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The First Indian Saint in the Americas Is Canonized: July 31, 2002

This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.

Meanwhile, Juan Diego had climbed the hill of Tepeyac. “Return here tomorrow,” the Lady told him, “and I will give you a sign that will convince the bishop. I will richly reward you for your service to me.” Juan Diego promised to return the next day. He then returned home.

But reaching his home, Juan Diego found that his uncle, Juan Bernardino, had fallen sick. The next day, Monday, Juan Diego spent caring for his uncle; he did not return to Tepeyac hill as the Lady had commanded. That night, Juan Bernardino was so sick that he feared he would die. He asked Juan Diego to fetch him a priest who could give him the last rites. Full of sorrow, Juan Diego set out Tuesday morning for the city to find a priest to minister to his uncle.

Bronze relief of Juan Diego receiving the rose from Our Lady
Bronze relief of Juan Diego receiving the rose from Our Lady

Approaching Tepeyac hill, Juan Diego tried to take a different way than the one he normally took. He was afraid the Lady might see him and delay him from fetching a priest for his uncle. But the Lady saw him, and descending the hill, asked him, “Where are you hastening to, my son?” Juan Diego told her of his uncle, and promised that he would return to her tomorrow. “Now,” he said to the Lady, “I must find a priest who will hear my uncle’s confession and absolve him.”

The Lady was not angry with Juan Diego. Instead, promising him that his uncle was already healed of his sickness, she told Juan Diego to climb to the summit of the hill. He obeyed her, and at the place where the Lady had first appeared to him, Juan Diego found many varieties of beautiful roses. Imagine his surprise at this sight, for Juan Diego knew that no roses grew in December. Filling his tilma full with fragrant blossoms, Juan Diego brought them to the Lady. Removing the roses from the tilma, the Lady again replaced them. “Take these roses to the bishop,” she told Juan Diego. “They are the sign he asked for. Seeing them he will know that I have appeared to you and that he must do as I requested.” Full of joy, Juan Diego continued his journey to the city. He was certain the bishop would this time believe him.

A Great Miracle

The day was already growing old when Bishop Zumárraga heard a frantic knocking at his door. Opening it he found two of his servants, their faces pale with astonishment. “That Indian, Juan Diego, has returned,” they told the bishop. “Seeing he had something wrapped up in his tilma we asked that we might see what it was. When he opened his tilma, lo! it was full of roses, fresh as if they had been plucked in the spring. We tried to touch them, but every time we reached our hands toward them they disappeared into the cloth.” Hearing this marvel, the bishop ordered his servants to bring Juan Diego into his presence.

The Virgin Mary giving roses to Juan Diego
The Virgin Mary giving roses to Juan Diego

Entering the bishop’s chamber, Juan Diego fell on his knees. “I have returned, lord bishop, with the sign you requested,” said Juan Diego. He opened his tilma and a flood of roses fell to the floor. To Juan Diego’s surprise, the bishop and all those in the room fell to their knees. The bishop wept as he prayed, “Lady, forgive me for not fulfilling your request.” Juan Diego wondered what all this could mean; then looking down at his tilma, he understood. For on the rough white cloth he saw the image of the Lady, just as she had appeared to him on Tepeyac hill.

The next day, Juan Diego led Bishop Zumárraga and others to Tepeyac hill so they could see the place where the Lady had requested her church be built. When Juan Diego asked the bishop’s permission to return to his village to see how his sick uncle fared, Zumárraga gave him his blessing, but said he should not return alone. Surrounded by those who had come with him to Tepeyac hill, Juan Diego returned to Juan Bernardino. The great bishop, friend of God and the king, was paying a great honor to poor, lowly Juan Diego! The Lady had worked another wonder. She had exalted the humble and made the great the companion of the lowly.

When they all reached the village, they found Juan Bernardino recovered from his sickness. The Lady, he told them, had appeared to him as well and had cured him. “She said I must go to the bishop to tell him that she wished her image should bear the name, Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Juan Bernardino.

Bishop Zumárraga fulfilled his promise and erected a church in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac hill. There he placed Juan Diego’s tilma that bore the image of the Lady. In this image, the Lady appears dressed not as a Spanish woman, but as an Aztec princess. She stands before the sun, her two hands pointing, in Aztec fashion, toward the heavens where her Son, Jesus, reigns as king. The Aztecs understood the message. They were no longer to worship the sun god but the more powerful God of the Christians. They also understood that the Lady and her Son loved the Indians as well as the Spanish. Millions of Indians, who had feared the Spaniards’ God, now accepted baptism and became Christians. Our Lady had answered Bishop Zumárraga’s prayers.

Old Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City
Old Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City

For Catholics, there are few places in the world as sacred as the Mexico City basilica, which honors the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patroness. On July 31, 2002, Juan Diego was canonized (proclaimed a saint) in the basilica by Pope John Paul II. As many as a million people lined the route taken by John Paul to the basilica on the morning of July 31. As the Pope rode past in his “popemobile,” people cheered, mariachi bands played, children sang and danced. Many in the crowd traveled hundreds, even thousands, of miles to get to the basilica for the canonization. Some pilgrims, dressed in the traditional garb of the Aztecs, shook clam rattles and blew on conch shells; the festive and joyful service lasted about three hours.

A Spanish Mass for the Dead

These two recordings feature the Missa Pro Defunctis—composed by the Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales, who was born about the year 1500 and died in 1553. This is music that might have been sung in the New Spain of Cortés and Saint Juan Diego.

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