It Matters

Today many parts of the church remembers a 15th Century peasant and visionary who emboldened a people with Divine hope: Saint Juan Diego, Dreamer of Dreams and Hoper of Hopes.

In 1474 Saint Juan was born in Cuauhtitlan, Mexico. He was an ordinary person of his day, and though he had a family (his wife’s name was Maria and he had a sick uncle also named Juan), lore has confused and convoluted many of the details here. More than a few people, including a few nuns throughout history, claim to be descendants of this pivotal figure in traditional Catholicism. What is clear is that Saint Juan was profoundly impacted by visiting Franciscan monks who baptized him and encouraged him in his spiritual journey.

Eventually Saint Juan began to study to become a Franciscan himself, and early one morning on this day in 1531 it is said that Juan encountered the Virgin Mary herself asking Juan to petition the Bishop to erect a chapel in her honor.

Saint Juan, though startled by the vision, did as he was asked. The Bishop gave him a basic non-answer and invited him to exit his office.

Later that same day on his walk Saint Juan encountered the Virgin Mary again. He told her that he had made the request, but was denied. He suggested that the Bishop wouldn’t listen to him because he was a “nobody,” and pleaded with the Virgin Mary to ask someone else to do the work so that the Bishop would take it seriously.

Mary would, apparently, have none of it. “You,” she said, “are the one who will speak my desire.”

On December 10th Saint Juan once again returned to the Bishop, but the Bishop demanded proof that the Blessed Virgin visited him, perhaps also believing that a Divine request would be made to a more suitable emissary. Saint Juan returned back to the site of the previous apparitions at Tepeyac, Mexico, and the Blessed Virgin promised she would provide another sign.

That night, though, Saint Juan’s uncle became gravely ill, and Saint Juan could not return to the site on December 11th as he had to care for his uncle. By the morning of December 12th Juan’s uncle was fading fast. Saint Juan set out to find a priest to come hear his uncle’s final confession and perform the Rite of Extreme Unction (Last Rites). He intentionally did not pass by Tepeyac in order to avoid the Virgin Mary, embarrassed that he had ghosted her the previous day to care for his uncle.

But along that way he once again encountered the Virgin Mary a fourth time and she asked where he was going. Shocked and sad at his failure to meet her the previous day he told the whole story. She gently chided him in these very famous words, “¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu madre?” (“Am I not here, I who am your mother?”).

She assured him that his uncle was healed and asked him to go collect her flowers on the nearby hill. Finding flowers unseasonably growing there, Saint Juan collected a handful and brought them to the Virgin Mary. She sorted and arranged them and told him to take the flowers to the Bishop as proof of her appearance. When Saint Juan arrived at Mexico City to have an audience with the bishop, he dropped the flowers from his mantle at the Bishops feet and lo, the arranged themselves into the outline of the Blessed Virgin.

Saint Juan returned to his uncle, now recovered, who told Saint Juan that he, too, had seen the Blessed Virgin at his bedside and that she asked to be known by the name Guadalupe.

These visions cascaded into a movement within the Mexican expression of Catholicism, and in 1986 Juan Diego himself was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

So, now for all the Protestants out there, why does even matter at all?

Well, first we must recognize that whether you think this story is “real” or not, it’s movement through history is not only quite real, but quite important. To have the Blessed Virgin appear not to a Roman prelate, and not to some imported Bishop, but rather to a townsperson from the backroads of the hillside said something clear and unequivocal to an indigenous population enduring genocide and forced conversion: God stands with you.

Secondly, finding hope in broken places has always given humanity the will to continue on. In times of illness and despair, we all long to be visited by a Divine presence. If it can happen to Saint Juan, it can happen to any of us, you know?

Saint Juan Diego is a reminder for me, and it should be for the whole church, that the stories of Divine encounters rarely happen in the halls of power, but rather take place in the back alleys of humanity’s longing. We’d do well to remember this and continue to ask ourselves why, then, do we keep seeking power?

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historic bits from public sources

-icon by Gracie at “The Modern Saints”

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