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Maybe he isn’t real but he’s almost a saint


John Paul II’s reforms of the saint-making process, shortening the waiting period and cutting the number of required miracles, have fueled his extraordinary run of beatifications and canonizations: 1,282 and 456, respectively, more than all previous popes combined.

With the recent approval of a miracle clearing the way for canonization of Juan Diego, however, some critics say the pope is preparing to waive the most basic requirement of all: historical existence.

The story is well known. A simple craftsman and widower was walking near the hill of Tepeyac, an ancient Aztec religious site dedicated to the goddess Tonantzin (like Mary, a virgin associated with the moon). He heard a voice, and it was the Virgin Mary asking him to tell the local bishop to build a shrine on that spot. Twice the Spanish bishop refused. Finally Mary told Juan to gather roses in his cloak and take them to the bishop. When he lowered the cloak, there was an image of a young woman, without child, standing upon a half moon. The bishop was convinced, and a shrine was built.

It’s a powerful tale, in part because it exalts the Aztec peasant over the Old World potentate. For this reason, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been embraced by a wide range of indigenous movements, including the Zapatistas, the indigenous fighters of southern Mexico.

The problem is that some experts say Juan Diego is great lore but suspect history.

“There’s no historical evidence whatsoever that such a person actually existed,” historian David Brading of Cambridge University told NCR in a Jan. 5 interview.

Brading, author of Mexican Phoenix, a study of the Guadalupe phenomenon, said that history cannot prove a negative, and hence it’s possible that a peasant named Juan lived in the 16th century and obtained a reputation for holiness. The Juan Diego of the Guadalupe account, however, is another matter.

That view is not shared in Vatican circles.

“There is no doubt about the existence of Juan Diego,” Fr. Eduardo Chávez Sánchez, the postulator for the Aztec’s cause, told NCR in Rome Jan. 7. “The debate has been resolved.”

Chávez Sánchez is co-author of The Encounter of the Virgin of Guadalupe with Juan Diego, a 1998 volume that collects the work of a historical commission named by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Questions about Juan Diego have flared up off and on since the 18th century. In 1996, the abbot of the Guadalupe shrine, Guillermo Schulemberg, was forced to resign by the cardinal of Mexico City for saying that Juan Diego is a myth. (Adding spice to that contretemps was the fact that the abbot was accused of absentee management, spending most of his time on the golf course, and the cardinal was accused of wanting to get his hands on the multimillion dollar annual revenue stream Guadalupe represents).

Reviving debate is the fact that on Dec. 20 Pope John Paul II acknowledged a second miracle attributed to Juan Diego, clearing the way for canonization in 2002. Given that canonizations are considered by Vatican officials to reflect the pope’s quasi-infallible “ordinary magisterium,” if John Paul really is on the verge of canonizing a phantasm, it could raise some prickly theological questions.

All sides seem to agree on these points:

The chief literary evidence for Juan Diego is an Aztec narrative called El Nican Mopohua.

Spanish Franciscans in Mexico make no mention of Guadalupe for the first 20 years following the alleged apparition, raising questions as to why they would be silent about such a miraculous event.

As the Guadalupe cult began to develop, some Spanish clerics were overtly dubious. A Franciscan provincial named Bustamante wrote in 1556 that Juan Diego’s famous cloak had actually been painted by an Indian artist.

“Guadalupe” is the name of a Marian cult in Spain that existed long before the Mexican counterpart.

As is always the case in historical debates, however, how one interprets these bits of evidence makes all the difference.

Brading says the Nican Mopohua narrative, which recounts the Juan Diego story, has little historical value. It is a “highly charged theological work,” he said, presenting Juan Diego as “the Mexican Moses.”

Chávez Sánchez, on the other hand, said that the poem is reliable, and is backed by Aztec oral traditions. It is also, he said, by no means the only literary source that testifies to Juan Diego. He points to a recent publication that lists some 25 documents from 1550 to 1590, including a manuscript that contains a death certificate for Juan Diego.

Those documents, however, are either poorly dated or untrustworthy, says Vincentian Fr. Stafford Poole, a Los Angeles-based historian and former rector of the diocesan seminary.

Poole, who has published widely on the Guadalupe cult, says flatly: “I have no doubt that Juan Diego did not exist.”

As for the silence and hostility of Spanish missionaries, Chávez Sánchez says it is what one would expect. The Spanish colonizers had little knowledge of what was happening in indigenous culture, he argues, and hence could easily have missed a new grassroots devotion. To the extent they were aware of it, they regarded it with suspicion as a vehicle for keeping the “pagan Aztec faith” intact.

Poole rejects those arguments, saying the missionaries knew well what was going on. He said there were many contemporary accounts of apparitions to Indians they had “no problem” accepting.

Poole told NCR that the bishop cited in the Juan Diego account, Juan Zumarraga, left no provision for the Guadalupe shrine in his will, while Spaniards of the era who founded chapels always left an endowment.

Both sides agree the name “Guadalupe” was probably stuck onto the Tepeyac phenomenon later, under Spanish influence, since there were earlier Guadalupe cults in Spain. (Indeed, the Aztecs couldn’t pronounce the g or the d). Defenders, however, say the Indians chose to give their apparition a Spanish name to make the devotion acceptable to their colonizers.

Poole told NCR he believes the canonization process for Juan Diego has been “totally slanted.” He said he and other historians have written letters to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Secretariat of State, but received no response.

Through private channels, Poole said he knows his work was critiqued by a consultor for the Congregation for Saints, but he was never given the opportunity to respond. He said he believes his experience “shows the bankruptcy of the procedures of canonization.”

Chávez Sánchez, meanwhile, cites this Oct. 12, 2001, declaration of the Mexican bishops’ conference: “The truth of the appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac has been, from the dawn of the evangelization to the present, a constant tradition … founded on documents of the time, verified with people who had coexisted with those who were witnesses and protagonists of the construction of the first shrine, and subjected to rigorous official investigations.”

No date has been set for Juan Diego’s canonization. President Vicente Fox, however, has invited Pope John Paul II to come to Mexico after the World Youth Day festival in Toronto July 18-28. Members of the Mexican hierarchy are said to be hoping that the pope will perform the canonization during the visit.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002