The First Prophets In La Tin America

Before I discuss the various periods of Chur:ch history in Latin America. I should like to mention sever\al important figures in our early Church history. We too had our prophets, and the first great figure in that ttadition was the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos. On the third Sunday of Advent in 1511 he cited the prophetic texts of Isaiah and John the Baptist to launch an attack on the way the native Indians were being treated by the Spaniards in the encomiendas. The Spaniards' behavior was a mortal sin, he said, and he would not give them absolution henceforth.

Montesinos thereby proclaimed that there was a real difference between Christianity and hispanic culture. He interpreted present history and gave itmeaning in the light of the biblical texts. Prophetic re-reading of the Gospelled him to prophetic action. He realized that he, as a man of the Church, was not simply a tool of Spanish culture; he was something more. He took this position, and it would be defended and upheld by Pedro de Córdoba and the brothers of the monastery of Hispaniola. I t would also be the banner carried by another great figure: Bartolomé de Las Casas.

We do not really know when Bartolomé de Las Casas was ordained a priest. He had come to the New World in 1502 with his father and was later ordained. At first he was just another priest who had Indians working for him. His real conversion began in 1514 ,after he had heard something of the preaching of Montesinos and read the biblical denunciation of injustice. Thanks to the charism of prophecy, he was able to see that his style of life entailed a contradiction. So he began a mission that would last until his death in 1566.

First he went to talk with Montesinos, then he headed for Spain. He made contact with Jiménez de Cisneros, and ultimately the latter was persuaded to designate him as the "Universal Protector of the Indians of the Indies."l Thus a clear distinction was finally made between Spanish culture and the missionary role of the Church, even though it would usually not be observed in practice or accept~d by most people. Actually fewmissionaries took cogniza~e of the difference between being Spanish and being a Christian, although some did complain about the anti-evangelical impact of the forced amalgam. One bishop, for example, reported the raids of Spanishconquistadores into Indian sett1ements. He described to the king how they robbed the Indians and killed their women and children in New Spain and New Granada. This, he said, caused the lndians to flee to the mountains and to identify Christianity with Spanish cruelty .

But for the most part the Church itself identified its life with that of Spanish civilization and its culture. This is the attitude which pervaded the colonial period and dramatically marked its life. When we talk about the separation of Church and State today, we can hear the echoes of our past history in the debate that rages. In my opinion we will be much better off when we finally manage to make a clear distinction between Spanish culture and Christianity-as Bartolomé de Las Casas did several centuries ago.

Las Casas prophetically espoused a new task: nonviolent evangelization. He wanted the Indians to be converted by the force of the Gospel message, not by force of arms. This is the course he proposed for the evangelization of Cumaná, in present-day northeast Venezuela. His project failed betause the situation was already bad there. Certain Spaniards had been exploiting and killing the Indians before he arrived. Subsequently, however, Bishop Francisco Marroquín of Guatemala invited him to evangelize the Indians in his territory. Las Casas succeeded in converting the Indians with his peaceful approach, and his experience helped to lead up to the promulgation of the New Laws in 1542.

The point to be noted here is that Spanish "messianism" identified Christianity with Spanish culture. When the Church accepted this identification, it encotintered great difficulties in carrying out its redemptive wotk. When the Church managed to separate itself and its\ work from Spanish culture, on the other hand, the Gospel message made great headway among the Indians. The Reductions are a case in point. The first to entertain the notion of Reductions was Vasco de Quiroga, who eventually became the bishop of the Tarascan Indians in Michoacán, Mexico. Vasco de Quiroga was a layman for most of his life. An official of the Mexican audiencia , he settled down among the

Indians after he had reached the age of sixty. He was a humanist who had been greatly impressed by his reading of Thomas More's works, of his Utopia in particular. He therefore decided to set up Christian societies outside thesphere of direct Spanish contact. He was a great civilizer and missionary, who was ultimately designated as a bishop by the king.

