The Difference Ignatian Urgency Made

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“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33)
Priests throughout history in the course of fulfilling their mission for souls’ salvation have brought incalculable benefits of culture, civilization, and material well-being to millions.
What Pope Leo XIII once wrote about the mission of the Church, can be said with due discretion of the role of priests:
“The Church, while directly and immediately aiming at the salvation of souls and the happiness which is to be attained in Heaven is yet, even in this life, the fountain of blessings so numerous and great, that they could not have been greater or more numerous had the original purpose of her foundation been the pursuit of happiness during the lifetime which is spent on earth.” (Leo XIII, Longinqua)
Defenders of the Native Peoples of the Americas

The  chronicles of the extraordinary efforts by priests  in defense of the dignity of the native peoples of the newly-discovered Americas from the 15th to the 19th centuries should never be forgotten. As in any picture involving fallen men, there will always be shadows but the blazing truth in this episode is that thanks to the priests of the Catholic Church who left behind the relative comfort of Europe in order to live and toil amid the peoples of the New World, racial integration through marriage rather than segregation came to be the norm. A new race of people – the mestizos – came into existence born of the marriages between European Catholics and the native Americans. Under the teaching and vigilance of so many priests, the Spanish, French and Portuguese  colonists recognized the equal dignity of the natives; they inter-married, brought their offspring to the Church to be baptized and saw the Church crown and seal the dignity of the new race by raising some of their descendants to the highest rank in Catholicism: canonized saints as occurred with the mulatto St. Martin de Porres whom all Catholics – blacks, mulattos and whites – would revere as heroes and pray to for intercession.

This achievement stands out by contrast with the history of relations between the native Americans and colonists in the parts of North America where the Church, in a socio-political context often hostile to Catholicism, was hindered in her efforts to evangelize and promote integration. The partial exceptions were  the Spanish territories in the United States such as California wherever the colonists obeyed the Church. The prominent historian,  Herbert Eugene Bolton, a Protestant, speaking of the missions of the Spanish Franciscans and Jesuits called them “a force which made for the preservation of the Indians, as opposed to their destruction, so characteristic of the Anglo-American frontier.”[1]

Another leading historian, John Tracey Ellis, commenting on this difference, stated:

There was an element of compassion for the red man as a child of God in the ideology of the Spanish missionaries that was entirely lacking in the attitude of most of the English settlers along the Atlantic Coast. It was the conviction that he had a soul worth saving that inspired their extraordinary sacrifices in his behalf. That, and that alone, will explain the dogged persistence with which the missionaries pushed on in the face of repeated setbacks and tragedies such as the murder of Fray Juan de Padilla, their protomartyr, on the plains of Kansas in 1542. How otherwise can one account for the fact that so many highly gifted priests like the Tyrolese Jesuit, Eusebio Kino, and Junipero Serra, the Franciscan from Majorca, both university-trained men, should abandon their cultivated surroundings to dedicated their lives to the moral and material uplift of these savage people?[2]

 In Catholic French Canada integration was even more noticeable, led as it was by such outstanding pioneers as the convert to Catholicism, Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), who set an example by adopting three little Montagnais Indian girls as his daughters.

The Protestant historian, Francis Parkman,  writing in 1867 about the work of  priests in North America gave this magnificent tribute: ‘Their weapons of conquest were wholly peaceful, benign and beneficial. France never dreamed of destroying the peoples whom she sought to conquer; her missionaries desired only to convert them, to civilize them, to embrace them as their children.’ [3]

Even within the socio-political limitations imposed by anti-Catholicism in North America, priests made formidable contributions for the well-being of native Americans. Speaking about the pioneering priests of California, John Tracey Ellis stated:

It was the missionaries who taught the Indians the rudiments of learning within the mission compound, instructed the women how to cook, sew, spin, and weave, and the men how to plant the crops, to fell the forests and to build, to tan leather, run the forge, dig ditches, shear the sheep, and to tend the cattle. It was they who introduced to these distant frontiers almost every domestic plant and animal then known in Europe, and it was they who taught the savages how to make the best possible use of husbandry for profit and enjoyment.[4]

One of the most honorable names in the chequered history of white mens  relations with Indians in the “Wild West” is the “Black Robe” Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, known as the Apostle of the Rockies, who between 1830 and 1850 travelled thousands of miles often navigating dangerous rivers to fulfill his mission. In 1868 the “Friend of Sitting Bull” prevented a war: alone except  for a small escort of friendly Sioux and his interpreter, this gallant priest rode into the camp of Sitting Bull and his 5,000 Indians  who were ready to march against the white men and by force of his prestige persuaded them to bury their hatchets. “No white man,” wrote a historian, “has ever come close to equaling his universal appeal to the Indian.”

