The bishop, while sympathetically inclined, demanded proof of this vision. Shortly afterwards the Virgin again accosted Juan as he was fetching a priest for his dying uncle. She would cure the uncle, she told him; he should collect the roses which had suddenly appeared on the hill. She then wrapped up the flowers in his cloak, and sent him again to the bishop. As Juan met the ecclesiastic, the roses tumbled out of the cloak, now miraculously imprinted with the image of the Virgin.
The bishop no longer doubted; the story spread; and within seven years there were eight million Indian converts around Mexico. Sceptics have suggested that the vision had been a calculated Spanish elaboration of an Indian legend.
Curiously, though, Juan’s cloak, which, made of cactus fibres, should have decayed after 20 years, has remained intact, while no one has been able to explain how the image upon it was produced without any visible brush strokes.
Juan Diego was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2002. “In accepting the Christian message without forgoing his indigenous identity,” the Pope pronounced, Don Juan “discovered the profound truth of the new humanity, in which all are called to be children of God.”
Meanwhile “the little dark girl”, universally known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, has collected all manner of titles, including, in 1942, “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas”.