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The First Evangelization of the American Continent

3rd Advent Sermon
by | Source:

Friday December 16th, 2011


The Christian faith crosses the ocean

Four days ago the American continent celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which in Mexico is also a holy day of obligation. This is a happy coincidence, when our subject in this meditation is the third great wave of evangelization that followed the discovery of the New World. Never more than in the history of this devotion did Mary deserve the title of “Star of Evangelization.”

I will briefly summarize the main headings of the growth of this missionary enterprise. Let me begin with an observation. Along with the faith, Christian Europe also exported its own divisions. By the end of the great missionary wave, the American continent would exactly reproduce the situation that existed in Europe: a Catholic majority in the south, and a corresponding Protestant majority in the north. We will only deal here with the evangelization of Latin America, which happened first, immediately after the discovery of the New World.

After Christopher Columbus, in 1492, returned from his journey with the news of the existence of the new territories (at that time still thought to be part of India), Catholic Spain took two decisions that were inseparably linked: to bring the Christian faith to the new peoples, and to extend to them their own political sovereignty. For this purpose, they obtained from Pope Alexander VI a decision by which Spain was given the right to all lands discovered one hundred miles beyond the Azores, and Portugal to those on this side of the line. The line was later moved in favour of Portugal, in order to legitimize its possession of Brazil. Thus were drawn the outlines of the future face of the Latin American continent, including its languages.

Each time they entered a country, the troops would issue a proclamation (requerimiento), ordering the inhabitants to embrace Christianity and recognise the sovereignty of the King of Spain.[1] Only a few great spirits, notably the Dominicans Antonio de Montesino and Bartolomeo de Las Casas, had the courage to raise their voices against the abuses of the conquerors in defence of the rights of the natives. In little over fifty years, also on account of the weakness of the local kingdoms, the continent was under Spanish dominion and, at least nominally, Christian.

Recent historians have tended to dilute the somber tones in which this missionary enterprise was painted in the past. First they point out that in Latin America, unlike what was to happen with the “Indian” tribes of North America, most of the native populations, though they were decimated, survived with their own language and territory and were subsequently able to reclaim and recover their identity and independence. One must also take into account that the missionaries were conditioned by their theological formation. Taking the adage “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” literally and rigidly, they were convinced of the need to baptize as many people as possible, and in the shortest time possible, in order to ensure their eternal salvation.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on this axiom, which has had so much weight in evangelization. It was formulated in the 3rd century by Origen, and above all by St. Cyprian. To begin with, it was not about the salvation of non-Christians, but on the contrary, about that of Christians. In fact it was aimed directly and exclusively at the heretics and schismatics of the time, to remind them that by breaking ecclesial communion they were guilty of a grave sin by which they were excluding themselves from salvation. It was therefore directed against those who were leaving the Church, not against those who were coming in.

It was only later, when Christianity had become the state religion, that the axiom began to be applied to pagans and Jews, based on the then common, even if objectively erroneous, conviction that the message was by now known to everyone and that therefore to refute it meant that one was culpable and deserving of condemnation.

It was precisely following the discovery of the New World that those geographical boundaries were drastically broken. The discovery of entire peoples who had lived outside of any contact with the Church forced a review of such a rigid interpretation of the axiom. The Dominican theologians of Salamanca, and later a few Jesuits, began to adopt a critical position, recognizing that it was possible to be outside the Church, without being necessarily culpable and therefore excluded from salvation. Not only that, but in the face of the manner and the methods whereby the gospel had sometimes been announced to the native people, someone for the first time raised the question of whether those who, while knowing the Christian message, had not adhered to it, could really be considered culpable.[2]

2. The friars as protagonists

This is certainly not the place to make a historical judgement on the first evangelization of Latin America. On the occasion of its fifth centenary, in May 1992, an international symposium of historians specializing in the subject was held here in Rome. In his speech to the participants, Pope John Paul II stated: “Of course, in that evangelization, as in any human undertaking, there were mistakes as well as successes, ‘lights and shadows,’ but more lights than shadows, to judge from the fruits that we find there five hundred years later: a Church that is alive and dynamic which today represents a considerable portion of the universal Church.”[3]

From the opposite side, on that occasion, some spoke of the need for a “de-colonization” and a “de-evangelization,” giving the impression that they would have preferred it if the evangelization of the continent had not happened at all, instead of happening as we know it did. With all the respect due to the love for the peoples of Latin America which moved these authors, I believe that such an opinion must be vigorously refuted.

