Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

The Jesuits in Latin America: Legacy and Current Emphases

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

The Jesuits in Latin America: Legacy and Current Emphases

Article excerpt

The murder of six Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989 dramatically reminded the world that the Jesuits are still in Latin America and, as usual, in the center of the storm. For more than 400 years the Jesuits have been present in the region as educators and missionaries. Their colonial legacy is well known. Less well known is what they have been doing since they returned in the nineteenth century after their expulsion in 1767.

Early Service in Latin America, 1549-1767

The Jesuits were founded in 1540. Only nine short years later they sent their first missionaries to Latin America, to Brazil. In fact, they arrived on the ship carrying the first governor-general, Tome de Souza. As such, the Jesuits were founders of Portugal's most important New World colony. Manoel da Nobrega and Jose de Anchieta, two of the first Jesuits, evangelized the Indians, founded mission towns (one of which was Sao Paulo), and defended the Indians from the white colonists. But they also founded schools and parishes for the colonists. By the eighteenth century the Society of Jesus was the most important educational and missionary order in Brazil.

The Jesuits arrived in Mexico and Peru in 1568. By coincidence, they arrived on the ship bearing Peru's most important viceroy, Francisco de Toledo. But these were more than coincidences: de Souza in Brazil and Toledo in Peru looked upon the Jesuits as key advisers and collaborators in establishing their respective empires in the New World. As a newly founded order, untainted by the abuses that had affected older orders in the Catholic Church and fired with the enthusiasm of fresh troops, the Jesuits built schools and founded missions everywhere, from Mexico to Chile, from Brazil to Paraguay.

By the late eighteenth century the Jesuits were clearly the most influential order in Latin America. Their schools flourished, and their missions prospered. The Paraguay missions in particular were already being romanticized in Europe as a sort of New World utopia. A little over 100,000 Guarani Indians in Paraguay and another 100,000 Indians in Bolivia (the Chiquitos and the Mojos) lived in neatly organized towns, with their own Indian militia. Scarcity and hunger were unknown. Peru's leading Marxist, Jose Carlos Mariategui (1894-1930), observed in admiration that these Indian societies were the only places where the Indians were actually better off after the conquest. In the rest of Latin America the Indians were exploited in the mines or forced to perform menial services for the colonists.

Contemporary critics of the Jesuits accuse them of paternalism in their treatment of the Indians. That may be so, but it was certainly a bland paternalism, because the Indians were allowed to bear arms and to make their own decisions affecting the daily life of each mission.

In 1750 Spain and Portugal made a treaty by which seven missions were transferred to Portuguese territory. That incident was the background of the 1986 award-winning movie The Mission. The Jesuits told the Indians that they, the padres, had to leave, but the Indians were free to accompany them or to remain. The Indians chose to remain and to tight. For two years (1754-56) Jesuit-trained Indian armies held off two European armies, the Portuguese and the Spanish. (The Spanish king felt obliged to join the war in order to keep his word to the Portuguese king.)

Less defensible was the Jesuits' use of black slaves to run their sugar estates and other properties, which the Jesuits acquired in order to finance their schools. Contemporary historians debate whether or not the Jesuits were modern capitalists. They were certainly efficient, and their haciendas prospered. They were not really modern capitalists, however, for they did not aim to expand their wealth beyond what they strictly needed to support the schools. Also, not all Jesuits accepted slavery. In fact, they were repeatedly warned by the general in Rome to end the practice. …

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