Jesuit missionaries: “a masterpiece of humanity”

Four centuries ago, Jesuits embarked upon a bold missionary experiment that was to transform the lives of thousands of native South Americans. Maurice Whitehead considers its significance

Evening light sweeps over the ruins of the Jesuit mission church at Trinidad de Paraná, Paraguay, where the bell tower of the site's first of two churches stands. Scores of Jesuit missions in the area where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet were built in the 17th century and were abandoned when the Jesuits were expelled in the 18th century. (Photo by Kevin Moloney via Getty Images)

Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, normally an arch-critic of organised religion, was so enamoured of an extraordinary 159-year period of South American history that he was moved to describe it thus:

“The settlement in Paraguay, made by the Spanish [Jesuits] alone, seems, in some respects, to be a masterpiece of humanity. It seems to expiate the cruelties of the first conquerors. The Quakers in North America, and the Jesuits in the southern part… exhibited a new light to the world”.

The “new light to the world” to which Voltaire refers had its roots in Pope Paul III’s approval of the Society of Jesus – the Jesuit order – in 1540. With the pope’s formal blessing secured, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order, was able to send his priests and brothers to the furthest reaches of the known world to preach the Christian gospel. In 1541 Francis Xavier was sent to India and the Far East while, eight years later, the first Jesuit missionaries were dispatched to South America. These men tried to implement Paul III’s bull of 1537, Sublimis Dei, expressly prohibiting the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of South America and aiming to protect their liberty and entitlement to property.

Early Catholic missionaries to South America, who included Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans and Mercedarians, as well as Jesuits, were impeded by the behaviour of many European colonists. Bandeirantes, or slave hunters, also called Paulistas (as the latter were based in São Paulo), frequently organised raids to round up Indians and sell them into slavery. Other settlers abused the encomienda – a system whereby colonists were meant to take responsibility for a group of Indians in exchange for their labour. They exploited and sometimes virtually enslaved the indigenous population.

In 1604 a new Jesuit province, Paraquaria, was formed, comprising Paraguay and parts of modern north-eastern Argentina and southern Brazil, which then belonged to the Spanish crown. There, the Jesuits aimed to begin missionary work among the Guaraní Indians, who dwelt in small settlements under the authority of a cacique or chieftain.

The Jesuits’ first venture into the jungle region of the Paraná river was undertaken in December 1609 by two priests, Marcelo de Lorenzana (1565–1632), the superior in Asunción and his young assistant, Francisco de San Martín.

A local cacique, Arapizandú, who proved well-disposed to learning about the Christian gospel, invited the two Jesuits to celebrate their Christmastide masses in a rough shack in his settlement. Within days, nine more caciques from the area had gathered there. They learned that the Jesuits were about to found a missionary settlement, termed in Spanish a reducción – a step that would also potentially protect the Guaraní both from bandeirantes and the excesses of the encomienda system.

During 1610, the first Jesuit reduction of San Ignacio Guasu was developed in Guaraní territory. The endeavour was so successful that the Jesuit missionaries founded many more reductions between 1610 and 1707. Of these, a total of 30 eventually survived the extensive destruction caused by repeated bandeirante raids, which led to some reductions having to move location several times. The indomitable Paraguayan-born Jesuit, Roque González de Santa Cruz (1576–1628), canonised in 1988 as the first saint of Paraguay, founded four reductions and developed several more. A reduction normally comprised two Jesuits and up to 5,000 Guaraní men, women and children – a new settlement being formed when an existing one grew too large. Though most Guaraní living in the reductions sought Christian baptism, none were obliged to do so.

The genius of the reductions lay in their development as a genuinely collaborative Jesuit-Guaraní enterprise. The Jesuits could never have succeeded in their endeavours without Guaraní know-how, identifying suitable locations for new settlements with a plentiful water supply, ample stone for building and fertile soil for crop cultivation; and the Guaraní could not have prospered materially without Jesuit technical expertise, which included iron-working.

Demanding work

Only the ablest Jesuits were selected for this demanding missionary work – and requests for postings to Paraquaria far exceeded the places available. Those Jesuits who were dispatched to South America mastered the Guaraní tongue rapidly and, led by men such as Antonio Ruiz de Montoya (1585–1652), published the earliest Guaraní dictionaries, as well as teaching the Indians to read and write their own, previously unwritten, language.

Though every reduction was different in design, all followed a common pattern: the settlement was always based around a central plaza mayor, or main square, with, at one end, a very large church capable of accommodating the whole community, an adjacent communal burial ground, and a colegio where education was provided, and alongside which the Jesuits lived. In workshops next to the church, each reduction developed its own areas of expertise, including iron and silver-work, carpentry, gilding, weaving, and musical instrument-making. On three sides of the square were dwellings for individual Guaraní families. Each reduction had a separate, protected koty guasu or large house for widows, orphans and single women. Running water and full sanitation was available to the whole community.

The genius of the reductions lay in their development as a genuinely collaborative Jesuit-Guaraní enterprise

Each reduction operated a barter economy and, with many possessions held in common, was a self-governing and self-sustaining community. A careful balance was maintained between work and leisure. Through efficient farming methods, the range and volume of crops cultivated in a reduction, including yerba mate, or Paraguayan tea, and the number of cattle and horses raised there, often exceeded the norms in such a colonial context. In sheer size and scale, the buildings of many of the 30 reductions, which in total housed more than 100,000 Guaraní, equalled the great monasteries of medieval Europe.

These successes, which included the production of magnificent Guaraní baroque sculpture, art and music, aroused the jealousy of certain settlers who wished to see the Jesuits expelled and colonial control imposed. The 1750 Treaty of Madrid, allowing the Portuguese to expand their territory in South America at the expense of Spanish terrain there, complicated matters. When seven reductions east of the river Uruguay were transferred into Portuguese territory, their 29,000 inhabitants and the Jesuits, who, unbeknown to Voltaire, now included men from several European countries besides Spain, were ordered to move to the west bank. The Jesuits obeyed the order, but the Guaraní rose up in protest. A bloody war ensued, culminating in 1756 in the battle of Caiboaté in which over 1,500 Guaraní, including their charismatic leader, Sepe Tiaraju, were killed. The 1986 film, The Mission, is loosely based on this episode.

When, for complex political reasons, the Jesuits, including the English missionary and doctor, Thomas Falkner (1707–1784), were expelled from all Spanish colonies in South America in 1767 and 1768, the reductions continued. However, many were gradually abandoned. The impetus provided by the Jesuits had been lost and some of the Guaraní began to move into urban areas. Today, the impressive ruins of the reductions of Paraquaria – still being reclaimed from the jungle of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil – are an enduring reminder of a “masterpiece of humanity”, years ahead of its time.

To find out more about Jesuit missionaries, read The Jesuit “Republic” of the Guaranís (1609–1768) and its Heritage by Sélim Abou (Crossroad Publishing/UNESCO, 1997).

Jesuit timeline

1540 Society of Jesus is founded

1549 First Jesuits reach South America

1604 Jesuit province of Paraquaria is founded

1609 Jesuits venture into Guaraní territory and found the first reduction

1610–1707 Many reductions are founded in Paraquaria, of which 30 survive

1750 Treaty of Madrid redefines Spanish and Portuguese territory in Paraquaria

1754–1756 Guaraní War

1767–1768 Jesuits are expelled from Spain and all Spanish colonies

1970s Conservation of the ruins of the Jesuit reductions of Paraquaria begins

1983 First Jesuit reductions in Argentina and Brazil are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites

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1993 First Jesuit reductions in Paraguay are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites