Driven by loyalty to the tyrannical idols their ancestors had worshipped for centuries, the natives were preparing for the permanent expulsion of the intruders. In such conditions, the Bishop felt that only a miracle could prevent disaster. A man of holy life, he implored day and night for heavenly help, praying to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, to intervene and prevent the impending wave of violence at any moment. In secret, he asked the magnificent Queen for an unheard-of sign that would undoubtedly show that his prayers had been heard: roses from Castile. Completely unknown in the New World, these wonderful flowers would truly be a sign worthy of She who is – as the ancient Byzantine hymn says – “more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious than the seraphim.”
An obscure Mexican: Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (1474–1548)
Among the Mexicans who received the Holy Sacrament of Baptism in the year 1525 was a poor peasant who would go down in history as Juan Diego. Impressed by the preaching of the Franciscan missionaries, who spoke of a religion of love entirely different from the idolatry that demanded countless human victims, Juan – originally named Cuautitlan – decided to be baptized along with his obedient wife, Maria Lucia. Also joining them in baptism was his uncle, Juan Bernardino, who had raised him after he became an orphan of both parents.
In the midst of a humble life, lived with the perpetual concern for the morrow, Juan Diego was to face a heavy trial: the death of his wife, which occurred in the year 1529. Left alone in an empty house, deprived of the presence of a soul to support him in the midst of a harsh life, Juan decided to leave and spend the rest of his days with his uncle, Bernardino. A reserved and peace-loving nature, he found his greatest joy in the sermons of the Franciscan friars, whose church in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was about 25 kilometers away from the village of Tolpetlac where he lived.
There, with amazement and trembling, he saw a Lady of radiant beauty. Young and delicate, with features of perfect harmony, dressed like an Aztec princess, she was brighter than the sun itself.
At least twice a week, on Saturdays and Sundays, Juan would set out long before dawn to attend the morning liturgy. Devoutly participating in the sacred ceremonies, he listened attentively to the catechesis of the monks. One after another, the days of this humble peasant, unnoticed by anyone, passed through the hourglass of time without anything remarkable happening until that marvelous Saturday, December 9, 1531, when Juan Diego set out on the long journey that would lead him before the Savior Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Called by name by the Queen of the Universe. The first appearance
Accustomed to the long distance, he set out early, more than four hours before the start of the Holy Liturgy. The thought of the ceremonies marking the celebration of the birth of the Holy Virgin Mary gave him wings. Nothing pleased him more than seeing the holy priests, serving with divine solemnity the Gregorian Mass, amidst the gentle light of the candles adorning the church. Under the cold brilliance of the stars, he walked driven by the concern not to be late. Meditating on the teachings acquired in catechesis, Juan approached the Tepeyac hill, which retained traces of the pagan temple dedicated to the Aztec goddess of the moon, Tonantzin. Suddenly, an extraordinary event tore him away from his contemplations, making him forget the penetrating cold.
A gentle music was heard descending from above, as if it emanated from the dawn of morning. He stopped abruptly, listening attentively. Was he dreaming? Ethereal sounds, like the fluttering wings of delicate and unseen birds, mixed with the murmur of springs and celestial scents, flooded his senses. Hearing and smell were conquered by everything he perceived. Soon, his eyes were captivated by a small white cloud, surrounded by a rainbow formed by multicolored rays of light. As if all this were not enough, the music suddenly stopped to make way for a voice that called him by name:
“Juanito… Juan Dieguito.”
The gentleness of the call was irresistible. With refreshed energy, Juan began to climb hastily towards the heights of the hill from where the mysterious voice seemed to come. There, with amazement and trembling, he saw a Lady of radiant beauty. Young and delicate, with features of perfect harmony, dressed like an Aztec princess, she was brighter than the sun itself. Looking at him with a warm, maternal smile, she asked affectionately:
“Juanito, my son, where are you going?”
With a voice choked with emotion, he whispered in response:
“Noble Lady, I am heading to the Church of Tlaltelolco, where I will attend the Holy Liturgy.”
Smiling approvingly, the Lady continued:
“I want you to know with certainty, you, the most humble of my sons, that I am the ever-perfect Virgin Mary, the mother of the True God, through whom all things exist, the Lord of beings and things, the Master of heaven and earth. I ardently desire that a temple (teocalli) be built in this place where I will show and give my love, compassion, assistance, and protection to all people. I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all who live in this land, of all humanity, the mother of all who love me, who complain to me, who trust in me. Here, I will listen to their complaints and sorrows, heal and alleviate their sufferings, needs, and misfortunes. To fulfill these intentions, go to the Bishop’s house in Tenochtitlan and tell him that I have sent you and that it is my wish for a church to be built here. Tell him everything you have seen and heard. Be sure that I will be very grateful to you and will reward you for fulfilling what I have asked of you. My son, now that you have heard my words, go and fulfill them as much as you can.”
