July 2020 Print

Christendom in the Jungle: The Jesuit Missions in Paraguay

The Jesuit Missions in Paraguay

By Fr. Juan Carlos Iscara

The Jesuit reductions were a type of settlement for indigenous people in the Rio Grande do Sul area of Brazil, Paraguay, and neighboring Argentina in South America, established by the Jesuit Order early in the 17th century and wound up in the 18th century with the banning of the Jesuit order in Europe. The Jesuits attempted to create a “state within a state” in which the native peoples in the reductions, guided by the Jesuits, would remain autonomous and isolated from Spanish colonists and Spanish rule. A major factor attracting the natives to the reductions was the protection they afforded from enslavement and the forced labor.

For centuries the Church faithfully carried out the mission entrusted by Our Lord to His Apostles: Go, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.

It is our sad lot to have witnessed the recent Synod of the Amazon relegating that command to the dustbin of History, a synod in which the Church hierarchy asked to be taught by the ancestral wisdom of its pagan former charges, and where a venerable missionary bishop could be heard boasting that he had not baptized an “indigenous person” in 35 years.

To withstand the tide of forgetfulness, cowardice, and apostasy surging around us, let us honor the memory and the achievements of those members of a once-extraordinary religious order who, literally, built the City of God in the fringes of the same Amazonian world.

In the Beginning…

After the shock of finding peoples unaccounted for in their vision of the world, the very first missionaries in America, Franciscans imbued with millenarist and apocalyptic ideals, dreamed of establishing a utopian community, isolated from the corruptions of the Old World, and in which native customs would be integrated with true evangelization—a Jerusalén Indiana, a heavenly Jerusalem descended upon these “Indies.”

The Jesuits arrived later, by the end of the 16th century, when Christianity was already firmly planted in the conquered territories. They established their houses and colleges in the colonial cities, but directed their missionary efforts to unexplored lands, to the boundaries between the Spanish and Portuguese dominions. There, they created the mission territories of Guaranies (Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil), Chiquitos and Moxos (Bolivia), and Maynas (Peru).

Realistic and pragmatic, the Jesuits were neither naïve nor “mystically” deluded. While pursuing a high ideal, ad majorem Dei gloriam, they followed the paths that Providence opened before them and what experience dictated, to preach the Gospel to the natives and to integrate them into a Christian polity. Hence, the Jesuits purified and perfected the Franciscan idea of isolated communities to effectively protect the Indians from very real abuses at the hands of Spanish and Portuguese settlers, lay and ecclesiastical alike.

Religious statue at the Jesuit ruins of the Mission of La Santissima Trinidad, Paraguay

The Guarani Mission

In Paraguay, the Guaranies were a semi-nomadic people, practicing some minor agriculture in temporary, small autonomous villages under the dual leadership of caciques—local chiefs—and shamans. As resources were plentiful and easily available, the relative ease of life brought along laziness, lack of prevision, sensuality.

The beginnings of the mission were difficult. The Jesuits went into the forests, seeking the Indians, first on foot, later in canoes along the rivers. The natives tended to flee from the foreigners, but were attracted by the songs and music they heard from the Jesuit camps. Contact was made through interpreters, but it was awkward and mutually confusing. The Jesuits applied themselves to learn the language, and soon they were composing grammars and dictionaries for the new missionaries. Noticing the limited capacity of the Guaranies for abstraction, the Jesuits instructed them in the faith as if they were children, while hoping in the future to work towards developing a greater facility for abstract thought.

The Jesuits were fully aware of the gifts and failings of the Indians, and of the long lasting effort needed for evangelizing and civilizing them. If the Guaranies were left alone, when the missionaries moved on or when they themselves moved away, the knowledge of the faith would fade, the vices would not be overcome… To follow the Indians in their semi-nomadic life was impossible, as there were too few Jesuits—and in any case, the civilizing effort would be impeded.

