But when the church unveiled its official portrait of the 16th century Chichimeca Indian, racial pride turned to puzzlement and, for some, to anger.
The portrait shows a light-skinned, full-bearded man who looks more like one of the sword-wielding Spanish conquistadors who subjugated the Aztec empire. It appears on millions of posters, stamps and wallet-sized prints distributed in advance of Pope John Paul II's arrival here today to canonize Juan Diego.
"This is disturbing," said Fausto Guadarrama, a Mazahua Indian, author and devout Catholic. "First we win a moral victory. Then we get this image with Western features. Are they trying to conquer us again through this image?"
In a country where religious symbols carry enormous power, the mixed signals about Juan Diego illustrate Catholicism's uneasy relations with native Americans and, more broadly, its difficulties in the quest for souls among non-European cultures around the world. In Mexico, the church's mission is complicated by a shortage of priests, the spread of Protestantism and an armed Indian revolt.
Wednesday's scheduled saint-making Mass at the Basilica of Guadalupe here is a landmark in the Catholic missionary effort, and it touches the core of Mexico's identity.
According to legend, Juan Diego was a Catholic convert in 1531, a decade after the Spanish conquest, when the mother of Jesus appeared before him as a dark-skinned Indian. When the local Spanish bishop demanded proof of the apparition, it was on Juan Diego's rough cloak that the heavenly lady, the Virgin of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted her image.
Despite doubts by many scholars that Juan Diego ever existed, the cult of Guadalupe flourished. In a masterstroke of religious syncretism, Spanish missionaries spread the story of her apparition to convert Mexico's indigenous tribes from their devotion to the Aztec mother-goddess, Tonantzin, to the Virgin Mary.
Today, Mexicans are overwhelmingly Catholic and mestizo, of mixed Indian and Spanish blood, and the Virgin of Guadalupe is their patron. But Catholicism is losing ground to other Christian denominations, especially among Mexico's full-blooded Indian minority. Wednesday's canonization of Juan Diego is a timely chance to shore up the faith.
The church is also struggling to come to terms with an often violent Indian-rights movement led by Zapatista rebels, whose armed uprising in the mid-1990s won support from some priests in defiance of the Catholic hierarchy.
Reaching Mexico's Indians is so important to the 82-year-old John Paul that he ignored Vatican advice to cancel the journey for the sake of his fragile health. His 11-day pilgrimage, which took him Monday from Canada to Guatemala, ends here Thursday when he beatifies two indigenous Catholic martyrs of 1700, placing them a step from sainthood.
Wednesday's and Thursday's papal Masses are a "recognition of Indians as peoples," Mexico's Catholic bishops said in a pastoral letter, adding that the honored figures "can help us recapture the Indian origins and roots of our people."
Millions of Mexicans plan to line the pope's motorcade route and follow the Masses on television. Large delegations are arriving here from Indian communities in Mexico's rural south, including native dancers in feathered headdress who will perform in the basilica.
The ceremonies "will further the evangelization of the Indians, because the Indians want a brother in heaven, someone to protect them," said Father Humberto Medina, a mestizo Catholic priest who ministers to indigenous people in Oaxaca state.
But Indian leaders are divided on the utility of elevating Juan Diego and the two martyrs. Critics of the church call the gestures a belated outreach to an indigenous world that Catholic missionaries have never fully penetrated.
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