History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

Missionary Work in the New World

I. South America

Franciscans and secular priests began the work of evangelizing the Indians of Brazil, and this mission was at first productive of much fruit. But the ever-increasing cruelty and rapacity of the Portuguese were more than the missionaries could control. Then John III. of Portugal begged St. Ignatius to send Jesuits to their aid. This absorption by the Society of missions initiated by other Orders seems to have been very frequent, and may be partly accounted for as follows: The earliest missionaries came from religious Orders formed of independent provinces whose supply of subjects was necessarily limited, whereas the Society was a great organization with central government, whose resources were developing at a marvellous rate. The Jesuits, moreover, from the first, won for themselves very considerable renown by their learning and their virtue, and, we may add, their institute had that charm of novelty. which drew all eyes upon them, and thus it was that so many eager aspirants to sanctity sought to enter their ranks. The support of Catholic sovereigns, which they often enjoyed, is another cause, and the tremendous opposition which has ever accompanied their work must also, strange as it sounds, be reckoned as an element of their success.

The first Jesuits laboured among the Portuguese, striving to stem divisions, tending the sick, and founding colleges, but, at the same time, befriending the unfortunate natives to the best of their power. Father Azevedo, who had seen the pitiable condition of the Indians when in Brazil as visitor, implored to be allowed to return as a missionary. His wish was granted by St. Francis Borgia, then General, and seventy members of the Society volunteered to accompany him. They set out, but, on nearing the coast of Brazil, a Dutch fleet bore down upon them. The missionary flotilla broke up, and the ships were separately attacked. Every Jesuit of the band was put to death except the novice cook, whom the Dutch carried off to serve them. He afterwards escaped to tell the tale.

Undaunted by this wholesale martyrdom, another band of Jesuits set sail the following year, this time under the intrepid Anchieta, deservedly styled the Apostle of Brazil. He traversed the country on foot, everywhere preparing the harvest which later corners reaped. Carrying his altar and his slender stock of food and clothes on his back, he penetrated into trackless forests, forded streams, scaled mountains, pursuing the Indians—as they fled at the very sight of a white man—and winning them by his passionate tenderness and devotion.

Not only on the high seas did the Calvinists attack the missionaries, but on land they were their bitterest enemies—though it may be questioned whether their animosity did as much harm to the cause of the faith as the scandalous lives of the Portuguese and Spanish settlers.

In a very few years after its discovery, Peru was flooded by Spaniards. The noble Incas, whom it is impossible to regard as savages—were subjected to the most inhuman treatment. Some amelioration in their condition was procured by the vehement denunciation of Las Casas. One of the most successful of the missionaries was St. Francis Solano, a Franciscan, who began to preach on the east coast near La Plata, and who had a gift of tongues similar to that enjoyed by St. Francis Xavier. He spoke in one language, and was heard in many. He made thousands of converts, and at last reached Peru, where he preached to the people of Lima. He foretold the destruction of the city if the people did not repent of their misdeeds. A multitude of Incas, who shortly after entered the city, were converted to a man, and this example was not lost on the townsfolk. Faith was not dead in the souls of these unhappy men, and the whole town was stirred. The confessionals were besieged, and a real improvement was manifested, which St. Turibius, Bishop of Lima, strove to maintain. Jesuits were soon on the spot, and the Church of Peru became a very famous one. Colleges and schools were multiplied, and, for many years, in spite of varying systems of government—sometimes just, sometimes harsh—the faith continued to prosper. St. Rose of Lima and St. Juan Massias, both of the Order of St. Dominic, were the first-fruits of sanctity produced by Peru.

Paraguay. Nothing, however, equals the results obtained in Paraguay. In the annals of missionary labour no pages are so brilliant and so instructive.