To a world without sin but without Jesus Christ, theology has shown that it prefers a world of sin, but with Jesus Christ. “O happy fault,” exclaims the paschal liturgy in the Exsultet, “which gained for us so great a Redeemer.” Shouldn’t we say the same about the evangelization of both Americas, South and North? Which is preferable: a continent without “the mistakes and shadows” that accompanied the preaching of the Gospel, but also a continent without Christ, or a continent with those shadows, but with Christ? Surely anyone would prefer the latter? Could any Christian, of the left or of the right (especially a priest or religious) say the opposite without by that very fact betraying his own faith?

I read somewhere this statement, which I fully agree with: “The greatest thing that happened in 1492 was not that Christopher Columbus discovered America, but that America discovered Jesus Christ.” True, it was not the whole Christ of the Gospel, for which freedom is the very pre-requisite of faith, but who can claim to be the bearers of a Christ free of all historical conditioning? Aren’t those who propose a revolutionary Christ, who challenges structures and is directly involved in the political struggle, perhaps also forgetting something about Christ, for example, his statement that “my kingdom is not of this world”?

If in the first wave of evangelization the protagonists were the bishops, and in the second the monks, the undoubted protagonists in this third wave were the friars, i.e. religious from the mendicant Orders, in first place the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians, and at a later stage the Jesuits. Church historians recognise that in Latin America “it was the members of the religious Orders who determined the history of the missions and churches”[4]

John Paul II’s judgement that “there were more lights than shadows” can well be applied to them. It would be dishonest to underestimate the personal sacrifice and heroism of so many of these missionaries. The conquistadores were moved by a spirit of adventure and a thirst for profit, but what could they expect for leaving their homelands and their friaries? They were not going there to take, but to give; they wanted to win souls for Christ, not subjects for the king of Spain, even if they shared the patriotic enthusiasm of their fellow countrymen. When you read the stories of the evangelization of a particular territory, you realize how unjust and far from the truth are generalised judgements. I once had occasion to read, on the very spot, the chronicle of the beginnings of the Guatemala mission and in the neighboring regions — stories of sacrifices and mishaps that can scarcely be recounted. Of a batch of 20 Dominicans who left for the New World, bound for the Philippines, 18 died on the way.

In 1974 a Synod was held on “Evangelization in the contemporary world”. In a hand-written note added to the final document (which the Prefecture of the Papal Household had published together with the programme for these sermons), Paul VI wrote:

“Is what is said [in the document] enough for religious? Shouldn’t we add a word about the voluntary, enterprising, generous character of the evangelization done by religious men and women? Their evangelization must depend on that of the hierarchy and be co-ordinated with it, but the originality, the genius, the devotion, often in the front line and entirely at great risk to themselves, is surely praiseworthy.”

This recognition fully applies to the religious who were the protagonists of the evangelization of Latin America, especially if we think of some of the things they achieved, such as the famous “reductions” of the Jesuits in Paraguay, villages where the Christian Indians, protected from the injustices of the civil authorities, could be instructed in the faith, but could also invest their human talents.

3. Current problems

Now, as usual, we will try to move on and look at what this briefly reconstructed history of the Church’s missionary experience has to say to us today. The social and religious conditions of the continent have changed so profoundly that, instead of insisting on what we should learn or unlearn from those times, it is useful to reflect on the current task of evangelization in the Latin American continent.

On this subject there has been, and still is, such a vast amount of reflection and documentation, produced by the pontifical magisterium, by CELAM and the individual local Churches, that it would be presumptuous of me even to think I could add anything new. But I can share a few thoughts from my own experience in the field, having had occasion to preach retreats to episcopal conferences, clergy and people in nearly all the countries of Latin America, in some cases several times. Also, the problems that arise in this field in Latin America are not so very different from those in the rest of the Church.

One reflection concerns the need to overcome an excessive polarization, which is present everywhere in the Church, but is particularly acute in Latin America, especially in recent years: the polarization between the active and the contemplative souls, between the Church of social commitment to the poor, and the Church that proclaims the faith. When we are faced with differences, we are instinctively tempted to come down on one side or the other, exalting the one and despising the other. The doctrine of charisms should save us from getting into that battle. The gift of the Catholic Church is to be precisely that — Catholic, in other words, open to welcome the most diverse gifts given by the Holy Spirit.

