The Jesuits - along with the Indians - built a "land of happiness", the most perfect utopian communities in history

The mission villages created a real nation, a quasi-state with high autonomy. The number of Indians in these Reductions could range between 140,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. By creating villages and admitting representatives of the indigenous population to the clergy, missionaries supported Creoles and Mestizos in their emancipatory aspirations - says Mirosław Oleszycki, traveller and journalist, author of the book "ORE RU. Christianization and Evangelization of Latin America".

TVP WEEKLY: "Ore Ru" - what language do these words come from, and what do they mean?

In the language of the Guarani Indians, these words mean "Our Father" and are a fragment of their prayer. However, these are not the words of the prayer we know from the Gospel. "Ore Ru" talks about a mythical land that is a good, beautiful place where the sun always rises and evil does not exist. Indians probably knew it even before Christopher Columbus discovered America.

Why did you focus on Latin America?

Because I was fascinated with the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca cultures. I encountered it during the 1990s expedition along the trail of pre-Columbian cultures from Mesa Verde to Machu Picchu. Then, I asked myself questions and looked for answers.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE What are these questions?

For example, why did the native American advanced civilisations so easily surrender their world to a foreign culture?

Did you find the answer?

I often wondered about it. This was probably due to many factors, religious and military, but also thanks to the cleverness of the conquistadors. Let's take the case of Atahualpa, the last effective Incan emperor. He believed in the sincerity of Francisco Pizarro's and his men's intentions, but all they wanted was gold. They deceived him and murdered him afterwards.

Christopher Columbus's ships had crosses displayed over their sails. Was this supposed to symbolise that the travellers would find money for the next Crusade, or was this just another legend?

The symbolism adopted by Columbus was quite natural because Europe was Catholic then. The expedition aimed to discover and conquer a new land mentioned earlier in the across-the-ocean expeditions, not to obtain money for the Crusade. Nevertheless, in addition to stealing control over the new lands, it was also about spreading Christianity.

So it wasn't only the lust for wealth that led people to the New World? Was it?

Indeed, it wasn't, although some people could see the ocean expeditions as an opportunity to improve their financial status. This is a normal thing resulting from human nature. But most explorers were Franciscan and Dominican monks, missionaries distinguished by their apostolic zeal and a desire for adventure. They acted under the influence of religious fervour, but many set out into the world, driven by the need to respond to important events of the time.

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What were these events?

Well, let's think of the expansion of the Mongol Empire and Islam. The Church put pressure on European countries to take action to defend Christianity against Muslims. Especially after the triumph of Islam in the Holy Land and the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.

Pope Alexander VI entrusted Latin America to Spain in the papal bull of 1493. What contributed to the publication of this document?

The model of medieval political theory was the relationship between secular and spiritual power - European Christian kingdoms were united under papal authority. In the bulls regarding the Crusades, the popes authorised the Iberian kings to occupy the discovered lands, assuming they belonged to the Mohammedans. However, in the case of Latin America, this turned out to be false. The bulls of Pope Alexander VI gave the Iberian monarchs the right to conquer and settle discovered lands and to make bold decisions following the maxim that "motives are forces that are pushing forward, not just reasons by which one can justify oneself" after the fact.

Was this - which had been preached in Latin America - the true Catholic faith or merely a doctrine justifying Spanish domination over conquered territories?

According to Christian principles, temporal and spiritual power, i.e. royal and papal power, are independent. Still, both authorities have their source in God - they cooperate, e.g. by defending each other against enemies. The Medieval theological and philosophical view was that Christ was the Lord of the entire world. Based on this foundation, Pope Alexander VI concluded that the donated lands were a Divine lease and should be enlightened by the Word of God. The Spanish Crown also understood this when undertaking an evangelising mission in the New World. Missionaries preached the Good News but were also aware of the political conditions.

Following your book, in the years 1493-1822, in an area of 14.5 million square kilometres, 15,587 Catholic missionaries carried out 1,068 missionary expeditions. The number of Gospel crusaders seemed large, but was it sufficient to spread the Catholic faith to such a huge area?

The number of missionaries turned out to be too small to accomplish their tasks fully. By building churches, schools and universities, ministers and lay clergy became the intellectual elite of colonial America. Each member of this intellectual elite was either a Spaniard or a Portuguese ready to defend the interests of the Crown by joining in evangelistic and cultural tasks in the New World. Missionaries separated the words "Spanish" from "Christian", which meant separating the ethno-mythical roots from the mental focus. By creating mission villages, i.e., so-called Reductions, and accepting indigenous population representatives into the clergy, missionaries supported Creoles, Mestizos and African Americans in their emancipatory aspirations. The colonisers saw the natives only as labourers to work on plantations and in mines.
What was the "Holy Experiment" about?