Seeing that the cruelty of the Spaniards had impressed the natives most unfavourably, the Jesuits obtained from Philip III. the exclusive right of settling in Paraguay. The confidence of the Indians was gradually won, and, little by little, they were prepared for Christianity by the most judicious training. They were led to practise the arts of civilization, to till the ground, to build, to work in metals, and all the while the truths of faith were gently inculcated. Gradually a happy and prosperous people, numbering hundreds of thousands, were gathered in the Reductions—as the Christian settlements were called—where Jesuits were priests, fathers, and governors all at once. They had developed an ideal republic, where vice was almost unknown, where aptitude and virtue were the titles to elevation, where goods were held in common, where the military art was practised in such perfection that these former savages could repulse organized troops and return in triumph with almost undiminished numbers, where music and architecture developed as in their native soil, and where devotion to the bishop, the Pope, and to the faith were the leading characteristics of tie race. The records of these, the happy days of Paraguay, read like a fairy-tale, and no one who has not opened them can be aware of what the Church can effect among savages when her action is untrammeled. Not that the Jesuits had no difficulties from outside to contend with, but these they bore without letting their peaceful subjects feel the full brunt of the storm. It was too good to last. Attacks of hostile tribes, instigated by the Spaniards, were the first trial, accusations against the Jesuits by Spanish ecclesiastics and traders followed, the cession of Paraguay by the Spaniards to Portugal augmented the difficulty—but still the work in the Reductions went on. As the influence of the Jesuits spread, and larger numbers of tribes were incorporated, so also did the opposition intensify. But the final blow was struck by another hand.

II. Central America

Numbers of Spanish Franciscans and Dominicans first evangelized the southern shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The most famous of the missionaries was the Dominican, St. Lewis Bertrand. Before starting for the New World he had shown himself a zealous master of novices, an indefatigable preacher, and a prudent superior. But the stories of the Indians and of their sufferings touched his heart, and he begged his superiors to allow him to join his brethren in the Far West. The stories of the seven years he spent in and around New Granada are almost incredible—his ardour for penance, startling even in a Dominican, his incessant miracles, and the conversions that followed his preaching, counted by tens of thousands. The ferocity and unbounded licence of the Spaniards proved such a hindrance to his labours that he returned to Europe to lay formal complaint against them at the Spanish courts. He was not allowed to go back to his beloved Indians. It was among the negroes imported to this part of Central America that the Jesuit, St. Peter Claver, devoted himself about fifty years later.

III. North America

The work of converting the native peoples or North America stretched over a longer period than that of any other part of the continent—it was not finished till the close of the eighteenth century. Spaniards converted the southern territory, French the northern, and English a small section of the eastern shores.

The Spaniards first landed in Florida in 1512. The earliest missionaries in all these southern provinces, except in Mexico itself, where they were protected by the Spaniards, were killed almost as soon as they lamed. Repeated attempts were at last blessed by success, and Florida welcomed the faith. The Indians soon became thoroughly civilized and industrious. Then St. Augustine, the first Catholic city of the West, was founded (1565). Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, had been the missionaries.

With Cortes, conqueror of Mexico, came numerous ecclesiastics. A band of Franciscans, led by Martin of Valencia (1524), began the work of conversion. In spite of the terrible war waged against them by the Spaniards, the Aztecs embraced the faith with such eagerness that they numbered above a million in 1550. A constant stream of missionaries had poured into the country and had achieved this splendid result. Churches multiplied all over the land, and when Jesuits arrived a university was founded. So thorough had been the conquest of Mexico by Cortes that the country was spared the long agony that so many other parts of America underwent before the white man had obtained the mastery over the red, too often by exterminating him.

Between 1542 and 1544 New Mexico and Texas, States adjacent to Mexico, were entered. Nearly a hundred years elapsed before any real progress was made in the first-named region. Band after band of missionaries was martyred, and nothing but the dauntless determination of the religious Orders to win all the peoples to the faith would have enabled them to persevere in the apparently fruitless task. But victory was won at last. In Texas, more directly under Spanish influence than New Mexico, the faith spread rapidly. Franciscans were the chief apostles of these regions, and they even penetrated into California as early as 1601, though the western coast peoples were not all converted till the end of the next century. A celebrated Franciscan, Juniper Serra, founded many missions, and was named Prefect Apostolic in 1774, leaving a large and very flourishing Church, which continues to develop.