This is shown by the history of religious Orders, which have accommodated very different and at times opposing demands: involvement with the world and flight from the world, apostolate among the learned, like the Jesuits, and apostolate among the people, like the Capuchins. There is room for both. Besides, we need each other; no-one can embody the entire gospel and represent Christ in every aspect of His life. Everyone ought therefore to rejoice that others are doing what he or she could not do: that some cultivate the spiritual life and proclaim the word, and that others devote themselves to justice and social development, and vice versa. The Apostle’s warning is always valid: “It is not for you to condemn anyone else!” (cf. Rom 14:13).

Another observation concerns the problem of Catholics leaving the Church for other Christian denominations. First we should remember that these different denominations cannot all be called “sects” without distinction. With some of them, including Pentecostals, the Catholic Church has maintained an official ecumenical dialogue for years, which it would not do if it simply considered them to be sects.

The promotion of this dialogue, even at the local level, is the best way to improve the climate, to isolate the more aggressive sects and discourage the practice of proselytism. A few years ago an ecumenical prayer meeting and Scripture sharing took place in Buenos Aires, attended by the Catholic archbishop and leaders of other churches, with seven thousand people present. One clearly saw the possibility of a new relationship among Christians, far more constructive for faith and evangelization.

In one of his documents, John Paul II said that the proliferation of sects forced us to ask why, to ask what is lacking in our pastoral methods. My own conviction, based on experience — and not only in Latin American countries — is as follows. What is attractive outside the Church are not certain alternative forms of popular piety, which the majority of other churches and sects reject and fight against. It is a proclamation, partial perhaps, but powerful, of the grace of God, the possibility of experiencing Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Saviour, belonging to a group of people who personally take care of your needs, who pray over you when medicine has nothing more to say.

If on the one hand we can rejoice that these people have found Christ and have been converted, it is sad that in order to do so they felt they had to leave their Church. In the majority of churches where these brothers and sisters end up, everything revolves around first conversion and the acceptance of Jesus as Lord. In the Catholic Church, thanks to the sacraments, the magisterium, and the wealth of spirituality, there is the advantage of not stopping at that initial stage, but one can reach the fullness and perfection of the Christian life. The saints are proof of this. But it is necessary to take that conscious and personal initial step, and this is precisely where we are challenged and stimulated by the evangelical and Pentecostal communities.

In this respect, the Charismatic Renewal has proved to be, in the words of Paul VI, “a chance for the Church.” In Latin America, the pastors of the Church are realising that the Charismatic Renewal is not (as some believed at the beginning) “part of the problem” of the exodus of Catholics from the Church, but is rather part of the solution to the problem. Statistics will never show how many people have remained faithful to the Church because of it, because they found within its ranks what others were looking for elsewhere. The numerous communities that have sprung up from within the Charismatic Movement, albeit with the limitations and at times the drifting that one finds in any human venture, are at the front line of service to the Church and of evangelization.

4. The role of religious in the new evangelization

As I said, I don’t want to talk only about first evangelization. But there is one lesson we need to learn from it: the importance of the traditional religious Orders for evangelization. To them Blessed John Paul II devoted his Apostolic Letter on the occasion of the fifth centenary of the first evangelization of the continent, entitled, in the original, “Los caminos del Evangelio”. The final part of the letter deals precisely with “religious in the new evangelization”: “Religious,” he writes, “who were the first evangelisers and contributed so considerably to keeping the faith alive in the continent – cannot fail to keep this appointment with the Church for the new evangelization. The diversity of charisms in the consecrated life make the message of Christ come alive, making it present and relevant in every time and place.”[5]

Community life, a centralized government and formation houses of high quality were the factors that gave the religious Orders at the time such a vast missionary outreach. But what has happened to their strength today? Speaking from the inside of one of these ancient Orders, I can venture to speak with a certain freedom. The rapid decline in vocations in western countries is causing a dangerous situation: nearly all their resources are being spent on meeting the internal needs of their own religious family (formation of the young, the maintenance of structures and works), with few active forces available for service in the wider Church. The result is that they tend to turn in on themselves. In Europe the traditional religious Orders are forced to merge several provinces and face the pain of having to close one house after another.

Secularization is, of course, one of the causes of the decline in vocations, but not the only one. There are religious communities of recent foundation that attract scores of young people. In the letter quoted earlier, John Paul II encouraged the men and women religious of Latin America to “evangelize by starting from a profound experience of God.” And that, I believe, is the point: “a profound experience of God.” This is what attracts vocations and lays the foundations for a new and effective wave of evangelization. The adage “nemo dat quod non habet,” you can only give what you have, has never been truer than in this field.