Vasco de Quiroga regarded himself as bishop to the Indians, not to the Spaniards. He never managed to get a cathedral built because he spent his whole time with the Indians. Under his direction, over 150 Indian villages were set up for the Tarascans. They were admirably organized, and thus the first contactof these Indians with Spanish influence was a relatively h.appy one. This was the start of the diocese of Michoacan.

There were many other men of the caliber of Vasco de Quiroga, and we shall mention some of them as we proceed. Right now, however, I want to briefly discuss the various stages of Church history in Latin America.

THE FIRST STEPS (1492-1519)

I think it is most interesting and worthwhile to explore the distinct features and stages of our Church history, and I have done that to some extent in my book cited earlier.2 But it is also worthwhile for us to consider the overall course of that history briefly here.

Church history began in Latin America with the arriival of the first evangelizers, and that took place in the Caribbean region. Hence it occurred among very primitive Indians. We must realize that it is im possible to teach history without adverting to social typology to some extent. One must know what kind of Indians wereinvolved and whether they were really in a position to accept Christianity .

The Caribbean Indians encountered by Columbus and his crew were among the most primitive in Amerindia.

They included such groups as the Caribs, the Arawaks, and the Tupis, who had descended through Florida and spread out over the Caribbean. Some had gone farther, occupying the northern and central parts of Brazil. U sing small canoes and ingenious navigation instruments, they moved about from island to island. Their standard of living was extremely low. They were vegetarians. Since it was difficult to feed young children, mothers nursed their young until the .. age of five or six years. As a result, there was a low birth rate. When the Spaniards arrived, these fragile people were stricken with the diseases imported from Europe: tuberculosis, syphilis, and so forth. The Indians were quickly decimated and the Spaniards did not meet with much physical resistance.

A great problem was the great diversity of languages and the absence of any political organization. ~here were no republics or kingdoms or empires in this immediate area, just a conglomeration of tribes or clans. The task of evangelizing was thus rendered impossible, and the first impression held of the Indians was a very negative one. The lndians either died or were forced into the encomiendas.lf that had been a1l there was to America, then Spain would have done nothing and America would not have been born. The unfortunate thing, however, is that mistakes were made during this first period. The Indians died from diseases and ill treatment. This whole side of the picture is reflected by Bartolomé de Las Casas in the Desfruction of the Indies, where he describes the disappearance of Indian culture in the face of Spanish incursion.

The Spanish could not evangelize this culture because its extremely low level did not allow for dialogue. We are dealing with a completely negative period, which lasted until around 1517-1519. It was then that Diego Velázquez, the governor of Cuba, conceived the idea of organizing the conquest of the region that had recently been discovered.


Up to 1519 no great culture had been encountered in the course of Spanish exploration and conquest. This first epoch, however, was a decisive one and deserves to be studied very closely. For it was during this earliest period that the first form of many institutions took shape: the encomiendas, the cabildos, and the first outlines of the audiencias. The Church began to resign itself to the defects of the conquest, but it also began to voice its first prophetic denunciations.

A new and different epoch began in 1519. A lieutenant of Velázquez rose up in revolt. Daring as he was, the lieutenant then launched the conquest of the Yucatan. Thus Hernando Cortez happened upon the existence of an empire, and word began to spread about a mature and important civilization that was fabulously wealthy.

This would change the whole course of evangelization, because the newly discovered peoples had a solid culture of a much higher sort. The Spaniards were able to conquer much more in a short period of time, taking advantage of the structures which these peoples already possessed. The Spaniards conquered Mexico and set themselves up in the capital. Evangelization en masse began with the arrivalof the so-called "Twelve Apostles" in 1524. They were the extraordinary Franciscans who set out through Mexican territory to convert the people to Christianity.

Today we can appreciate the caliber of those missionaries. They came from sixteenth-century Spain, the Spain in which John of the Cross and Saint Teresa flourished, the Spain which was flooded with noble ideals of holiness and gentlemanly knighthood. One of these missionaries was Motolinía (Toribio de Benavente). Barefoot, he traversed all of Mexico. The Indians called him "the poor one" because he was even poorer than they. He learned the Aztec language quickly and preached fluently in that language. Indeed all those early missionaries learned the native idiom so well that other Spaniards complained about the fact that the Indians were not learning Spanish. They felt that the policy of the Church was hindering the spread of Spanish.