Bowing with deep humility, Juan addressed her politely:
“My Most Holy Lady, I will do everything you ask of me.”
With gentleness, he withdrew, descending the steep hill, heading towards the city with amazement and joy.
Aware of his modest condition, Juan was assailed by doubts about how he would be received at the court of the Primate of Mexico at that time, His Holiness Juan de Zumárraga. However, the memory of the radiant face of the Most Holy Virgin calmed his fears, giving him the strength to go all the way. He confidently knocked on the door of the episcopal residence. After waiting for quite some time in the cold morning air, Juan was admitted to the audience chamber. Using a skilled translator named Juan Gonzalez, the bishop listened to the account of the humble native who, kneeling as a sign of respect for the priestly dignity, calmly spoke about the astonishing apparition. Questioning him about his condition and concerns, Bishop Zumárraga seemed pleased with the piety of the interlocutor. Prudently, he asked him to return after some time, promising to reflect on his words. Leaving the residence in thought, Juan Diego set out on the long journey back home.
After more than an hour of questions and discussions, the bishop was perplexed. Stirred by the thrill of a mysterious hope, he asked Juan Diego for something unexpected: a supernatural sign. Yes! He must go and ask that radiant Lady to give him a sign. Then any doubt would be dispelled.
Hopes and disappointments. The second appearance
Upon his return, he felt intensely that the Lady was waiting for him. Reaching the Tepeyac hill once again, indeed, he encountered the celestial apparition. Kneeling, he recounted everything:
“Noble Lady, I followed your orders. I entered the audience chamber of the Bishop, although it was difficult. I saw His Holiness just as you asked. He received me kindly and listened attentively, but when he asked me, it seemed that he did not believe me. He told me that I could come again, and he would listen to me further. He also said that he would carefully ponder what I told him as well as the intention that led me to him. However, from the way he responded, I think he believes that I invented the story to have a church built here.
Therefore, I implore you, Lady, to entrust this message to someone important, well-known, and respected, so that your wish may be fulfilled. I am just a poor peasant, and you, my Lady, have sent me where I do not belong. Forgive me if I have disappointed you with the failure of my mission.”
When he finished his account, the Lady looked at him kindly, smiling graciously:
“Listen to me, my dear son, you must understand that I have many servants and messengers whom I could charge with delivering my message. But beyond that, it is necessary for you to be the one to fulfill this mission, and through you, my desire will be brought to completion. I ask you to go to the Bishop again tomorrow. Tell him on my behalf and make my request fully known, namely that a church must be built here. And repeat to him: the Virgin Mary herself, the Mother of God, is the one who sent you.”
Feeling his heart filled with confidence, Juan Diego burst out confessing his devotion:
“Holy Virgin, I will not disappoint you. I will go there again, joyfully, to fulfill your request, even if I am not listened to this time. Tomorrow, before sunset, I will return here and tell you everything the Bishop said.”
He left with the desire to rest for the upcoming long journey. After a frugal dinner, he went to sleep, resting until the dawn of Sunday, December 10, 1531.
Awakening early, Juan set out on the road, more troubled than the previous day, with doubts and fears. “How will Father Bishop receive him?” “What will he do if the servants of the residence release the dogs upon him?” Such thoughts made him cover the distance without realizing it. Arriving, he hesitated. Invoking the help of the Holy Virgin, he dared. He knocked on the door of the house. As expected, the servants were even more cautious. But Juan did not give up. Finding in himself unsuspected energies, he insisted tenaciously until it opened. Thus, for the second time in just two days, our humble peasant stood before the Primate of the Mexican Church, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga.
With a subdued voice but a calm tone, the protégé of the Virgin recounted everything as requested. Perplexed, the bishop listened attentively, showing the same goodwill as the first time. Now, however, it was clear to him that something was amiss. He decided to subject him to a test. He began to question him in detail about the apparition. Juan described everything again, with the same impressive wealth of details. There was no contradiction in his accounts. After more than an hour of questions and discussions, the bishop was perplexed. Stirred by the thrill of a mysterious hope, he asked Juan Diego for something unexpected: a supernatural sign. Yes! He must go and ask that radiant Lady to give him a sign. Then any doubt would be dispelled.
(To be continued)
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