The Capuchin provincial superior of the Marches, who is also my superior, has written an Advent letter this year to his brothers. In it he makes a challenge which I believe all traditional religious communities would do well to heed:

“As you read these lines, imagine you are the Holy Spirit. Yes, you heard right: imagine not just that you are ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ thanks to the sacraments you have received, but that ‘you are’ the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, and in that guise, imagine that you have the power to call a young person to embark on a way that will help him to grow toward the perfection of charity — I mean of course, the religious life. Would you be brave enough to send him to your fraternity, in the sure certainty that your fraternity would be the place that would seriously help him attain the fullness of charity in the concrete reality of everyday life? Poorly expressed, what I mean is: if a young man were to come and live for a few days or months in your fraternity, sharing in your prayer, your fraternal life, your apostolates …would he fall in love with our way of life?”

When the mendicant Orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, were born at the beginning of the 13thcentury, even the existing monastic Orders benefited from them and made their own the call to greater poverty and a more evangelical life, while living according to their own charism. Should we not do the same today, we the traditional Orders, in the face of the new forms of consecrated life which have come to life in the Church?

The grace of these new realities takes many forms, but it has a common denominator called the Holy Spirit, the “new Pentecost.” After the Council nearly all the existing religious Orders revised and renewed their Constitutions, but already in 1981, Blessed John Paul II warned: “The whole work of renewal of the Church, so providentially set forth and initiated by the Second Vatican Council — a renewal that must be both an updating and a consolidation of what is eternal and constitutive of the Church’s mission — can be carried out only in the Holy Spirit, that is to say, with the aid of His light and His power.”[6]

“The Holy Spirit,” as St Bonaventure wrote, goes “to where He is loved, where He is invited, where He is awaited.”[7] We must open up our communities to the breath of the Spirit who renews prayer, fraternal life, and love for Christ, and together with this, renews missionary zeal. Of course we do need to look back, to our origins and our founders, but we must also look ahead.

Observing the situation of the ancient Orders in the western world, the question Ezekiel heard as he surveyed the heaps of dry bones spontaneously arises: “Can these bones live?” The dry bones spoken of in the text are not the bones of the dead, but of the living; they are the exiled people of Israel, who keep saying: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has gone, we are doomed!” Sometimes the same sentiments arise in those of us who belong to the ancient religious Orders.

We know the hope-filled reply that God gives to the question: “‘I will put my Spirit in you, and you will revive; and I will resettle you on your own soil. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done this,’ declares the Lord God.” We must believe and hope for the fulfilment of the last part of the prophecy, for us too, and for the whole Church: “The Spirit entered them: they came to life and stood up on their feet, a great, an immense army” (cf. Ez 37:1-14).

Four days ago, as I recalled at the beginning, Latin America celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There is much discussion about the historicity of the facts underlying the origins of this devotion. We need to understand what is meant by an historical fact. There are so many facts that are historical but not historic, because not everything that happened is “historic” in the truest sense, but only that which, in addition to having happened, has had an impact on the life of a people, has created something new, has left its mark on history. And what a mark has left the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the religious history of the Mexican and Latin American peoples!

It is of great symbolic significance that, at the dawn of the evangelization of the American continent, in 1531, on the hill of Tepeyac to the north of Mexico City, an image of the Virgin Mary was imprinted on the cloak, or tilma, of St. Juan Diego as “La Morenita,” in other words, with the features of a humble half-caste girl. There could have been no more expressive way of saying that the Church, in Latin America, is called to become — and wishes to become — indigenous with the indigenous, Creole with the Creoles, all things to all peoples.


[Translation by Charles Serignat]

[1] Cfr. J. Glazik, in Storia della Chiesa, ed. H. Jedin, vol. VI, Milano Jaca Book, 1075, p. 702.

[2] F. Sullivan, Salvation outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response, Paulist Press, New York 1992.

[3] John Paul II, Speech to the participants at the International Symposium on the evangelisation of Latin America, 14 May 1992.

[4] Cfr. Glazik, op. cit., p. 708.

[5] John Paul II, “Los caminos del Evangelio”, nr. 24 (AAS 83, 1991, pp. 22 ss.)

[6] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter “A Concilio Constantinopolitano I”(25 March 1981).

[7] St. Bonaventure, Sermon for the IV Sunday after Easter,2 (ed. Quaracchi, IX, p.311).

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