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The Sinner Behind the Saint 

Juan Diego got his halo with help from the worldly and shrewd Bishop Cepeda

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

MILLIONS OF LATINOS IN MEXICO and Southern California watched joyfully this week as Pope John Paul II made Juan Diego the first full-blooded Mexican Indian to be elevated to sainthood. But this day of pride and festivity might never have occurred were it not for Bishop Onésimo Cepeda, who stood just behind the pope at the famed Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Bishop Cepeda heads the impoverished diocese where the Juan Diego miracle took place, and he labored years to overcome critics who questioned whether Diego ever existed.

Known mainly by his first name -- Onésimo -- the larger-than-life Cepeda would never himself be mistaken for a saint. A uniquely Mexican celebrity, Cepeda, 65, evolved from wealthy sinner to priest without ever giving up his worldly personality, his rich friends or his golf game. He consorts with the powerful, jokes about the size of his penis, tells off his critics and leads massive Pentecostal-like prayer gatherings where inspired adherents speak in tongues. In Mexico, where the priesthood very much remains a path to comfort, esteem and power, Cepeda has carefully cultivated all three, not to mention a reputation as a faith healer.

To young Bulmaro Tapia, Cepeda is a refreshing hero. "He is this great church figure from the hierarchy, but at the same time he has such a natural, down-to-earth way," said Tapia, who performs as a dancer for Charisma in Missions, the largest Catholic charismatic-renewal ministry in the U.S. "He can be cracking jokes with you in one minute, but the next he can ask you to confess your sins."

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Not everyone in Mexico is so impressed. Cepeda makes the news just about every week, whether it's pleading the case of Juan Diego, hobnobbing with a star athlete or seeking an annulment of President Vicente Fox's first marriage. This latter mission is a personal favor to Fox, so that Mexico's president will no longer be classified as an adulterer for remarrying. "Onésimo's public persona seems to us like a unique case of showmanship," said Antonio Roqueni Ornelas, a Jesuit priest who is an expert in canon law. "It's a sick showmanship. He needs psychological help."

Many even view Cepeda's support of the Juan Diego legend as self-serving. The faithful who believe in Juan Diego's miracle flock to Cepeda's diocese in Ecatepec, an urban region north of Mexico City that is racked by poverty. Cepeda and his diocese benefit from this attention, which Cepeda has parlayed into the construction of a massive, ornate cathedral. And he's not about to let anyone undermine his golden goose by claiming that Juan Diego never existed, even if these doubters include a respected church elder.

ACCORDING TO CATHOLIC LORE, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin lived in the town of Coatitla, currently a region in Ecatepec, when a brown-faced Virgin (the mother of Christ) appeared to him in 1531, about 11 years after Spain's conquest of Mexico. The Virgin instructed Juan Diego to tell the Spanish bishop to erect a temple for her in the hilly region of Tepeyac. At first the bishop was incredulous, but as Juan Diego showed him some flowers the Virgin, henceforth known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, had touched and placed in his cloak, an imprint of the Virgin miraculously materialized on the inside of the cloak.

In the centuries since, Mexico's Catholics have venerated this cloak with the Virgin's image. It is kept behind glass but visible to the public behind the altar in the grand basilica. The appearance of the brown Virgin was a seminal event in Mexico's religious history, an undisputed turning point in the church's efforts to convert the native Indians. The entire Virgin episode was just a little too fortuitous in the view of skeptics, who challenge whether Juan Diego existed. They suspect that the cloak is nothing more than a well-rendered painting on cloth, devised to reinterpret European Catholicism with symbology that would appeal to the natives.

Foremost among the critics has been Guillermo Schulenburg, who spent 33 years as the abbot of the basilica and overseer of the Guadalupe cloak before retiring in the mid-1990s. Schulenburg, now 83, publicly stated in a 1999 letter to the Vatican that neither the Virgin apparitions nor Juan Diego's existence could be proved. He was supported by three of Mexico's most famous canon lawyers. And while these distinguished doubters accorded respect to the believers, they nonetheless asserted that evidence indicated the entire tale to be a church farce. The canonization ceremony had been scheduled to take place in the year 2000, but it was postponed due to Schulenburg's letter. â

Much of Mexico went into an uproar, but it was Cepeda -- who was then the spokesman for his country's bishops -- who hounded Schulenburg the most. A soundbite expert, Cepeda told reporters then that the abbot had lost his mind. "This is what you might expect of someone older than 80 -- logically all old people become a bit capricious and lose lucidity in their thinking," Cepeda told reporters three years ago. Cepeda was just as caustic in an interview with the Weekly three weeks ago, reserving particular scorn for skeptical officials who worked at the basilica. "There are only four people in Mexico who do not believe in the apparitions," said Cepeda, and "three of them have lived off of the Virgin of Guadalupe."

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