MEXICO CITY—“Are you crazy?” snapped Bishop Onésimo Cepeda Silva after a journalist's question.

“This is not a division within the Church,” the spokesman for the Mexican episcopate explained, “this is just Abbot Schulenburg against the whole Catholic Church in Mexico.”

What was the outburst about?

The press conference at the offices of the Mexican bishops' conference was not tense, but Bishop Cepeda of Ecatepec, well known for his friendly relationship with journalists, could not hide his irritation at the reason for the meeting: to explain the consequences of a recent letter sent to the Vatican by the former abbot of Mexico City's Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe denying the historic existence of Juan Diego.

The peasant who saw Our Lady of Guadalupe and reported her message of confidence in God, Juan Diego is widely expected to be canonized next year, possibly in May.

The controversy was sparked Dec. 2, when the daily Reforma newspaper reported that Abbot Emeritus Guillermo Schulenburg sent a letter to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano repeating his claim, first made in 1990, that there was no records that prove the historical existence of Juan Diego, and that his eventual canonization would only embarrass Pope John Paul II and the entire Church.

The recent letter, which was also signed by Father Carlos Warnholtz, a dean of the basilica, and its librarian, Father Esteban Martínez, was copied to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

Predictably, no one within the Church or in the political establishment has come to the defense of Abbot Schulenburg and his colleagues. Hence, Bishop Cepeda contended that the abbot stood alone, presumably with his two former cohorts.

Mexico City's Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera took a similar tack.

“This is probably just a joke,” the primate of Mexico said. “Otherwise, how could we understand the denial of the apparition from a man who has not only lived it but made a good living out of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe for more than 30 years?” The cardinal's statement was in reference to the well-known allegations of financial misconduct that led to the removal of Abbot Schulenburg from the basilica post earlier this year.

Calling on Mexicans to remain calm, the cardinal said, “I can assure them that this incident will have no effect whatsoever on the process of canonization.”

Strange Timing?

According to Msgr. Oscar Sánchez Barba, postulator of all Mexican causes for beatification and canonization in Rome, the objections of Abbot Schulenburg come at a strange time — a matter of months after the release of clear evidence of Juan Diego's historicity that no one has refuted on scientific grounds.

Abbot Schulenburg's objections, first raised in 1990, were sufficient to effectively freeze Juan Diego's cause by 1997. The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints requested at that time further proofs of his existence and character.

“Of course, questioning the authenticity of Juan Diego implied that the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Tepeyac hill was a legend and therefore, that the tilma (the cloth in which the image of the Virgin is imprinted) is just a painting and not a miracle,” said Msgr. Sánchez.

So, upon the request of Cardinal Rivera, both Msgr. Sánchez and Father Fidel Fernández, a well-known historian who is also a consultant to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, started a quiet but full-time odyssey through historical records and ancient archives in Mexico, Spain and the Vatican to find the historical Juan Diego.

The investigation lasted 18 months, and ended on Oct. 28, 1998, with new, unquestionable historical findings that were unveiled at a press conference hosted by Cardinal Ri-vera.

Msgr. Sánchez announced the discovery of new documents that prove that Juan Diego existed and that the Indian's contemporaries considered the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe a real event.

The investigation brought to light three significant, previously forgotten documents: The Escalda Codex; the written recollection of the oral tradition of Totonaca Indians of Veracruz; and the written testimony of Sister Ana de Cristo, a Spanish nun who traveled to Mexico on her way to the Philippines in 1619.

The Escalda Codex, found in Spain, confirmed the existence of Juan Diego, who was regarded as a holy man who saw the Virgin “with his own eyes” and who died on May 30, 1548, at age 74, something exceptional for a time when life expectancy among Mexican natives was about 40 years.

Sister Ana de Cristo's letter, also discovered in Spain, describes how Mexico's Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, originally skeptical about the story of a Marian apparition, was totally convinced of it after receiving the tilma of a local Indian named Juan Diego.

Finally, the written accounts of the Totonaca oral tradition describe a profile of Juan Diego consistent with the other historic testimonies. Msgr.

Sánchez said that “several other indirect testimonies were also found which, put together, would be a sufficient historic proof.”

Cardinal Rivera announced the findings as “a victory for our Lady,” and called for a Thanksgiving Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As expected, devout Mexicans overflowed the basilica.

The cardinal also asked the investigators to publish their findings. A book by the two researchers, The Encounter of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego, has become a religious best seller in Mexico.

“I think that the canonization of Juan Diego will be a Guadalupan feast, just as Juan Diego himself, being a humble man, would have wanted it to be,” Msgr. Sánchez told the Register.

And he believes that the feast will not only be celebrated in Mexico but throughout the Americas. “In fact,” he added, “several Latin American communities in Rome, as well as many embassies have been asking me how to join the celebration of Juan Diego's canonization.”

Msgr. Sánchez also revealed that the miracle for the canonization has cleared almost all the stages of the arduous canonization process.

The miracle credited to Juan Diego was the quick, total and scientifically impossible healing of a young man who, in 1994, fell from a second floor in Mexico City. The young man fell into a coma with severe skull and brain damage, and doctors told his relatives that death was a matter of hours away.

One of the doctors even told the young man's mother that “not even Juan Diego could heal him,” sparking in the woman the idea to go to the basilica and ask for the intercession of Juan Diego in heaven.

Msgr. Sánchez declined to offer details of the miracle until the Church has made a definitive ruling. But he told the Register earlier this year that “the [man's] accident took place on a Sunday; on Monday he was diagnosed as a terminal case; and on Tuesday he was totally recovered, with not a single injury or side effect.”

“From our point of view, it was an easy case,” the monsignor explained. “We just obtained all the medical records from Monday, then those from Tuesday and the written testimony of doctors, nurses and witnesses that it was the same person.”

On Dec. 20, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints will announce the name of those who will be beatified or proclaimed saints during the year 2000.

Msgr. Sánchez said that the announcement of Juan Diego's cause would be a great joy, but he is not in a hurry. “The cause is going steady and well, so we don't mind if we have to wait for the year 2001,” he said.

Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima, Peru.