For some time it was the Church that held up the spread of Spanish culture and language in America. And it did so for the sake of its missionary endeavors. But millions of people were now involved, and some sort of political organization was necessary. It must be remembered, however, that only Castile was involved in the thrust towards America. Aragon was deeply enmeshed in European politics. Up until 1519 America was insignificant and did not produce a red cent.

The age ofsplendor began in 1519, and it was then that the first great ecclesiastics arrived on the scene. In 1528 Juan de Zumarraga arrived and salvaged Mexico from the disastrous first audiencia. Bishop J ulian Garces, a Dominican, arrived in the area ofTlaxcala. Vasco de Quiroga carne to Michoacan and Marroquin to Guatemala. Many other fine bishops arrived on the scene, along with secular priests and thousands of missionary Dominicans, Franciscans, and Mercedarians. Much later the Jesuits would come also. Gradually the Church began to organize here. Florida was made a bishopric in 1520, Mexico City in 1530. Other bishoprics were gradually established, cente..ed around Santo Domingo. This was the focal point in the first period, but gradually Mexico City gained preeminenct,

Subsequently Pizarro discovered Peru. He was greatly supported by Garcia Diaz Arias, who would become the first bishop of Quito. It was Arias who contributed much of the money for Pizarro's enterprise, encouraged him in spirit, and gave purpose to the undertaking. Once the Spanish had conquered those two great American empires, the situation was greatly changed. Now America had a solidity of its own. Then the region of the Chibchas was discovered as the two exploring parties, one coming from the north and the other from the south, met somewhere in between. New Granada carne into being with the help of Sebastián de Benalcázar and his companions. Other bishoprics sprang u p also: Santa F e de Bogotá, Santa María, and Coro; Panamá in Central America. In shortorder there were twenty-five dioceses with the organizational structure required for their maintenance.


A new stage began in 1551. The first great attempt at evangelizing America had come to a close, although the primitive areas of Brazil and Argentina had not yet been touched. The Spanish element certainly did not disregard the Amerindian element. Instead it planted its root in what was already in existence. And there was good reason for going by way of the Pacific coast. It would have been much easier to move up along the southern Adantic coast towards the Río de la Plata on southeast South America. But the Indians in that whole region were a wretched lot with an impoverished prehistory. The region with a great prehistory was centered on the Pacific coast, and it is there that the Church was set upin all its splendor .

The colonial Church had two great centers. One was Mexico City, the capital of the Aztec empire. The other was Lima, situated in the heart of the Inca empire. It is there that the Church established its great universities arid its printing presses; from there its influence and life spread throughout the newly discovered region. In other words, the two most important archepiscopal sees were established on the sites of the two great American empires. The foundations of the Church in America were not artificial creations.

The interesting thing, of course, is that the areas on the

Atlantic coast would eventually prove to be the most prosperous ones. While Pizarro conquered the flourishing Inca empire at one fell swoop, the southern pampas would be conquered only slowly during the course of the nineteenth century. Yet the latter region is a richer one today.

Thoroughgoing organization of the newly established American Church began in 1551. The first provincial Council of Lima took place in that year. It was under the directorship of Jerónimo de Loaisa, who served as bishop and then archbishop for several decades. His function was a major one, and he received and dealt with many viceroys. Loaisa, in fact, is the great figure in Peru during this period. He is much more significant than Diego de Almagro and Pizarro, for example. After him willcome Toribio de Mo-grovejo, a truly imposing figure, who was the leading spirit in Peru from 1580 to 1606 even though the viceroy of the time, Francisco de Toledo, was also an outstanding man.

