Roque González de Santa Cruz (1576-1628)
Christians Who Changed Their World

Roque_Gonzalez_de_Santa_CruzMissionaries—both Catholic and Protestant—are frequently portrayed as being tools of the colonial powers, working hand-in-glove with European states to subjugate the indigenous people of their colonies and destroying their cultures. While there is no question that this was true of some missionaries, it was not true of many others. Roque González de Santa Cruz and his successors are examples of missionaries who worked to protect native peoples and who respected their cultures while at the same time bringing Christianity to them.

Roque González was born in Asunción, Paraguay, the son of a Spanish noble family. He was a religious child who seemed destined for the priesthood. He was ordained as a priest at age 23, somewhat reluctantly since he did not think he was worthy of the office.

He had learned the Guarani language, and so he soon began doing mission work among the native peoples. In 1609, he joined the Society of Jesus to have more opportunities to engage in missionary activities and to avoid ecclesiastical promotion.

The Jesuits were relatively late arrivals to the mission fields of South America, so they were forced to do their work in the frontier areas of the colonies. This suited Fr. Roque’s interests and linguistic ability, and may have contributed to his decision to join the order.

Many of the native tribes were suspicious of missionaries. They were afraid that if the priests came in, hordes of Europeans would follow. Fr. Roque worked very hard at building trust with the tribes, and so he and a few other Jesuits were allowed to begin to minister in the area.

At this point, the Spanish colonists were abusing and enslaving the natives (contrary to Spanish law), and the Portuguese were even worse.  The Jesuits saw the oppression of the natives as a real impediment to conversion, and so with the blessing of the Crown they began to create “reductions,” that is, communities of native peoples who would be protected from molestation by the colonial powers. The earliest reduction was the Loreta Reduction, founded on the Rio Paranápanema in 1609; the next, the Reduction San Ingacio Guazú, was founded in 1611 by Roque González.

These reductions were autonomous native communities governed by the Jesuits and native chiefs. Unlike most reductions, which forced the native peoples to adopt European customs, the Jesuit reductions allowed their inhabitants to hold on to much of their traditional culture.

The Jesuit reductions had a solid economic foundation built on communal farming combined with private property. They eventually also developed a wide range of manufacturing and crafts, including making fine musical instruments which were exported to Europe. The reductions thus became economically successful communities operating autonomously within the Spanish colonial empire.

Most importantly, the reductions provided protection against European slavers and other marauders. As a result, entire bands of native people flocked to the reductions, which collectively reached a population of 80,000 or more.

Fr. Roque described the Reduction San Ignacio Guazú as follows:

This town had to be built from its very foundations. In order to do away with occasions of sin, I decided to build it in the style of the Spaniards, so that everyone should have his own house, with fixed boundaries and a corresponding yard. This system prevents easy access from one house to another, which used to be the case and which gave occasion for drunken orgies and other evils.

A church and parish house are being erected for our needs. Comfortable and enclosed with an adobe wall, the houses are built with cedar girders—cedar is very common wood here. We have worked hard to arrange all this. But with even greater zest and energy—in fact with all our strength—we have worked to build temples to Our Lord, not only those made by hands but spiritual temples as well, namely the souls of these Indians.

On Sundays and feast days we preach during mass, explaining the catechism beforehand with equal concern for boys and girls. The adults are instructed in separate groups of about 150 men and the same number of women. Shortly after lunch, we teach them reading and writing for about two hours.

There are still many non-Christians in this town. So every month we choose those best prepared. ... Among the 120 or so adults baptized this year there were several elderly shamans.1 Because of the demands of planting and harvesting all cannot be baptized at the same time.

Not content with building one reduction to reach the native population, Fr. Roque went on to found six additional reductions in the region.

The Jesuit reductions were very successful—so successful that they began to attract the unwanted attention of the colonial powers. Some of the reductions were in Portuguese territories, and Portugal had no qualms about enslaving the native peoples. As a result, these reductions were often attacked by slavers. In 1630 alone, it is estimated that 30,000 natives were killed or enslaved.

The following year, the Jesuits moved the reductions out of Portuguese territory to Uruguay and gained permission from the crown to develop militias to defend them against the slavers. In 1641, Portuguese slavers crossed the border to raid the reductions but they were soundly defeated by the local militia. The militia’s cavalry was particularly effective. They wore European-style uniforms and carried bows and arrows along with muskets.

The Treaty of Madrid (1750) ceded yet more Spanish territory to Portugal, placing more of the reductions into Portuguese territory. The Jesuits once again tried to move the populace, but Sepé Tiaraju, a mission-born Guarani, led a revolt against the Spanish. The Guarani were so successful that the Spanish were forced to sign an armistice with them. Two years later, however, a combined Spanish-Portuguese army crushed the Guarani militia, killing an estimated 1,500 Indians.

The colonial powers now considered the Jesuits and the reductions a threat. In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish territories, and in the aftermath the reductions withered away or were absorbed into colonial culture.

Fr. Roque did not live to see these developments, however.

In 1628, Fr. Roque was joined by two young Spanish Jesuits, Alonso Rodriguez and Juan de Castillo. They founded a reduction named Asuncion de Iyui on the Ijuhi river. Leaving Fr. Castillo there, Fr. Roque and Fr. Rodriguez pushed on into what is now Brazil and founded a reduction at Caaro.

Unfortunately, Ñezú, one of the local shamans opposed the Jesuits, attempted to move into his area. Apparently, the Jesuits were so successful in converting the natives that they were eroding Ñezú’s position in the region. He incited Nheçu, the chief of the tribe, to attack the Jesuits at their newly constructed church. Fr. Roque was raising a bell into the tower when one of the tribesmen snuck up behind him and killed him with a tomahawk. Fr. Rodriguez heard the noise and came in to investigate. He was struck down as well and the church burned. Nheçu then led his men upriver, where they attacked Fr. Castillo. He was tied up, beaten, and stoned to death.

They were recognized as martyrs and officially canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

Fr. Roque and the Jesuits with him worked very hard to balance three sometimes conflicting aims: convert the Indians, bring in the best parts of European culture to improve their lives, and allow as much of the native culture as possible to shape the life of the community. They have been criticized for being excessively paternalistic or for creating a theocratic tyranny, but in the period even such anti-Catholic and anti-Jesuit authors such as Voltaire and Rousseau praised the freedom and autonomy of the reductions. And considering the alternative was slaughter or enslavement, the reductions were an important step in trying to protect the native peoples from the worst depredations of the colonists. It is thus unfair to criticize them for not doing things the way we would have liked them to.


Next Steps

Were you aware of the attempts by Fr. Gonzalez and others to protect natives from exploitation by colonists? Would you be able to defend these missionaries against charges of complicity with the colonists?

Further Reading:
For an article about theological trends in Latin America, download “Radical Rantings” from the Colson Center Library. If you’d like to do some in-depth study, purchase
A History of the Church in Latin America from the Online Store.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.