No account of Spanish missionary enterprise would be complete without some notice of the advocate of the Indians, Bartholomew de Las Casas, Bishop of Chiapa, in Mexico. He had been among the first settlers in the New World, where he became a priest, and when the conquerors of Cuba divided among them both the newly-acquired territories and their Indian inhabitants, he received his share along with the rest. But he soon saw what revolted him in the treatment of the helpless natives by his countrymen, and he returned to Spain to implore protection for the victims. Sixteen times he crossed the ocean to try to wring concessions in favour of the Indians from the court of Spain. Hoping to mitigate the sufferings of a people too weak to perform the cruel tasks set them, he proposed that negroes should be sent to do agricultural work in the West Indies, hence he is often accused of being the originator of the slave-trade.

He endeavoured to induce Spanish peasants to settle in the New World, but in vain. He wrote several works to expose the frightful cruelties exercised on the Indians, and to claim justice for them. In this he was seconded by Pope Paul III., who, in 1537, declared that the Indians were men and not brutes, as the conquerors pretended, and had the rights of men. The bold words of Las Casas were not wholly unfruitful, for the "New Laws," restraining the powers of the settlers, were promulgated by Charles V., who, however, had the weakness to annul them some years later; but to the last the holy bishop, his heart torn with anguish at the sufferings of the hapless people of Central America and the West Indies, strove to mitigate their lot. He returned to Spain to die, after sixty years devoted to the cause of his beloved Indians. Yet he had accomplished but little. The Spaniards and Portuguese had come for gold, and they cared not how they wrecked the future of the country provided they gained the object of their desires. Nothing was allowed to come between them and the realization of their hopes. Hence, a country which would have been one of the most productive on the face of the earth was depopulated by as wholesale and reckless a slaughter as it is possible to conceive.

The early days of missionary enterprise under French auspices were of a different character.

The French first landed in Canada. They started towards the end of the reign of Henry IV., and that sovereign realizing that, if the Indians were to be converted, they ought not to have before their eyes the spectacle of white men quarrelling over their religious tenets, forbade his Calvinist subjects to land in Canada. The settlers won ascendancy over the natives by gentle and prudent measures, and though, later on, the Indians were subjected to cruel treatment, like that encountered elsewhere by the native races, it must be confessed that the French were not the aggressors. It was when Dutch and English Protestants obtained the mastery that evil days fell on the hapless neophytes.

Jesuits were the first missionaries, and among them the heroic Brébeuf holds a very prominent place. No sketch can do justice to the lives or the men who conquered the savage Hurons and Iroquois to the faith of Christ. These two tribes were perpetually at war, but this was not the only difficulty the Jesuits had to encounter. The nomadic habits of the people made the lives of the Fathers one long journey. Wherever the Indians went they followed, and by long patience and gentleness they won them to the practice of Christian virtues. Like the Jesuits of Paraguay, they sought to convert by civilizing, not by preaching, and the long-enduring fruits of their toil showed how superior their plan was to that so often attempted elsewhere—where a tribe would be converted, baptized, and left to itself until the next missionary passed that way. The civilizing Jesuits, if so they may be called, also kept their neophytes a very long time on probation before admitting them to the Sacrament of Baptism, but the conversions were none the less sincere and lasting for such a precaution.

The Canadian Jesuits, too, were the first to recognize the benefit that would be derived if women were to be associated to their labours. They found it hard where the training of the women was neglected to get the idea of a Christian home realized. Perhaps a good deal of the fluctuating fortunes of missionary labour in other places may be traced to this want of recognition of the need of woman's co-operation. At any rate, the experiment of missionary nuns was tried in Canada, and the results were solid and lasting. Women were beginning to show great activity in all works of zeal, and when the appeal was made in France several religious communities set sail. The Hospitalieres of Dieppe and the Ursulines of Paris each sent three sisters (1639), under the care of Madame de la Peltrie, who herself entered the Ursuline Convent. A very eminent member of the same Order was Mother Mary of the Incarnation, whose letters to Europe served to win many volunteers for the Canadian mission. She was a woman of courage and enterprise, and her influence over the Indians was very strong. They had an intense respect for the nuns, whose example and teaching brought happiness and virtue into their own homes. The story of the Jesuits and of their fellow-labourers in Canada is a stirring one.

