Friday, March 15, 2013

The Friars: Peace Corps 16th century style

Parade during Festival of St. Michael the Archangel (San Miguel d'Allende, 2010)

Friars from the religious orders followed the Conquistadors wherever they went,  beginning
in 1500 with the island of Santo Domingo (Hispaniola).  In 1524 twelve Franciscan friars
called the "twelve apostles of New Spain" (to mirror Jesus' twelve apostles) arrived in Mexico to serve as the spiritual arm of the Conquest.  The message in the photo above is clear: the friar is showing disapproval of the indigenous ritual of sacrifice.  This ritual, odious to us and to the Europeans who observed it five centuries ago, was actually a deep part of the cosmic and religious systems of many of the meso-american peoples.  Within their beliefs it was necessary for the continuation of life and was highly ritualized and regulated and not a  wanton blood-thirst and slaughter. 

These first Franciscans were idealists, utopians.  In the indigenous they saw fresh soil for a Christianity that was pure and unstained by worldly concerns the way it had become in Europe.  Trying to understand these new discovered peoples within a biblical context  (as you recall this was the only context available in the 16th century), some conjectured the  indigenous were a tribe of lost Jews.  In the idealistic hopes of these early Franciscans, they strove to create a new Jerusalem, an Indian Jerusalem.   They faced enormous hardships in this new unsettled land and came at enormous cost to personal comfort and safety and, in general, they were good men who truly believed in what they were doing.   Some, such as Bernardino de Sahagun and Bartolome de las Casas, became champions of the indigenous and their protectors against the abuses of the Spanish settlers, whose aims were often less than spiritual.

Friars' "Job Description"

The photo taken in a church in Campeche, Yucatan,  shows salvation from eternal damnation, the central religious concern of the time. ( Note that a bishop is included among those in the flames, indicating that Hell is inclusive.)  Mary, the Queen of Heaven is lifting souls from the flames.  The job of the friars was to save their indigenous charges from damnation by teaching them the Gospel and leading them to Jesus. This was a job, as we shall see, that turned out to be more difficult than they had imagined.

Within the values  of their times, which I have described more fully in my previous post, "The Mind-set of the Spanish Conquest", the friars believed they were doing the absolutely best thing one could do for another human being, despite how we may perceive their actions within a contemporary framework.   In their day and age, there was no abstract concept of "human rights", everything was bound up with religion.  Within this context, a human's most important and most basic right was the salvation of his/her soul and, given this,  the most altruistic thing the friars knew to do for the indigenous was to offer them this right through the word of Jesus.   In the new and untamed lands, the friars did this at considerable personal risk and sacrifice.   All this has led Prof. Samuel Y. Edgerton to compare them to the Peace Corps volunteers, and this really is a good way to understand their essential mission.  Like the Peace Corps, they wanted to better mankind and save the world and they attempted to do this, as they understood it, with the spiritual tools at their disposal.  

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