Saint Juan Diego
The recent canonization of Saint Juan Diego elicited worldwide enthusiasm
for the recognition of another Christlike lay person. This latest saint of
Mexico was the Virgin Mother Mary's chosen messenger of evangelization in
the nascent Church of the l6th century New World. He is an illustrious
example of a Christian in action.
Icon of Mary's Evangelizing Mission
by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
The contemporary significance of the canonization and the occurrence at Guadalupe
is multifaceted. But the implication for the new evangelization in
our day is overwhelming. The honor bestowed on Saint Juan Diego extends
the clarion call addressed to all Christians to respond actively to their
baptismal vocation and consecration to collaborate with Mary in bringing
Christ to all peoples. Echoed again is the slogan of Blessed William
Joseph Chaminade, Founder of the Marianist Family, "We are all missionaries
The occasion has renewed and increased the momentum of the movement to designate
Juan Diego as the patron saint of the laity and lay apostles.
God's plan for salvation needs the cooperation of us all. In the Guadalupe
event, God chose to give the miraculous image of Mary, his Mother and ours,
to a humble, lonely widower. The engaging, simple story of Our Lady
giving her picture to Juan Diego touches hearts and disposes them for the
grace of baptism. This is a special chapter in the evangelization of
Today we find stirrings of new interest in the unchurched, the alienated,
and the disenchanted. Faster travel and easier global communication
portend a new fullness of time in spreading the gospel. Since the beginning,
God has depended on his creatures to fulfill his plan. Today there
is a desire for unity among Christians. The work of the Holy Spirit
is uniting them in prayer, love, and works of charity.
In the past century Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII began to re-emphasize
the importance of the role of the laity. Long before Pope John XXIII
convened the Second Vatican Council to renew all in Christ, the lay apostolate
was a point of emphasis and concern.
One of the sixteen documents of Vatican II is the Decree on the Laity (Apostolicam
Actuositatem, 1965), and the role of the laity is treated in several of the
other documents. Some years later Pope Paul VI sounded a prophetic
call to evangelization with the apostolic exhortation On Evangelization in
the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975). Our present pontiff,
John Paul II, has preached a new evangelization and, following a Synod of
Bishops, issued an apostolic exhortation on Lay Members of Christ's Faithful
People (Christifideles Laici, 1989).
The Handmaid of the Lord, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, who first brought
forth the Savior for us, plays her part in bringing his Good News to all.
The nineteenth-century apostle of Mary, Blessed William Joseph Chaminade,
is among the strongest voices still reminding us of our baptismal obligation
to participate in the apostolic mission of Mary to complete the Whole Christ.
Like Juan Diego, all the faithful are called to spread the fragrance of the
roses of Tepeyac wherever we are, whatever we do.
"Thy kingdom come," the daily petition of the Our Father, has always needed
for its fulfillment the work and collaboration of the laity. To all
Christians is given the commission to make Christ and his teaching known,
loved, and lived. "The Spirit breathes where he wills" (Jm 3:8), and
the people of God have always had the charisms to help spread God's kingdom
Our times need strong and dedicated Christian lay persons more than ever
before. All fields of human progress are directed by the laity.
Competence in the social, commercial, and political spheres is in the hands
of the laity. Only they can bring the spirit of the gospel into these
arenas. In the words of Paul VI, lay persons are "the bridge to the
Recognizing the ancient truth and the new need, Vatican II issued an official
decree on the apostolate of the laity. For the first time in the history
of the Church a conciliar document expounded the concept that the lay person
is indispensable to the mission of the Church, that to be a real Christian
is to be an apostle.
The Vatican II Decree on the Laity advances, as the perfect example of the
spiritual and apostolic life, the Virgin Mary, Queen of Apostles. "While
leading on earth a life common to all, one filled with family concerns and
labors, she was always intimately united with her Son and cooperated in the
work of the Savior in a manner altogether special. Now that she has
been taken up into heaven, with her maternal charity she cares for the brothers
and sisters of her Son" (n. 4).
Consequently, it is appropriate that the model for the laity and the patron
of the lay apostolate be one who will lead others to Mary, who in turn will
lead them to Christ. She is the perfect example of life on earth united
to Christ and joined to his work.
To choose Juan Diego would stress the motherly concern of Mary, and highlight
a special chapter in the loving care of the Queen of Apostles for her children.
Juan Diego's life story exemplifies the meaning of the lay apostolate.
He leads with singular and irresistible charm to our spiritual mother.
Juan Diego's story continues today as something living and enduring.
