March 4, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Renaissance Church: It spreads to newly-discovered lands

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

The year 1492 was a busy one for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Not only did they finish the Reconquista (reconquest) of Spain and begin to force Jews and Muslims to leave the country (see last week’s column), they also commissioned Christopher Columbus to try to reach India by sailing west. Instead, he discovered what he called the West Indies.

He also set off an era of Catholic missionary work the world had not seen since perhaps the first years of the Church.

There quickly ensued a race between Spain and Portugal to claim newly-discovered land. Pope Alexander VI, therefore, drew a line down the map of the Atlantic Ocean, and awarded discoveries to the west of the line to Spain and to the east of the line to Portugal. This gave the Portuguese the rights to the countries in the Far East, but also to Brazil, which is why the people of that country speak Portuguese. Spain got all the rest of the Americas.

The Spanish empire in the New World was achieved quickly: the seizure of the West Indies completed within 23 years of Columbus’s first voyage, the Aztecs in Mexico and Central America defeated six years later, and the Incas on the west coast of South America 15 years later still. The conquest was brutal, and defeated natives were virtually enslaved.

It was only the Catholic Church that kept the natives from being actually enslaved. The religious orders toned down the worst impulses of the conquerors. The Franciscans, Dominicans, Capuchins and, later, Jesuits looked on the conquests as opportunities for conversions. The conversion of the natives was as quick as their conquest, thanks to the hundreds of missionaries sent by religious orders.

In Mexico, the conversion happened quickly after the Blessed Virgin appeared to the 58-year-old native Juan Diego in 1531 and her image, depicted as a native woman, appeared on his cloak.

By the end of the 16th century, the 7 million natives in the Spanish empire were Catholics—at least in name. How much they actually knew about their new religion is another matter. One priest, Pedro de Gante, reported that he and one other person baptized 14,000 Indians in one day. In Peru, St. Toribio, Archbishop of Lima from 1580 to 1606, baptized and confirmed 500,000 persons, built chapels, schools, hospitals and convents, and started a seminary.

The Catholic Church was well established in Central and South America and Mexico before missionaries started to move northward into what is now Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

The Spanish also conquered the Philippines in 1561-62. Five Augustinian friars accompanied the invasion and, after the natives were defeated, other religious orders moved in. Within 30 years, more than 500,000 natives were converted. By the 17th century, nearly half the population was Catholic.

Meanwhile, in India and other places in central and eastern Asia, Portugal built up an empire for commercial purposes, and the Catholic clergy tried to minister to traders, soldiers, slaves and others. In India, converts were won in Goa, Cochin, Madras, and other cities. †

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