This term was used to describe the system of villages or missionary Reductions in which Indians were gathered together. Missionaries, mainly Jesuits, managed the Reductions. Villages were self-sufficient, and indigenous people could learn professions there, develop artistically, cultivate fields, raise cattle, and plant orchards and gardens. Many anti-Catholic historians presented the Reductions as the ambiguous fruit of the enlightened Jesuits' despotism and greed for wealth and power. Some considered them an interesting humanitarian struggle, a Renaissance utopian inspiration, without any particular Christian impulse. According to other historians, the mission villages created a true nation, a quasi-state with extensive autonomy, in many ways linked directly with the Spanish Crown. Some believed that the number of Indians in those Reductions ranged between 140,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. At the end of the 18th century, during the expulsion of the Jesuits from America, almost each missionary settlement covered an area of at least a dozen hectares or so.

What did the mission village look like?

It consisted of a large square in the central place, an impressive church and buildings for various purposes. Reductions evolved into the most perfect and lasting utopian communities in history.

However, less than eighteen years (1750-1768) were enough for the opponents of the "heroes bringing civilisation" to destroy the fruits of many years of missionary work. What guided their actions?

They mainly wanted to destroy the work of the Jesuits, the organisers of the "good land", the Guaran "land of happiness", which they had built so carefully and with such dedication over the years together with the Indians. These actions resulted from the growing hostility towards the Society of Jesus in Europe. This was part of the enlightened absolutist states' desire to eliminate the Church's influence from political life. Hence, it was necessary to destroy the primary obstacle on this path, which was the Jesuits associated with the system of royal power. The intrigue was successful, and in 1773 the Order was dissolved.
Your book shows some kind of religious duality in Latin America. Old cults were difficult to eradicate, so names of pagan gods and idols were inserted in Catholic church songs. How long did this process last?

At the beginning of the Christianization and evangelisation process in Latin America, there was a dual religious system with two complexes of rituals and beliefs related to family and social life. Religious syncretism, the cult of pagan gods and Christian saints, had a conscious duplicity. It was said that the Indians buried statues of pagan gods behind altars or crosses to continue worshipping them, while the missionaries believed that they were practising the new religion. It has been proven that even those Indians who chanted songs during masses or were responsible for catechism secretly perpetuated belief in pagan gods. This duality of faith, in a sense, facilitated the smooth transition of the pagan religion into the Christian one. This process, with few exceptions, no longer takes place.

Isn't the current state of the Catholic Church the result of the unfinished evangelisation and Christianization of Latin America?

I will not risk saying that the great work of American evangelisation has failed. The ideological monopoly that the metropolis had in the colonies - especially through the activities of the inquisitorial courts - prevented the appearance of Protestantism and the philosophy of French or English thinkers from the 16th and 18th centuries there. Mestizos, Creoles, Indians, as well as African Americans - each in their own way and with varying degrees of commitment were Catholics. I am aware that the contemporary Church in Latin America is at a crossroads. But it's not only there.

Initially, the Aztec Empire counted about 25 million people; four years later - 17 million, and in 1548, only 6 million people. Haiti had a population of 100,000 inhabitants, and in 1570, it had only a few hundred. What caused the demographic catastrophe?

There has been considerable controversy around these numbers, compounded by the lack of sources and opposing moral judgments regarding the conquest of America. Many outstanding specialists who use modern and complex analysis methods in scientific research differ in their calculations so much that it seems almost unbelievable. Yes, there was a noticeable decline in the number of indigenous people after the conquest. It appears that the leading cause of this phenomenon was hard work in mines and plantations, as well as diseases... Europeans brought to the American continent infectious illnesses that the indigenous people knew nothing about and were unable to defend themselves against. It was certainly not about deliberate extermination that took place in the north of the American continent.
What did the Inquisition do in Latin America?

The same things they did in Europe, especially on the Iberian Peninsula. One of the greatest challenges for the Inquisition in the New World was its territorial scope, which contrasted with that of the Iberian Peninsula. The main task of the Inquisition was to ensure that trends opposed to Christianity did not penetrate America. The Inquisition also prosecuted crimes against Christian morality: bigamy, concubinage and usury, as well as crimes committed by clergy, e.g. celebrating Holy Mass by people who were not ordained, clergy getting married, or illegally leaving the ecclesiastical state.

Why were Indians excluded from the activities of the Inquisition?

In 1532, Juan de Zumarraga took charge of the Mexican diocese and, at the same time, received the title of apostolic inquisitor. His inquisitorial activities included, among others, the trial for idolatry of Don Carlos Chichimecatecuhtli Ometochtzín, a member of the Texcoco Indian nobility, who was burned at the stake in 1539. The severity of the sentence caused a stir in Madrid and the kings' disapproval of the actions of the Mexican bishop. It also contributed to the rulers' decision to exclude recently converted Indians from the inquisitorial court, reflected in the Compilation of the Laws of the Kings of Indies from 1681.

– Interviewed by Tomasz Plaskota

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: The village of Christianized Tapuio Indians - illustration by the German painter Maurice Rugendas (Mauricio Rugendas). Photo Centro de Documentação D. João VI, Public domain, Wikipedia
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