Saturday, December 8, 2007

St. Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatoatzin)

This Sunday, 9 December, is the Second Sunday in Advent. We continue our preparation to celebrate the Lord’s birth in human history even as we anticipate his return in glory.

This date is also important, because it is the memorial (outside of Sunday, of course!) of Juan Diego, the Aztec peasant whom the Blessed Mother of God chose to carry her message to the Spanish bishop of Mexico.

St. Juan Diego, official image from his canonization

She appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. He is the first indigenous Saint of the Americas canonized by the Catholic Church. He was canonized in 2002 by the late Pope John Paul II who had a special fondness for the Mother of God under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe and for the Mexican people.

The Mother of God spoke tenderly to Juan Diego, whose Nahuatl name was Cuauhtlatoatzin, which could be translated as "One who talks like an eagle". The irony in this is that Juan Diego was a poor peasant of the recently conquered Aztec people and he was no public speaker.

The native peoples were often enslaved by their Spanish overlords. Some had converted to Catholic Christianity, but not very many. These were a proud people who, though broken militarily and even in spirit, would not succumb to the new religion and customs of the conquistadores. Cuauhtlatoatzin, however, did embrace the Lord Jesus and the Catholic Faith brought to his land by the Spanish missionaries; he was baptized Juan Diego.

While Juan Diego was no orator, the Blessed Mother called upon him to speak to the Spanish Bishop-elect, Juan de Zumárraga, OFM, a Franciscan friar and priest, now Bishop of Mexico, a rather prestigious position. When the first Franciscans arrived in Mexico in 1524 they sought to evangelize the native peoples. They had little success at first, but they also sought to protect them from their Spanish overlords. One of the bishop’s titles was “Protector of the Indians”.

According to the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga was not inclined to pay much attention to this peasant native nor certainly to abide by his directives to build the Mother of God a chapel as Juan Diego indicated, according to the message Juan Diego received from the Lady. He hardly felt like "one who talks like an eagle!"

Nevertheless, as the story goes, the Lord prevailed by providing Juan Diego with roses and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his tunic, or tilma (the original tilma, made of biodegradable cactus fiber, with image still hangs in the new Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City).

St. Juan Diego holding his tilma with the roses and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe

In conformity to the Scriptures and to Franciscan spirituality, God chooses the poor and despised (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29) for his own purposes. This is the value of what St. Francis of Assisi would call “minority.” Hence, he called his brothers “friars minor”, or “lesser brothers.” And in doing so, God chose to eventually raise his servant, Juan Diego, Cuauhtlatoatzin, to the altars of the Church by his canonization over 450 years after his death in 1548.

St. Juan Diego is a powerful example to us of how God chooses the lowly and exalts them and confounds those who are considered great in the eyes of this world, just as Mary’s Magnificat proclaims (Luke 1:46-55).

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