Indigenous Americans get their first saint

Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Wednesday July 31, 2002
The Guardian,3604,765835,00.htmlOff-site Link

The Pope is in Mexico today to make a 16th-century Nahuatl into the continent’s first indigenous saint.
It is part of a strategy to stem the advance of evangelical sects among the poor and downtrodden descendants of the first Latin American converts to Catholicism.Off-site Link

But behind the enthusiasm generated by the ailing Pope’s determination to drag himself to Mexico, there are several bitter controversies surrounding soon-to-be Saint Juan Diego and his visions of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531. These include the long-running debate on whether he actually existed, and a more recent dispute about the colour and bushiness of his beard, if he did.

The canonisation is the highlight of a two-day papal visit which began yesterday.

The basilica stands where Juan Diego saw the Madonna, and is the centre of his steadily growing cult, encouraged by the church in its effort to display a new sensitivity towards Mexico’s 10 million indigenous people.

Intent on injecting new vigour into the flagging calender of saints as a means of strengthening popular faith, John Paul has created more than 450 saints since he became pope in 1978.

Juan Diego is a prime example of his quest to recognise popular heroes.

The Virgin’s appearances just 10 years after the Spanish conquest not only played a key role in converting Mexico during colonial rule, but remains at the heart of modern Mexican Catholicism.

The expectation is that raising the status of the native American usually pictured trembling at the Virgin’s feet could help stem a worrying exodus from the church of indigenous people and other disadvantaged groups who feel it undervalues them.

But beneath the surface of the canonisation euphoria there is a collection of complicated disputes. The most fundamental is the question of Juan Diego’s existence.

It last flared in January in letter from a group of Mexican churchmen asking the Pope not to canonise “a myth” not mentioned in official texts until almost a century after the visions.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 2, 2002.
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