Bl. Indians of Mexico

(Sixteenth Century)

On May 6, 1990, during his second pastoral visit to Mexico, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the beatification of five Mexicans. One of these was a modern priest of Hispanic blood, Father Jose Maria de Yermoy Parres (1851-1904), noted for founding a congregation of nuns, the Servants of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Poor, and many charitable works. The other four new “blessed” were Indians of the earliest days of the Spanish settlement of Mexico. What the Iroquois virgin St. Kateri Tekakwitha is to North America, these four are to Middle America.

Best known of the Mexican Indian beati was Bl. Juan Diego. It was he to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared on Tepeyac Hill on December 9, 1531.

Juan Diego (1474-1548) was the baptismal name of this devout Indian convert and farmer, whose native name, Cuauhtlatohuac, means, it seems, “Eagle Who Speaks.” The Lady who greeted “Juanito” as “the smallest of my children”, identified herself as the Mother of God, and told him to inform the bishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, that she wanted him to build a church on that site. Juan Diego conveyed the message, but the bishop said he would need some sign to persuade him to act.

The humble Indian, embarrassed by his failure, would have preferred to have no further dealings with his bishop, but the Lady appeared to him again and insisted. As for the sign, on December 12 she instructed her messenger to gather some roses nearby and carry them to the prelate in the lap of his tilma or poncho. Now, roses do not bloom in December at the altitude of Mexico’s capital city. Nonetheless, Juan found enough of them for a fine bouquet. When he entered the bishop’s presence and let drop the hem of his cloak, the bishop and spectators saw not only the cascading flowers, but, on the very tilma itself, a lovely portrait of Our Lady represented as a pregnant young Indian woman in Indian dress. After that, Bishop Zumarraga could only obey.

He inaugurated the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the principal focus is still on the remarkable portrait of Mary.

Tradition tells us that afterwards Juan Diego got permission to live as a hermit near Tepeyac. There he remained as guardian of the shrine, practicing poverty and prayer, and engaging in good works, including teaching Catechism to others. He was responsible for the conversion of many Aztecs.

From his death onward, the Mexican faithful hailed this simple peasant as a saint. Mexican priests would say to the children, “May God mold you like Juan Diego.” Recently the Holy See has acknowledged this long-term veneration, and what the present pope did on his recent visit was to give official confirmation to continuing popular acclaim. John Paul appropriately assigned Blessed Juan Diego December 9 as his feastday.

The other three whom the Pope beatified were child martyrs of Tiaxcala: Cristobal, Antonio and Juan.

Bl. Cristobal was born at Atlihuetza about 1514, the son of an influential pagan Indian and one of his 60 wives. Cristobal attended a school opened by the Franciscan missionaries. There he converted to Christianity and was baptized. Wishing to share his new-found faith with the rest of his family, Cristobal pointed out to his father the folly of his polygamy, drunkenness and idolatry. Instead of yielding to persuasion, the parent killed Cristobal in 1527. He was then only 12 or 13 years old.

Bl. Antonio, a native of Tizatlan, was the heir of one of the local Indian senators. He, too, became a convert while attending a missionary school. Then he volunteered to join a mission bound for Oaxaca, led by the Dominican missionary Bernardino de Minaya. Antonio was aware that this was a perilous undertaking, but he went anyhow. He met martyrdom near Puebla in 1529.

Bl. Juan was about the same age as Bl. Antonio, a native of the same town and an alumnus of the same school. He, also, volunteered to join the Dominican mission to Oaxaca. On that expedition he won his martyr’s crown.

From their deaths onward, the missionary priests had the three junior teenagers buried in their mission churches, and hailed them as catechists of and martyrs for the faith. The Church has now confirmed this veneration; Pope John Paul II cited the trio as exemplifying the role to which every Christian is called: to spread the faith without counting the cost.

--Father Robert F. McNamara