As I mentioned, the first provincial Council of Lima was held in 1551. These provincial councils are important in our history and deserve close study. The first meeting of this kind, as far as I can tell from my study in various archives, was the Synod of Guatemala in 1536. As far as I can reconstruct this matter, there were about seventy-two diocesan synods between 1536 and 1636. They were truly autochthonous in nature. They dealt almost exclusively with the evangelization of the Indians, with the languages involved, and with the needs and demands imposed on priests and catechists. In other words, it was in no way an ..imported" Church. It was a Church making great efforts to face up to the real situation. The complexity of that situation surpassed its capabilities, but the Church worked harder and more earnestly then to face the situation than it ever has since-in my opinion.

The sixteenth century was a golden age, and the year 1551 was a momentous date for the Church. Loaisa set forth eighteen ordinancesfor his missionaries. In very con crete terms these ordinances spelled out how they were to carry out their mission and what behavior was incumbent on one who sought to be an authentic missionary. Such was the realistic outlook of the bishops in this period as one council or synod succeeded another. There were two councils in Mexico and a second in Peru. Then carne the third Council of Lima, which is now considered the great Church council of the colonial epoch. I t was convened by Toribio de Mogrovejo, and we must consider him and his accomplish-nents.

Toribio was a young layman presiding over the Inquisi-ion of Granada, and he had a deep acquaintance with the recently converted Moslems. He had been well educated at salamanca, and he even entertained ideas about being a professor there. He had just been tonsured when Philip proposed that he succeed Loaisa in Lima. At the age of forty-two Toribio accepted the proposal, left his native country behind, and set out for the wilds of Peru. As soon as le arrived in Lima, he made contact with the Indians and began regular rounds of visitation that would carry him troughout the region. His trips would last five years; they say he covered 40,000 miles on foot, visiting many places where no Spaniard had been before. Besides these regular visitations, he convened twelve diocesan synods and three provincial Church councils. Toribio is one ofthe great holy nen of America, a bishop who embodied the true mis-:ionary ideal. The Indians loved him like a father, regard-ng him almost like a divine Inca because of his total com-nitment and his absolute poverty. He hardly ever lived in lis episcopal palace because of his long visitations, and he lad nothing of his own to leave behind when he died.3

In my opinion, this period of Church history ends either with the death of Toribio de Mogrovejo in 1606 or else in l620, because it is at about that time that the last large lioceses are set up-Durango in the north and Buenos \ires in the south. Missionary work will continue to some extent, a few lesser dioceses will come into being later, but by 1620 the ecclesiastical organization of America was practically complete.

This was the third period in Latin American Church history as I see it. Missionary work had converted the vast mass of Indians who had been brought into contact with the Spanish, and various diocesan synods and regional councils had been held. But you may ask: To what extent had the Indians really been evangelized? There is no reason to minimize or make fun of this evangelization en masse. It is true that in many areas it was quite superficial, that it was not authentic evangelization at all. But as Robert Ricard points out in his book The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico (Eng. trans., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), the areas that were well evangelized in the sixteenth century are those which have remained Christian, at least in name, right up to today-even though it is what we would call a folk Catholicism. The regions that were poorly evangelized, on the other hand, are the very regions that have been impregnated with paganism and other influences alien to Christianity. So one might well say that the early missionary work was not as superficial as it might seem, and that it had enormous effectiveness. In any case this era came to an end somewhere in the first part of the seventeenth century. One might date its close in 1620; or in 1623, with the death of Philip III; or in 1625, with the celebration of the first Council of Santa Fe de Bogotá; or in 1629, with the celebration of the first Council of La Plata de los Charcas, which was corívened by Bishop Hernando Arias de Ugarte.

This bishop deserves a word too. He was an extraordinary man, who had been a member of the audiencia of Panamá. He served successively as Bishop of Quito, Archbishop of Santa Fe de Bogotá, Archbishop of La Plata de los Charcas, and Archbishop of Lima. He was of the same temper as Toribiode Mogrovejo. He travelled through the countryside of his people on the back of a mule, and convened two great councils to confront the pastoral problems imposed by the poverty and hatd life of his flock.

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