The only feasible solution appeared to be gathering the Indians together in the places where the missionaries resided. This solution, favored by the Crown and the Superiors of the Order, was finally adopted—to reduce the roaming territory of the Indians, bringing them into newly-created missionary towns. These were not called “missions” but “reductions,” gathering points into which the scattered groups were “reduced” to communal life, or even “doctrines,” places where the faith was taught and preserved.

For the Guaranies, a permanent settlement implied a profound change of social structure, of customs and work habits. To facilitate the transition, the Jesuits decided to preserve as much as possible of the traditional way of Guarani life, insofar as it was not incompatible with Christianity and the goal of creating a stable, sedentary, politically autonomous community.

The new system brought the Indians under the direct authority and supervision of the Jesuits. The Guaranies were protected from many abuses, and the evangelizing and civilizing efforts were kept going, but added an enormous material and moral burden on the Jesuits.

Moreover, the Jesuits’ reservation of lands and workers stirred up much opposition and hostility—of the settlers, whose lands were profitable only if there were Indians to work them at very low cost; of some civil and ecclesiastical authorities, because the Jesuits, with the powers granted by the Crown, effectively evaded their authority; and of other religious orders, out of jealousy for their autonomy and envy of their success.

Life in the “Reductions”

Even in the material life of the “reductions,” everything—from the layout of the towns to the Indians’ work and recreation—was devised and organized in such a way to draw the greatest benefit from the Guaranies’ forces and virtues, and to correct, or at least compensate for, their known failings and weaknesses.

In Paraguay, for the almost 100,000 Guaranies in their charge, the Jesuits created a system of 30 interconnected towns, with their dependent lands, structured along the waterways, the great rivers (Paraná, Paraguay, Uruguay) and man-made channels and reservoirs. This communication network was complemented by roads, with bridges, staging posts, ferries at dangerous crossings, having chapels every 5 miles, with rooms for travelers. The network was maintained by the reductions and centered in Candelaria, the “capital” of the Paraguay reductions—a system far superior to what existed in the country in the late 19th century.

The towns were built as the Spanish pueblos, in a grid pattern, on elevated terrain and surrounded by defensive works. Although they followed the same pattern and were very similar, no two towns had exactly the same plan, dimensions or distribution of buildings. The only noticeable difference, even “competition,” among them was in the originality and beauty of their churches.

The Central Square was reached by a wide avenue from the town entrance. It was a communal space, for the daily meetings before work, and also for festivities, processions, and catechisms. Dances, games, competitions, and theatrical performances also took place there, usually at night, due to the climate and native customs.

In spite of the acknowledged intellectual shortcomings of the Indians, the missionaries strove to build their faith and piety on a rational foundation, teaching them Catholic doctrine in daily religion classes for the children and catechism and Sunday sermons for the adults. Nonetheless, the Jesuits also made good use of the musical potential of the Guaranies, developing a whole catechesis through sensible symbols, songs and dances. Dogmas were put into verse and music, with simple melodies, adapted to the Indian tastes, which were sung every day before the Rosary. The theatrical performances, similar to the medieval “mysteries,” were used to explain to simple people the truths of faith, moral principles and sacred history.

On one side of the square was the Church, the “house of God,” but also of everyone, as everyone worked in it and used it daily, although in the nave the sexes were kept separated. It was the first thing to be built and itself was an assertion of faith, placed to dominate the town and inspire awe. Originally simple wooden structures, later they were rebuilt in stone. Inside they were spacious, with cedar wood beams and altars, walls decorated with paintings on linen, and everywhere flowers, sweet herbs, and floors sprinkled with scented water.

Almost everybody assisted at daily Mass, even if no one was obliged to do so—they attended in silence, without idle conversations or immodest looks, for they were in the “house of God”; thanksgiving was said in common at the end of Mass. They received the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist frequently, especially when departing for longer journeys. Baptisms and marriages were solemnly celebrated, and their social importance was stressed by the presence of the local civil authorities.

At the side of the church was the Jesuit residence, closed to women. It had not only rooms for the Fathers, but also offices and workshops, warehouses and courtyards for work. It allowed for the easy supervision of work and of the use of the stores.

At the other side of the church was the cemetery, and even there, the sexes were separated.

