The Jesuit Missions in South America

(A Little-Known Story: The Jesuit Missions in South America and How Their Success Led to the Dissolution of the Order of Saint Ignatius)

[Review of Black Robes in Paraguay: The Success of the Guarani Missions Hastened the Abolition of the Jesuits by William F. Jaenike. Kirk House Publishers]

This well-written book is a totally fascinating look at a period of New World history in an obscure place — at least for us North Americans. While the events described here may seem a part of the distant past, their repercussions — from the wilds of the southern half of South America, coupled with the political intrigues of the European courts — have been long-standing for the Catholic Church, the Americas, much of Europe, and as far east as the Russian Empire.

The European Picture

In 1540, the Compania (Company or Society of Jesus) was founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola and several like-minded companions. At this time, the Protestant Revolt was in full swing, and the Pope foresaw that their fourth vow — to obey him without question — would be very useful for the Church in its combat with the spreading heresies. Within a short period of time the Jesuits grew to many thousands of dedicated men, most of them the cream of the crop of European intelligentsia. They were holy, dedicated, self-sacrificing men, highly educated in many fields, and determined to spread the Faith — a true Catholic weapon for evangelization.

Besides the upheaval of the so-called Reformation and the wars of religion that it produced, primarily in France, during the next century the “Enlightenment” became part of the thinking of the upper classes of Europe, the nobility and royalty. These men and women wanted to throw off the constraints of religion, especially traditional Christian morality as taught by the Church. It is an irony that a number of the thinkers of this intellectual movement in Europe were Jesuit educated. Voltaire, for example, as hateful and vengeful as he was toward the Catholic Church, always had a respect for the Jesuits as his teachers.

Another movement that seemingly conspired to bring the situation with the Jesuits to a head was the growth of nationalism. The Catholic crowned heads of Europe always deferred to the Holy Father in certain matters. It was simply expected. With national (and personal) interests sometimes conflicting with the interests of the Church, many monarchs were happy to see the papacy weakened if it favored their own cause.

Saving the Savages

While all these things were occurring on the European continent, previously unknown lands were being discovered, exploited, evangelized, and colonized in the Western Hemisphere. It is here that our story takes place — in the wild lands of the eastern and southern parts of South America. Unlike Mexico with its vast silver mines and the high Andes of Peru with its Incan gold, the area that we know today as interior Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay were hardly explored, especially their interiors. The jungles were nearly impenetrable and their human occupants seemed like they were right out of the Stone Age. Many were so savage and warlike that they were beyond hope of civilizing; others were more docile. Almost all of the tribes were cannibalistic. It was common practice for them to raid neighboring villages to bring home captives to cage and fatten up for a future barbeque. Many Jesuit fathers met their ends as dinner for the people they were trying to save!

European Rivalries

The European picture, as always, was incredibly complicated with royal houses vying for positions of power, while on the part of minor royalty land-grabbing was commonplace. Internecine and religious rivalries muddied the picture further, the greatest one, which affected the area we are speak about, being that between Spain and Portugal. It did not help the situation that the line dividing South America between those two Iberian countries shifted a number of times, causing the Jesuit missions to change hands more than once from Spanish control to Portuguese and back again.

The Jesuit Reductions

From the beginning, the Jesuits cared only about civilizing the Indians and saving their souls. They arrived in Brazil in 1540, just nine years after their founding, and in Paraguay in 1587. The first missions in the latter country began in 1609. In the area of Paraguay, not then defined precisely, the Fathers concluded that the best way to save their particular charges, the Guarani was to gather them into mission villages, which were called “reductions.” By this arrangement, they could keep them safe from the savages still roaming the forests, teach them various trades, and civilize them to the extent that they could read and write, and be self-productive within the mission. These reductions made it easier for the natives to learn the Faith from the priests and, once baptized, live it sacramentally in mutual charity. The focal buildings of the missions were the churches, many of which were enormous and elaborate, with workshops and dwellings for the Indians and a house near the church for the priests. There was protective fencing all around. Over the decades the missions became self-sufficient and economically profitable. The Indians grew to love their Jesuit fathers; they had a simple faith and lived happily as devout Catholics. The reduction practice also kept the Indians safe from slavers, mainly the Portuguese, who had no qualms about raiding the villages and selling the primitive people into slavery. There were thirty Guarani missions in what came to be known as the Guarani Republic.

These Indian mission towns were so successful that they were the cause of much jealousy toward the Jesuit fathers, both on the European continent and the South American. Lies about the priests began to proliferate on both sides of the Atlantic: they enslaved the Indians; they profited financially from the missions; they conducted bizarre and immoral rites with the Indians, etc., etc. The Jesuits were even accused of plotting to murder the crowned heads of Europe, a rumor spread by the royal houses because of the order’s loyalty to the Holy Father. Sadly, some of their most bitter enemies were other religious orders, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and the Augustinians.

All this eventually led to the abolition of the Society of Jesus by Clement XIV in 1773, an action forced upon him by the European monarchs. This weakness on the Pope’s part caused his own health to fail, leading to his death that same year, so over-burdened in conscience was he over the injustice of his own action.

Saved By Heretics

Ironically, the only crowned heads of Europe who paid no attention to the Pope’s declaration of abolition were Frederick the Great of Prussia, a nominal Lutheran, and Catherine the Great of Russia, a Lutheran-turned-Orthodox. Both invited those Jesuits who survived the expulsions from their missions and home countries into their own countries to teach their subjects.

There is a huge chunk of history packed into these 324 pages. An extensive bibliography of seventy books is provided as well as copious endnotes. The many maps are very helpful in showing us the distances and locations involved in the story. A timeline allows the reader to see at a glance what went on year by year in Europe and the Americas, and, too, there is a short section of photographs taken by the author of some of the breathtaking obstacles the Jesuits had to overcome in their pursuit of the salvation of souls: Iguazu Falls, the world’s widest, and Parana Falls, both on the wild Parana River – and several photos of the mission ruins.

After reading the book one gets the picture that there was almost as much brutality on the part of the so-called cultured Europeans toward each other (and the Indians) as there was on the part of the indigenous peoples of South America toward each other. The story of Pombal in Portugal and his treatment of his political enemies is absolutely hair-raising. Today, this character is considered a hero in his native Portugal.

One minor criticism I have of the book is that the author buys into the commonplace myth of the “dark” Middle Ages in Europe, an error common among most writers of history, even some Catholic authors who should know better.

If the only thing you know about the Jesuit Reductions of Paraguay is the movie The Mission, you should complete that picture by reading this very informative and enjoyable book. You can order it online from Saint Benedict Center bookstore here.