Guatemalan Catholics and Mayas: The Future of Dialogue

By Duffey, Michael K. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Guatemalan Catholics and Mayas: The Future of Dialogue


Duffey, Michael K., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


It hardly bears commenting that the first evangelization of the native peoples of the Americas was unfortunate in many respects. The abuse of forced conversion is reflected in Pedro de Alvarado's assault on the Mam Mayas in the highlands of Guatemala in 1525. Alvarado issued a stock Spanish ultimatum: "Let it be known that our coming is beneficial because we bring tidings of the true God and Christian Religion ... so that you might become Christians peacefully, of your own free will; but should you refuse the peace we offer, then the death and destruction that will follow will be entirely of your own account." (1)

The Mams refused, and death and destruction did follow, as it had for the Mixtecs, the Zapotecs, the Tzotzil Mayans of southern Mexico, and the neighboring Guatemalan kingdom of the K'iche' Mayas (the Guatemalan department in which they live is often Latinized as "Quiche"). Within a decade and a half, Spanish expeditions subdued most of the other Mayan strongholds in the Guatemalan highlands. (2)

Coerced conversion had mixed results. Carmack, Gasco, and Gossen describe Christianity as an addition to, rather than a replacement of, Mayan religious beliefs. While many were baptized and attended religious services, Mayas understood Christianity in terms compatible with their own cultures. "Over time, new prayers, new images, new songs, new penances, and new festivals were adopted whereas many of the old practices were abandoned. But there was never a sudden and total substitution of a new faith for an old." (3)

Gustavo Gutierrez laments the tragic Christian-Mayan religious encounter through centuries of conquest. Unlike Paul's approach to the Greco-Roman world that was "attentive to the religious values to be found outside Christianity," sixteenth-century Spanish missionaries regarded the peoples of the Americas as belonging to a "socially and culturally inferior world." (4)

The Modern Catholic Church and the Mayas

In the mid-twentieth century the Guatemalan Catholic Church was still intent on the Mayas' adherence to Eurocentric Catholicism. A program called Catholic Action was introduced to reevangelize the Mayas. (5) The small number of foreign priests who served the indigenous communities enlisted hundreds of Mayan lay catechists to conduct Bible studies and sacramental preparation. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) challenged the church to reconsider its own mission in postcolonial regions of widespread impoverishment and political repression. The meeting of the Latin American Catholic bishops at Medellin, Colombia (1968), and the World Synod of Catholic Bishops (1971) called on the Catholic Church to overcome the systemic injustices deepening the poverty throughout Latin America. Recognition of the right of peoples to dignity and freedom was dawning throughout Latin America. Pope Paul VI's apostolic exhortation Evangelization in the Modern World affirmed that "above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness." Evangelization, he wrote, is most effective when Christians "show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good." Furthermore, "The Church ... has the duty to proclaim liberation to millions of human beings as well as of assisting the birth of this liberation, giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization." (6)

The church's promotion of lay leadership was producing social and economic awareness among the impoverished Mayas. Lay leadership became a source of grassroots projects for economic, health, and social improvements among Mayas. Cooperatives were formed and supplemental income projects undertaken with the aim of ending the debilitating annual migration of Mayas from the highlands to coastal areas, where they worked for low wages in unhealthy conditions harvesting cotton, sugarcane, and other export crops. …

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