History versus Juan Diego
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The Americas 62.1 (2005) 1-16



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History versus Juan Diego*

On April 12 1939, from his place of exile in San Antonio, Texas, José de Jesús Manríquez y Zárate, first bishop of Huejutla, Mexico, wrote a pastoral letter to his priests and people, exhorting them to work for the cause of Juan Diego's beatification.1 This was the first effective step in the process of canonizing the indigenous peasant who in 1531 is said to have experienced the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The story of these apparitions has been the subject of intense controversy, especially with regard to their historical reality and the existence of Juan Diego.2 [End Page 1]

The procedure for making a saint, known as the cause or process, is a long and complex one.3 It is initiated at the local level, that is, the place where the proposed saint lived, and can be done by anyone. The first part involves investigations into a candidate's life and writings and evaluations by numerous experts. If successful, this results in beatification, that is, the person is declared to be blessed and so can be the object of public devotion. After a suitable length of time canonization, or the declaration of sainthood, can follow, although not every blessed eventually becomes a saint.

It is difficult to trace the the beatification of Juan Diego, in part because the cast of characters changed notably.4 In Mexico the same person sometimes occupied different positions. In Rome some of the officials retired or died during the course of the process. As a result I am going to mention only the highlights. A good deal of what follows is based on my personal experience, and it will be quite clear where my sympathies lie. However, I shall try to let the facts speak for themselves. And what you are about to hear is only a small part of the total story. If I may use the most tired and overworked cliché in contemporary English, this is the tip of the iceberg.

Support of the cause came principally from two archbishops of Mexico, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada (to 1995) and Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera (since 1995). The process was opened in 1979 and the first stage lasted until 1981. In 1983 Rome issued a nihil obstat ("nothing stands in the way"), which meant that the cause could be carried further. In the following year 1984 an archdiocesan tribunal was established that eventually had ninety-eight meetings. The first postulator of the cause was the Mexican priest Enrique Salazar Salazar. A crucial decision was made that the beatification would be based on an immemorial cultus, that is, that a devotion to Juan Diego as a holy person had existed since the sixteenth century. This meant that there would be no need for a miracle or an historical study of his life.

The cause suffered a setback in December 1984 when Monsignor Guillermo Schulenburg Prado, the abbot of the collegiate church of Guadalupe, intervened. Schulenburg's title had nothing to do with monks or monasteries. He was a secular abbot, the title given to the presiding officer of a collegiate, as opposed to a cathedral chapter. Schulenburg forwarded to Rome some observations by Father José Martín Rivera, archivist of the cathedral [End Page 2] chapter of the archdiocese of Mexico, which pointed out the historical difficulties associated with the figure of Juan Diego. Paramount among these, of course, was the question of whether he had actually existed. The letter caused considerable delay. In 1990, the historical consultors of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints gave their approval for the beatification. It should be noted that all of these consultors came from Roman universities and did not include a single expert on Mexican civil or religious history.

Prior to all this, in 1982, when the image of Guadalupe was being moved from the old basilica to the new, Abbot Schulenburg had it examined by a number of art experts and conservators. Their conclusion was that the image...