Sr. Catherine Mary, a Dominican Sister from Sparkill, NY, first told me the story of Juan in the 5th grade. I thought Juan was 10, like me. I imagined him thrilled but a little scared to tell the bishop of his important task. But I felt the heart-sickness at not being believed. I already knew this story motif, this theme of so many apparitions – how Bernadette, and Joan of Arc (who saw saints) and probably even the famous children of Fatima. They too had not been believed by the grown ups for some time
But in recent years I’ve been reading the story over and over as the Nahuatl people, the Aztecs, tell it. I’ve read this first written version translated to Spanish and then to English in the books by Virgilio Elizondo, a Mexican-American priest who grew up in and then pastored the people of San Antonio and now teaches at Notre Dame. He also makes a point of meeting with Latino clergy and religious, on a regular basis, to talk more about how we can learn from this deep and important story to which our Church and World are still awakening almost 500 years later.
From Fr. Virgil I learned that Juan was more like my age NOW. In 1521 when Hernán Cortés first arrived with his conquistadors, Juan was in his late late 40s. I see Cortez, a man of 36, arriving full of ambition and zeal. He came with priests, yes, but soldiers and weapons too, to bring Christianity to a pagan land and to take back to his beloved Spanish homeland whatever WEALTH they could find. To accomplish those two tasks he robbed and destroyed all the sacred places of the Aztec people. He and his men fought and killed many many native people and, pretty much forced Catholicism’s on Juan’s people.
BUT our Juan Diego, a man whose name, in his own language was called Cuauhtlatoatzin, a name meaning “talking eagle, was already a believer in what he called Teotle – not the name of “a god” but the word for the GREAT ONE, the Mystery, the inexplicable Divine.
So when the Franciscan priests said, “YES, they came from the ONE God, the Creator, the Great Divine – Juan was ready to sign up. He listened to the story of God Father, Son, and Spirit. He heard tell of the VIRGIN Mary who gave birth to GOD in human form, the man named Jesus who died so NO OTHER HUMANS would have to die again in sacrifice to any god. And so Juan was BAPTIZED. He committed to walking 15 miles before the dawn to come to morning mass. I imagine when the Franciscans heard that this ready-to-commit good 40 something man said his name meant TALKING EAGLE one quick-thinking priest or brother said, “Wonderful! We will give you the Christian name JOHN – Juan in Spanish – for our great Evangelist John – who spoke the gospel and whose symbol is a great eagle with wings like an angel.
So, no Juan was not 10. He was not young in years, but he was NEW – he was new to the faith, and – as Jesus reminded his apostles, “Let the children come to me/ because they open-hearted, innocent, NOT set their ways. Juan was that – open-hearted, childlike – despite all that had happened to his people. So who else would Jesus’ MOTHER choose? This good indigenous convert, walking to morning mass. – over those miles to what is now Mexico City – and when at first Juan heard celestial music, he was READY to BELIEVE. …….True, the story tells us he did ask himself – Am I Worthy of this? Am I DREAMING? Have I been brought to the land of my ancestors? Is this the land of FLOWER in the earth of our flesh? Am I over there inside heaven?
But no, he was simply walking along the road that passed by the Hill of Tepayac, the very hill on which the aspect of the feminine side of God – what our Eastern Rite Catholic sisters and brothers call Sophia, Wisdom. That feminine side of God had been revered by his own people right on this hill. Her temple was gone now. But what did the beautiful woman whose image we are astounded by today say to him?????
She called HIS NAME – Our Mother Mary, speaking in Juan’s own Nahuatl language called, “Dignified Juan, Dignified Juan Diego? And he followed the music and her celestial voice to the top of the hill. When he saw her great beauty – her dark skin like his own – and her beautiful clothing and the sunlight surrounding her, she told him:
Know and be certain in your heart, my most abandoned son, that I am the EVER VIRGIN HOLY MARY MOTHER OF THE GOD OF GREAT TRUTH, TEOTL, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM WE LIVE, THE CREATOR, THE OWNER OF WHAT IS NEAR AND TOGETHER, THE LORD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH
Juan had no trouble believing. He was ready for this new way of understanding God. This was the Mother of the great divine. He was no longer feeling unworthy. This beautiful young woman, pregnant with new life, told him, “Tel the bishop to build me a hermitage, a home, yes, a temple, right here. (NO WONDER the bishop wasn’t quick to jump at that request! Coming from an Aztec Man, albeit one who had been wiling to convert.)
But the bishop was convinced in time – we know the story of the roses falling to the ground and the bishop crying, asking for forgiveness for his unbelief. And that temple was built – a small house, a hermitage, to be the shrine for Mary’s beautiful image imprinted on Juan’s tilma. In time a bigger church and now a great Basilica! And Juan, now our St. Juan Diego was its caretaker and the storyteller who told every one who came to see the beautiful Virgin as she appears to us today.
Juan lived just 17 more years to the age of 74. But he remained like a child, believing with all his heart. Today MILLIONS of pilgrims this very week are at Tepeyac, singing her praises, asking her to bless them, their families, the work of love they are committed to, the poor and marginalized who Mary continues to watch over and calls to us to support. And all those pilgrims BELIEVE that she is listening and will be with them in all their trials and all their good work.
Let us too, find that childlike place in ourselves and with all our hearts believe.