The Testing of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga

by Dan Flaherty

Photos by Beverly Stevens

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way to Juan de Zumárraga. He had lived a relatively privileged life in the Spain of the 15th century. Born to a noble family in 1468, he came of age in the newly re-conquered Spain that Isabella and Ferdinand had liberated from seven centuries of Islamic rule.

The Faith received a new lease on life in those years. Juan de Zumárraga entered the Franciscan order and later even  enjoyed a friendship with Emperor Charles V, grandson of the Catholic Monarchs. This led to important appointments, most notably one to a court that interviewed women accused of witchcraft. He later was to write about this experience, observing that ‘witches’ were merely women possessed of hallucinations.

A summons from the Emperor

But such assignments paled before what Juan de Zumárraga would face as he would be tested beyond his wildest dreams. It was while he was in semi-retirement as head of the Franciscan friary in sleepy Abrojo, between Vallodolid and the university city of Salamanca, that the summons from the Emperor came. He was 59, quite late in life for the era in which he lived. And his moment would arrive in an unlooked for-discovery, a place no one could have ever have imagined existed — a heathen land literally on the other side of the world.

The Spanish Crown had gotten word back of Cortés’s conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico and Spanish leadership—both religious and secular—was being appointed. It was Father de Zumarraga’s friendship with the Emperor and the great trust that Charles V placed in him that landed him the appointment as first bishop of Mexico—or “New Spain.”

There were problems right from the outset. He had to leave for the New World before being formally consecrated a bishop by the pope, so he wielded no actual ecclesiastical authority. Father de Zumarraga had a further responsibility—he was appointed to the office called “Protector Of The Indians.” And this office would bring him great trials.

Defending the Indians

The Franciscans were unabashed defenders of the ‘Indian’ people in what they called ‘New Spain’, believing them to hold the same rights before God as everyone else. And de Zumarraga was no exception.

Time and again, he would clash with Spanish officials in the civil government, frequently on behalf of the Indians. This included his 1529 proposal to the Crown that all matters pertaining to the Indian peoples—particularly criminal charges—be handled by clergy. The Crown declined to take him up on that. This later proved to be greatly to the detriment of the indigenous people.

Just how hard did de Zumárraga fight for the Indians? Historical records show that on no less than thirty-four occasions his secular adversaries filed complaints against him before the Spanish court.

What was he trying to do? Father de Zumárraga was working to establish schools for Indian boys and girls. It is in this context that he received a visitor named Juan Diego in December of 1531, a little more than two years after his arrival in Mexico.

The Indian from Tepeyac hill

Zumárraga was a loyal son of the Church, and like officials through the ages, he showed tremendous prudence when the claim of visitations from the Mother of God  was made. Though Father de Zumárraga was firmly in line with this tradition, he invited Juan Diego to come and visit again.

On that second visit, de Zumárraga made his now well-known request that some sort of sign be given to Diego to prove that he was witnessing the supernatural. And the peasant Indian returned with roses in his tilma, which unbeknownst to him was embedded with the image of what we know now as ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe.’

Kneeling in front of Juan Diego’s proffered tilma before his entire astonished company that December evening, the Franciscan knew it was real.

Summoned to Spain

It would be a mistake to think that the apparitions suddenly made de Zumárraga’s life easier. To the contrary, the scandal that the tilma raised was such that his enemies were able to succeed in getting him recalled to Spain in order to defend himself at court. The record indicates he was able to do so rather handily, and this appears to be a sign of God’s Providence at work;  his return back to Spain actually allowed him to be formally consecrated a bishop.

In his absence the government officials in New Spain went on a rampage of abuse. They impoverished the Indians by taxes, sold them into slavery, branded them with hot irons, sent shiploads to the Antilles, sexually attacked Indian girls, and persecuted with incredible fury the followers of Cortés — their perceived rivals for control of the land’s limitless resources.

What the Bishop Did in Mexico

When now-Bishop de Zumárraga returned to Mexico many months later, he brought several artisan families, ready to educate the Indians, in tow. This was precipitate, as in roughly a five-year period  following Mary’s appearances in Mexico City, mass conversions of the native peoples brought six million Indians into the Church.

Bishop de Zumárraga was prepared to educate them; he established a school for Indian boys, the College of Tlatelolco and in another display of vision, established formal education for Indian girls — the first time in history of that land.

Further, Bishop de Zumárraga set up a printing press in Mexico and by 1539, the first published in the Western hemisphere was printed there —  Doctrina breve, his own work. He is widely praised today — including in secular media — for his work in educating the native peoples and what that meant to Mexican culture.

The Death of a Good Bishop

In June of 1548, Juan de Zumárraga went to his eternal reward. His bishopric was a difficult one, and it must have been hard to bear the physical burden at his advanced age. But everything he did to fight for the native people of Mexico helped set the stage for the miraculous events of December 12, 1531 and everything he did afterwards helped make those millions of conversions wrought from Our Lady of Guadalupe deeper and more real.

History remembers Juan de Zumárraga as the man who Saint Juan Diego came to with the Roses of Tepeyac. It’s everything he did before and after that moment, however, that won him a place in the heart of Mexico. He is buried under the high altar in the cathedral at Mexico City.

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