Beyond it was the cotiguazú, the “big house.” To protect morals and families, it was the lodging for women who were alone (widows, unmarried young women, and women whose husbands were temporarily absent). It was walled, with only one access, well visible from the Jesuits’ residence.

Behind the church compound there was an orchard, where were grown vegetables, fruits, vines for Mass wines (when possible), and flowers for the church.

The houses for the Indians were on the sides of the square, made of adobe and wood, although at the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits many were being rebuilt in stone.

Each block contained a succession of rooms, one per family, fronted by wide verandas, as most of their daily lives took place outdoors. The rooms were dignified, allowing for no differences of wealth or social position. Moreover, the single-family room helped the Jesuits to break the custom of polygamy.

The families were grouped in blocks, according to their blood and affinity relationships. This distribution not only preserved family bonds, but it also maintained the previous community bonds, as the caciques of each group were acknowledged by the Jesuits as the heads of each “neighborhood,” thus maintaining their leadership within their respective groups.

The housing blocks were separated by wide, paved streets, to prevent fires spreading.

One block was reserved for the cabildo, the town hall, seat of a local civil government, answerable to the Crown through the colonial officials. As the Jesuits respected the hierarchies of the tribe, they gave a special formation and attention to the caciques and their children, as being the natural candidates for civil offices.

In each town there was a major (corregidor), an Indian chosen by the caciques and confirmed by the Spanish governor. The cabildo itself, the town council, was formed of important Indians, chosen by the Indians themselves, on account of their personal reputation and capacities. It exercised the three powers of government, as in any other Spanish town, but under supervision of the Fathers.

The Jesuits’ aim was to lead the Guaranies gradually, not only to a virtuous Christian life, but also to a social and political maturity that would perhaps, one day, allow them to govern themselves. It was a difficult, long-term struggle, requiring constant supervision and guidance, due to Guaraní character. But there were founded hopes of success when, sadly, their effort was cut short by the Jesuits’ expulsion.

Outside the town there was the tambo, a guest-house for visitors. In fact, visitors were discouraged, in order to protect the Indians from foreign influences and to limit the curiosity and rumors about the Jesuit operation.

The Dependent Lands

Being so remote, the towns had to be self-sufficient, to prevent the Indians’ return to semi-nomadism and the loss of faith, and also to have products to trade for what could not be obtained or manufactured in the towns.

The Guaranies had no notion of property, much less of private property or of ownership of land. There was no need for it in their semi-nomadic past, but settled life demanded at least rudimentary forms of individual possession of land. To that end, the agricultural fields around the towns were divided in two sections.

The abambaé, the “portion of man,” were the equal plots of land allocated by the caciques to each family. The yield of each plot was sufficient for the support of a family, and it was the absolute property of the Indians, to be used as they pleased.

The Tupambaé, the “portion of God,” were fields worked by all, taking turns for two days every week. They yielded more than the private lots, as the work was better organized, under the Fathers’ surveillance, with music and song helping the work along. The produce was stored in warehouses and held in trust for the community, for the support of the sick, widows and orphans, and also as reserve against famine, for exchange for foreign goods, and for payment of the tribute to the Crown.

The Jesuits received a small salary granted by the Crown. All the property they administered was Tupambaé—nothing belonged personally to Jesuits. Anything taken from the common stores for their personal use had to be paid, and if the Indians did any personal work for the Jesuits, they had to be paid for it.

Farther away from the towns there were the estancias, cattle ranches, established in the flatlands of southern Brazil and Uruguay, worked by teams of Indians from each town, and also yerbales, plantations of yerba mate, an “energy drink” intended as an alternative for drunkenness.

The Jesuits in the Towns

To bring forth fruits of salvation, the Guarani mission had to be seeded by the blood of martyrs—that of the indefatigable founder of many of the first reductions, Bl. Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz, and his two companions, Juan del Castillo and Alonso Rodriguez y Olmedo.