It lives in the long lines of pilgrims, the most numerous of any shrine.
It lives in the faith of a whole nation, and is celebrated in the entire
western hemisphere. It captivates the hearts of all. It endures
in the continuing portrait not painted by human hands, but as Pius XII explained,
"by brushes not of this world."
Vatican II taught that "union with those whom the Holy Spirit has assigned
to God's Church is an essential element of the Christian apostolate."
Juan Diego received the charism. He was called by Mary. She sent
him to the bishop: "Go to the Bishop of Mexico and tell him that I sent you."
The Spirit breathed on Juan, but judgment and command were reserved to the
bishop, as it still is today.
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 lay person, and that the chosen person then cooperates with the
Juan Diego's humble compliance with an unwelcome and embarrassing mission
paved the way for an abundant bestowal of God's blessings. In addition,
the event clearly indicates that a layman pushed his point with a hierarch.
The bishop needed convincing, and Mary told Juan to go back and try again.
Mary clearly indicated to Juan Diego that he was necessary for the execution
of heaven's plan. When he protested his inability and urged the Virgin
Mary to send a person better known and respected, her answer was: "Listen,
least of my sons. You must try to understand that I have many messengers
and servants whom I could charge with the delivery of my message and cause
to do my will. But, it is altogether necessary that you, yourself should
undertake this entreaty and that through your own mediation and assistance,
my purpose should be accomplished."
The importance of the most humble person carrying out the divine plan can
hardly be more sharply exemplified. Mary did not go directly to Bishop-elect
Juan Zumarraga and inspire him. Nor did she choose the messenger most
suited according to the judgment of human standards. Mary chose one
particular, unknown, middle-aged widower who would have preferred to be left
alone. She told him that he was to be the instrument of Divine Providence
for these poor people. This unlikely layman was the key to "unlocking
graces destined for a nation", and later for many nations.
Juan Diego was wholehearted and without guile. He was a living example
of sincerity arid simplicity. When children and adults hear about him
they are fascinated, and love to hear the story retold. His conversations
with Mary have a rare quality of tenderness, immediacy, genuineness, and
uniqueness. Translated into any language they possess a special appeal.
In the Aztec Indian idiom, Mary called Juan her xocoyte, her favorite son,
the least of her sons. He addressed her as xocoyata, his littlest daughter,
his lady, and his child. Hearing this conversation one cannot help
loving both Juan and his Lady.
Peoples of the emerging nations are able to identify very easily with Juan
Diego. He was humble and poor, not enmeshed in political or cultural
history. With improved and increased communication, we can expect the
Church will proclaim its primary message more widely and wisely. And
lay persons will be the primary field workers. Juan Diego, who has
universal appeal, would be an inspiration for them and an example for those
with whom they work. His life story is a perfect example of how God's
plans often require lay apostles, and how far-reaching the results can be.
Our Blessed Mother promised, "I will make you worthy of the trouble you have
Juan Diego remained faithful until death. The results of his work remain
with us. He was childlike and humble in his relationship with the natural
world and the supernatural order. While very ordinary and natural,
he felt at home with the Virgin Mother Mary. His simple and human qualities
touch us all. Saint Juan Diego is genuinely worthy to be patron of
lay apostles, for he was the only person on earth to whom the greatest laywoman
of all time gave her own picture.
A movement was launched more than a decade ago under the auspices of the
Archdiocese of Mexico City to nominate Juan Diego as patron of lay apostles.
His canonization lends new impetus to the momentum already in progress.
The actual result of Our Lady of Guadalupe's message, in which Saint Juan
Diego played the key role, brought belief in Jesus Christ and the grace of
baptism to countless native Indians of Aztec heritage. In the seven
years following Mary's appearance at Tepeyac (1532-1538), eight million Indians
were baptized into Christ.
During that period Saint Juan Diego lived near the marvelous picture, quietly
caring for it as Saint Joseph cared for Mary herself. He is a major
part of the story of the magnificent lady, her representative, a living proof
that heaven had smiled on the poor and the lowly. As with Saint Joseph,
we do not know all the details. But we do know the quality of this
layman's charity was magnetic. "By this will all know that you are
my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:35). He was,
according to his Aztec name, Mary's "singing eagle," telling her story over
and over to his fellow countrymen.
The sterling example of Saint Juan Diego inspires us to activate the continuing
action of baptismal grace to be the "salt of the earth," "the light on the
lampstand," the "leaven in the mass," and "proclaim the Good News by word