Canada was the centre from which the neighbouring districts were converted. The Indians of Maine had been visited by Spanish missionaries in 1609. These zealous men had fallen victims to their devotedness, and the faith was forgotten. Thirty years later, instigated by a converted Indian from Quebec, the Abnaki tribe of Maine petitioned for missionaries. It is thought that these Indians are of an earlier race than the great body of the people. They are more steadfast in character, and make very faithful Catholics. Father Druilhettes, S.J., paid them several visits, and succeeded in converting the people. Other Orders followed up the work of the Jesuits, and established a flourishing mission.

New York State was the land of the Iroquois, the fiercest of all Indian tribes. They seized on a boatful of missionaries going down the St. Lawrence, among whom was the young Jesuit, Isaac Jogues. They tortured the Father in the most fearful manner. His hands were left without fingers, and were pierced the whole length of the arm, from the thumb to the elbow, by stakes roughly driven in. He was kept prisoner for fifteen months, when the Dutch helped him to escape to Holland. The heroic missionary could not rest without attempting to convert his torturers, and at his own request he was sent back to Canada. The Pope allowed him to say Mass in spite of the condition of his mutilated hands: no one had a better right to offer the Holy Sacrifice, he explained, than one who had suffered like his Divine Master. Father Jogues had not the joy of seeing many of the Iroquois converted, but he gave his life for them (1646), and in the end a large number submitted to the religion of the Cross. In order to secure for the Indians the necessary conditions for leading a Christian life, a purely Catholic settlement was made at St. Louis Rapids. Indians of all tribes were admitted, and they became very thorough Christians. Among others, Daniel Garanontie and Catherine Tehgahkwita are wonderful examples of almost heroic virtue.

The most adventurous of the Jesuits was Father Marquette, one of the Sulpician missionaries of Quebec. He had heard from the Indians of a mighty river which he longed to explore. But his work was too engrossing to allow him to abandon his neophytes for adventures, however exciting. Yet his wish was granted, for he was named to accompany, as chaplain, a small band of explorers headed by Jolliet (1673). Guided by Indians, they crossed the prairies until they came to the great river, down which they rowed for many days and nights, seeing no living being to right nor to left. The Illinois Indians were the only ones visited, and on them Father Marquette made so deep an impression that they implored him to come back to them, which he promised. The explorers dared not push into Spanish territory, as France was then at war with Spain; but they learned enough to make them .conclude that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, and not through California into the Pacific, as had been supposed. The magnificent river to its outlet into the Mexican Gulf was secured for France by La Salle, who named the basin of the river Louisiana, after Louis XIV., then reigning. Jesuits gradually followed the conquerors down the valley. The Illinois were the first to be evangelized, Father Marquette himself being their apostle.

Only one Catholic colony has ever been founded by England, that of Maryland, a beautifully fertile country lying around Chesapeake Bay. Lord Baltimore, a convert to the Catholic faith, conceived the idea of founding a colony where his persecuted co-religionists might take refuge, and he obtained a charter from Charles I. for the purpose. This document, drawn up by Baltimore and signed by Charles, is the first instance of legislation in which toleration for all religions is granted. The intending colonist died almost immediately after. His second son, Leonard Calvert, who eventually succeeded to the title, undertook to carry out his father's idea. He took with him two Jesuits, Fathers White and Altham, and about two hundred English and Irish emigrants of good birth. The first Mass was said in the new colony on the Annunciation, 1634, and the State was named Maryland, in honour of Queen Henrietta Maria. The most happy relations were established with the native tribes, and Maryland soon became a really Catholic land. Refugees of no matter what denomination were given a generous hospitality, with the result that a body of Puritans who had been expulsed from Maine plotted to overthrow Governor Calvert and take his place. The governor and the missionaries had to flee (1644), but two years later he was restored, and the Jesuits were able to return. The interval had shown Maryland Catholics what Puritan toleration was like. The sectaries in their turn learned the nature of Catholic revenge—one man only, the ringleader, suffered, the others were pardoned.

