MEXICO CITY — From the pilgrims crawling on their knees toward the Basilica of Guadalupe here in the Mexican capital to the Latino Roman Catholic parishes of Southern California, an outcry has arisen over a claim that a beloved Indian peasant believed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary in 1531 may never have existed.
The Vatican's ambassador to Mexico, Justo Mullor, joined a chorus of angry voices attacking Guillermo Schulemburg, the 83-year-old retired abbot of the basilica, and two other prelates who wrote to Pope John Paul II challenging the existence of Juan Diego. The letter, written in September, called on the pope to withhold sainthood from Juan Diego, who would be North America's first indigenous saint and could be canonized as soon as next year.
The disclosure of the letter by Mexican newspapers here last week provoked an uproar just days ahead of Sunday's 468th anniversary of one of the most important events for Catholics in the Western Hemisphere--the day a dark-skinned Virgin Mary is believed to have left her image on Juan Diego's cloak.
The challenge prompted countercharges by some Mexican and U.S. clerics that opponents of Juan Diego are guilty of Eurocentric racism in opposing the notion that an Aztec Indian peon could receive the Virgin's apparition. Catholic leaders believe that Juan Diego will be canonized as a saint May 21.
In this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, the Virgin of Guadalupe is "the mother of all Mexicans," the most revered symbol of the union of the Catholic and indigenous faiths after Spain's conquest.
Several million Catholics nationwide will honor their belief in Juan Diego by making the annual pilgrimage Sunday to the Basilica of Guadalupe, in the shadow of Tepeyac Hill in a suburb in northern Mexico City. That is where the Virgin's apparition is believed to have appeared over four days in 1531, just 10 years after Spain's conquest.
In Los Angeles today, church officials say up to 100,000 are expected to attend Mass in the Coliseum in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego.
At the basilica itself Thursday, thousands of pilgrims began arriving on foot, by bicycle and in bus caravans. Some crawled on their knees the last few yards into the cone-shaped basilica or to the small hilltop chapel that overlooks the site. Others rode the slow-moving escalator that passes under the altar and allows visitors a close look upward at the framed original cloak bearing the Virgin's image.
"Whatever [Schulemburg] says, we are not going to stop believing. And not just Mexicans but the whole Spanish-speaking world," said David Carrizales, a 52-year-old pilgrim who said he was fulfilling a lifelong promise to visit the shrine from his home in Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border.
"There are millions of people who owe all we have to the Virgin of Guadalupe," he said. "Just one person cannot change this."
In Southern California and throughout the Southwest, devotion to Guadalupe has evolved to become the core of Latino Catholicism. As immigrants from Latin America settled in the U.S. Southwest, the Virgin emerged as a protector and liberator of the poor and marginalized, for whom Juan Diego became a powerful symbol.
In light of that significance, church leaders, theologians and members of the Mexican community joined in the outrage over the most recent attacks on Juan Diego.
Humberto Ramos, associate director of Hispanic Ministry for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said Schulemburg's attempts to halt the canonization of Juan Diego amount to racism. Despite the overwhelming Catholic population in Mexico, the country has only one saint: St. Felipe de Jesus. If canonized, Juan Diego would be Mexico's second saint.
"It seems he's trying to make it more difficult for a poor Mexican Indian to become a saint than a European," Ramos said. "People are upset about it. They are asking: 'Why? Why is he bringing this up? What's behind it?' "
Aside from her religious significance, Ramos added, Guadalupe's power as a political icon elevates her status among Mexicans.
"She is the essence of Mexican nationalism. It was her banner that Father Hidalgo raised for independence. . . . Her image is embedded in the psyche of Mexicans everywhere. So, desecrating her is desecrating Mexico's most sacred icon," he said.
The immense basilica, which opened in 1976, is the second-most-visited Catholic shrine in the world after St. Peter's in the Vatican.
Father Victor Murillo, preaching at a Mass in the basilica for pilgrims from Veracruz state, captured the identification that Mexicans feel with the humble peasant to whom the Virgin is said to have appeared. Murillo noted in his sermon that "Juan Diego was a person like us. He wasn't blue-eyed. He was my brother; he was an Indian. He is in my blood, in my body, in my way of thinking. It was me who was there, in front of our Blessed Mother, it was me to whom, in the person of Juan Diego, you spoke those words."