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St. Juan Diego: the paradox of humility

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 16, 2010

Can you name 5 people who lived in Mexico in the early years of the 16th century? Probably not. Neither can I. When I try to make out a list, the project stalls after I write down a single name: St. Juan Diego.

Virtually nothing is known about Juan Diego, apart from the story of his encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe. Yet nearly 500 years later we know his name—long after the world has forgotten the names of the kings and warriors and prelates who were his contemporaries.

After his first meeting with the Virgin Mary, when he told the bishop about the Blessed Mother’s wish for a church to be built at the site of their meeting, Juan Diego came away frustrated, because the bishop did not believe him. Why should such an important person as the bishop pay attention to this insignificant peasant? Juan Diego reportedly suggested that the Virgin should choose another more impressive envoy, because “I am a nobody.” A few centuries later, history has delivered a very different verdict. It is the bishop who has become a “nobody.” (I do not mean that he was a bad man; he may be rejoicing in heaven today. But history has not treated him kindly, and whatever fame he enjoyed in 1531 is long gone. Can you name him? Neither can I.) Juan Diego, on the other hand, is a canonized saint.

When Our Lady first spoke with Juan Diego (according to the account written by Don Antonio Valeriano), she referred to him as “the most humble of my sons.” If she used those exact words, I feel sure that she meant them as more than a term of endearment; she meant them as a compliment. It was his humility that made Juan Diego the ideal man to execute Our Lady’s plan.

An old spiritual director of mine was fond of saying, “There are no humble people in hell.” A humble person—someone who sees himself as insignificant—opens himself to be used as an instrument of God’s will. But then paradoxically, if he carries out God’s plan faithfully, he grows in importance—not to himself, but to the world. When we look toward Juan Diego we do not see a “nobody;” we see a simple man whose humility ensures that his own personality will not get in the way, and so he is better able to reflect the splendor of “the woman clothed in the sun.” He is great because he was small; he humbled himself and so he is exalted.


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  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Dec. 17, 2010 8:01 AM ET USA

    I can name the bishop, Phil -- Bishop Juan de Zumárraga. Anyone who has been to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., will hear his name as a very important part of that history-changing story. In fact, Cardinal Burke mentions Bishop Zumárraga as an essential part of that story in just about every homily he gives at the Shrine. While he may not be canonized, he seems to have been a holy man:

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