As the years passed, different “waves” of Jesuits arrived. First were the Spanish and Portuguese, founding the missions in accordance to the requirements of the Spanish laws. Later came the Swiss, Germans, Austrians, and Bohemians, establishing industries and factories, organizing trade. Finally, the Italians—musicians, composers, architects, and printers.

All of them enriched the missions with their particular gifts, but all were also extremely capable of turning their hands to whatever needed to be done, or to rapidly learn about it… Fr. Domenico Zipoli, Tuscan, was the most famous composer in Spanish South America. Fr. Anton Sepp, Austrian, was a musician, who taught the Indians at Yapeyú how to build musical instruments, then taught himself to be an architect, and in his spare time devised a method for extracting iron ore for his foundries. Fr. Buenaventura Suárez, a Spanish astronomer, built a telescope with the aid of Indian craftsmen and established an observatory in San Cosme.

In each town there was usually only one priest in residence, although in theory there should have been two—one remaining in town, while the other was making visits and celebrating Masses in outlying chapels.

A Lost Paradise

By mid-18th century, with Freemasonry in ascendancy, the attacks against the Jesuits increased, culminating in 1773 with the suppression of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuit “reductions,” divided between the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns and entrusted to religious and lay administrators, promptly fell apart, destroyed by their incomprehension of the Jesuit methods, by greed and personal enmities, and by the resistance or the flight of the Indians, to which was soon to be added the upheaval of the independence of the former Spanish colonies.

Perhaps the best unbiased epitaph to the Jesuits’ achievement was written in 1901 by Robert Cunninghame-Graham, a Scottish Protestant and socialist, who, on both counts, was not a friend of the Catholic Church or of the Spanish Crown:

“In America, and most of all in Paraguay, the Order did much good, and worked amongst the Indians like apostles, receiving an apostle’s true reward of calumny, of stripes, of blows, and journeying hungry, athirst, on foot, in perils oft, from the great cataract of the Paraná to the recesses of the Tarumensian woods.

“All that I know is I, myself, in the deserted missions, five-and-twenty years ago often have met old men who spoke regretfully of Jesuit times, who cherished all the customs left by the Company, and though they spoke at secondhand, repeating but the stories they had heard in youth, kept the illusion that the missions in the Jesuits’ time had been a paradise.

“Into the matter of the Jesuits’ motives I do not propose to enter, yet it is certain the Jesuits in Paraguay had faith fit to remove all mountains, as the brief stories of their lives, so often ending with a rude field-cross by the corner of some forest and the inscription ‘hic occissus est’ [‘here he was killed’] survive to show.

“Rightly or wrongly, but according to their lights, they strove to teach the Indian population all the best part of the European progress of the times in which they lived, shielding them sedulously from all contact with commercialism, and standing between them and the Spanish settlers, who would have treated them as slaves. These were their crimes…

“That the interior system of their government was perfect, or such as would be suitable for men called ‘civilized’ to-day, is not the case. That it was not only suitable, but perhaps the best that under all the circumstances could have been devised for Indian tribes two hundred years ago, and then but just emerged from semi-nomadism, is, I think, clear, when one remembers in what a state of misery and despair the Indians of the encomiendas passed their lives.

“The Jesuits’ aim was to make the great bulk of the Indians under their control contented, and that they gained their end the complaints against them by the surrounding population of slave-holders and hunters after slaves go far to prove.

“Nearly two hundred years they strove, and now their territories, once so populous and so well cultivated, remain, if not a desert, yet delivered up to that fierce-growing, subtropical American plant life which seems as if it fights with man for the possession of the land in which it grows. For a brief period those Guaranis gathered together in the missions, ruled over by their priests, treated like grown-up children, yet with a kindness which attached them to their rulers, enjoyed a half-Arcadian, half-monastic life, reaching to just so much of what the world calls civilization as they could profit by and use with pleasure to themselves. A commonwealth where money was unknown to the majority of the citizens, a curious experiment by self-devoted men, a sort of dropping down a diving-bell in the flood of progress to keep alive a population which would otherwise soon have been suffocated in its muddy waves, was doomed to failure by the very nature of mankind…”