He was not the only priest who prevented bloodshed in the relations between white men and Indians.

Father Antonio Ravalli (1811-1884), after whom Ravalli County, Montana is named, was largely responsible in persuading the northern tribes of Idaho to remain peaceful during the Yakima Indian war of 1855-1856. He is remembered as a priest who in his proposal of the Catholic Faith to the native peoples also cared for their sick, and through his personal integrity as well as his accomplishments in medicine, architecture and sculpture merited respect from the Protestant political establishment.

Governor Stevens in 1855 after visiting the artistic church  built among the Coeur d’Alenes (Skitswish) of Northern Idaho with its altar and beautiful statues carved by the priest himself, stated in his official report: “The church was designed by the superior of the mission, Father Ravalli, a man of skill as an architect and, undoubtedly, judging from his well-thumbed books, of various accomplishments”. The Protestant historian Chittenden said of Father Ravalli: “Fifty years a Jesuit and forty years a missionary, one of the noblest men that ever laboured in the ranks of the Church in Montana, his fame stands very high in Montana…”.

Among all these larger-than-life priests the one best known for his intellectual defence of  the rights of native Americans is Father Bartolomé de las Casas (c.1484 – 1566) who raised his voice in such an outrage against the abusers of the native Americans that it resonates through the centuries; he fought vigorously for fifty years to end all violence against them by  campaigning  for the end of the  Spanish encomienda system, a prime occasion for mistreatment.

When he finally achieved this through the laws of 1542, some of the colonists rioted and even threatened Las Casas with death. The resistance continued and in 1550 the priest debated with Juan Gines de Sepulveda  who argued that native Americans were inferior and should be subdued by force.

Father de las Casas eventually became the first Bishop of Chiapas and received from the Emperor Charles V the title of “Universal Protector of the Indians”. One of his writings was entitled “The Only Method of Attracting All People to the True Faith” in which he vigorously supported the official Catholic teaching that conversion to the Church can only occur by free consent. He backed up his teaching with action by peacefully winning over  the warlike tribes of Tuzulutlan (now known as Verapaz  [True Peace] in Guatemala.

“One of the Most Altruistic Ventures in Human History”

The hauntingly-beautiful episode of the new society created by the priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus among the Guaraní  Indians has merited words of high homage even from among the Church’s strongest critics such as Rousseau who penned the words of the title.

In the 17th century the missionaries who wanted to propose the Faith to  the Guaraní of Paraguay realized that it was necessary to defend  them from the oppression and bad example of the European colonists. So between the early 1600s and 1768 they set up  a network of settlements which became one of the most remarkable small “civilizations” in history.

The priests taught the Guaranís  everything from farming, ranching and building to metallurgy and printing; the settlements became a largely self-contained society  with carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, bellfounders, masons, tilemakers and gilders, weavers, tailors, shoemakers and even organ-builders. Each village had a church choir and orchestra and the standards were on a par with those in Europe. Health-care was effectively organized with each village having four to eight dedicated nurses who were well-trained in the use of medicines.

Cattle-raising thrived  with some ranches  having as many as 30,000 sheep and more than 100,000 head of cattle. Economically all the land and buildings belonged to the community so in a way there was a sort of “communism” but as Gelpi y Ferro wrote: “The Jesuits realized in their  Christian commonwealth all that is good and nothing that is bad in the plans of modern Socialists and Communists.”

When the slave-traders and other enemies of the Church eventually succeeded in gaining royal support for the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 the priests and brothers had  created 57 settlements with 113,716 natives.

[1] HERBERT EUGENE BOLTON, “The Mission as a Frontier Institution in the Spanish American Colonies,” American Historical Review, XXIII (October 1917), p.61.

[2] JOHN TRACEY ELLIS, American Catholicism, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1956. Second Edition, revised, 1969, p.5-6. My note: Ellis’ use of the term “savages” is merely technical: it was the customary term used when referring to peoples anywhere who did not have a “civiltas” (civilization) which is characterized by an urbanized lifestyle.

[3] F.PARKMAN, The Jesuits in North America, Boston, 1867.

[4] JOHN TRACEY ELLIS, American Catholicism, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1956. Second Edition, revised, 1969, p.7-8.