Every political event in England found an echo in North America. With the triumph of Puritanism under Cromwell, religious animosities were let loose. English and Dutch, enemies as they were, joined in a fierce persecution and warfare against Catholics, and the missionaries were captured and sent to Europe. The Restoration gave a few more years of peaceful progress to Catholicity in America, but the Revolution destroyed almost all the flourishing missions, not only of Maryland, but of Canada and the neighbouring States. It was at this time that the English white slave-trade was inaugurated. Cromwell sent out thousands of Irish men, boys, and girls, with a good number of English Royalists, as slaves to the West Indies. Christian Indians from North America were also deported thither. In all the other settlements on the east coast—English, Dutch, or Swedish—some form of Protestantism was followed. These colonists waged continual war against the Catholic neophytes, and many of the missions were extinguished. Also, as long as the Dutch supremacy of the seas lasted—1623–1713—no Catholic missions were safe; the missionaries were waylaid on the high seas, and ports were shut against their entrance. Their converts were corrupted by drink and false doctrines, or else slaughtered when staunch to their faith. It must be confessed that, in those days, the hostility of England to the work of Catholic missions was no less marked than that of her Dutch antagonist.

IV. The Organization of Propagation of the Faith

To regulate the rapidly increasing work of foreign missions, Pope Gregory XV. carried out an idea already suggested—that of establishing a congregation of cardinals to watch over and guide the work of the propagation of the faith (propaganda fidei)  in heathen lands (1622). His successor, Urban VIII., added two very important sections to this great work: the first, an international college where young men from every converted nation (not of Europe), should be assembled and trained for the priesthood. There they still gain, as they could do nowhere else, a practical knowledge of the Catholicity of the Church, and of subordination and devotion to the Holy See. Thence they go forth to their own countries, and strive to win their own peoples to the one flock of Christ. The second work, rendered absolutely necessary by the variety of tribes and nations flocking into the true fold, was that of multiplying books in each language for the use of the missionary and his catechumens. A series of presses was set up, and types of every description were gathered at an enormous cost. The work still continues in full vigour, and develops almost yearly. Side by side with the work of preaching, the missionary has always made it a point to study the people among whom he finds himself—literature, manners, customs, the productions of the country, natural and manufactured—nothing escapes his attention: he maps out his mission and its environs, he compiles vocabularies, he collects specimens of the work of his neophytes, and sends all home to interest his religious brethren and their friends in the distant work, Hence a wonderful library and museum has grown up in Rome, where an almost unlimited store of treasures rewards patient investigators. The records of the earliest missionaries are still searched for data of political importance—e.g., the Venezuelan Court of Arbitration studied the letters of missioners to obtain information respecting the original boundaries of the States in question.

At every stage of the world's history the story of the contact of civilized with savage races is written in blood. There is nothing to choose in this respect between Spanish or Englishmen, Portuguese or Dutch. The French seem an honourable exception in their treatment of the North American Indians. But there is a great difference to be noticed between the action of Catholic and heretic missionaries. From first to last, from Catholic centres there has been but one unanimous protest against the cruelty of their co-religionists, and petitions to the Pope and representations to sovereigns. They have set on foot energetic measures of every kind on behalf of the helpless savage, and crowds of devoted men have sacrificed their comfort, their health, their lives even, in the attempt to soften the lot of the persecuted, or to die with them. It has been reserved for our own days to hear a non-Catholic proclaim in the face of the world that the white race has a duty to fulfill when it becomes master of a people in a lower stage of civilization.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Modern Times by Notre Dame