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Why Saint Juan Diego, a Saint for Nobodies, Means so Much to the Houston Catholic Worker

11/11/2004 - 7:00 AM PST

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Faith and Culture

Why Saint Juan Diego, a Saint For Nobodies, Means so Much To the Houston Catholic Worker


by Mark and Louise Zwick


Casa Juan Diego has been filled with joy over the canonization of Saint Juan Diego. The welcome of Mexico for the Holy Father on the occasion of his canonization reverberated in Houston, even in the news media, where several television stations celebrated the Pope's visit and tied it together with what they called one of Juan Diego's miracles, Casa Juan Diego. Channel 2 (NBC) had two programs, including a beautiful half-hour special on Sunday morning, August 3. Local FOX-TV featured Juan Diego and Casa Juan Diego together twice, and Channel 45 in Spanish included a news segment. Brian Sasser of Channel 2, Ned Hibberd of Fox 26 Houston and Amalia Torres of Univision spent many hours preparing the stories.

We were able to tell the people of Houston how much Juan Diego means to us, how his name was chosen for our work when we began. What a symbol he is for those who are nobodies in the eyes of the powerful but are greatly appreciated by God.

We, too, were nobodies as we began taking in refugees from the wars in Central America in the early 1980s. The immigrants and refugees who came and continue to come to us with only the shirts on their backs are wanted by so many only for their work, but are not considered human beings by many, as the first Juan Diego. Like Juan Diego, they do not speak the language and have no rights.

The work of Casa Juan Diego, which began in an old meat market, has grown to 15 "Casas," thanks to the help of so many who have cared about those who come to seek refuge and assistance in so many ways. The television programs showed our food distribution to the poor of the community, English classes, our medical clinic in action and guests recounting their stories.

We were not able to attend the canonization, but have visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe a number of times. The shrine has always been filled with pilgrims from all over Mexico, some Latin Americans from other countries and a few English speakers. On occasion, English-speaking tourists have asked us what the place is all about, what is the significance?

The Time of the Appearance

At the time of the conquest, when Juan Diego lived, many of the invaders thought the indigenous people did not even have souls and that therefore did not have the right to own anything but should be subject. They were treated badly and enslaved. They were forbidden to speak their own language. (At least in Spanish-speaking countries, they were still alive, whereas in the United States few Native Americans survived.) With the conquistadores, however, came missionaries who wanted to share their faith with them. It was hard going, of course, because of the terrible treatment they were receiving. Only a very few natives had become Christian. One of those was Juan Diego, who with his wife had been baptized and frequently received the sacraments. Devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, was very much a part of the evangelization in Christ which Juan Diego had received. By the time Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to him, Juan Diego was a widower. His faith was an example of the sincere and profound conversion hoped for by the missionaries, who were worried that even those who had embraced the faith would fall back into idolatry.

Franciscan missionaries who worked hard to share their faith with the indigenous people also defended them, writing to the king of Spain and to the Pope to argue that they were human beings with souls; the missionaries described the cruelty, the corruption and hardness of heart of many of their own countrymen towards the people. One of these Franciscans was Juan de Zumárraga, Bishop of Mexico. (We have long been aware of Bishop Zumárraga's concern for the people under his care because of original source material from the time that we have read in Spanish.)

Parts of Bishop Zumárraga's letters to King Carlos V of Spain, in which he described the cruelty of some of his countrymen in New Spain are reprinted in a new book by Eduardo Chavez Sanchez which was sent to us by the priest from the parish which operates our Casa Juan Diego House of Hospitality in Matamoros, Mexico. The book is called Juan Diego, una vida de santidad que marcó la historia (Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 2002). In addition to excerpts from some of the most famous documents recounting the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Chavez includes original corres-pondence from the time.\

Sometimes the story of Mary's appearances has been told as if there were no receptive Spaniards at all. Chavez' book shows how the apparitions were an encouragement for and working with the already existing efforts of some of the missionaries.

Chavez recounts how as the people ...

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