While Indigenous people in the northern part of this continent await an apology from Pope Francis for abuse suffered in church-run residential schools (next steps to come after a series of conversations in Rome in December), the Pope apologized to the people of Mexico for the violence committed by Spanish conquerors during the colonization and evangelization of the Americas.
In March 2019, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had written to King Felipe of Spain and Pope Francis, urging them to apologise for the “abuses” of colonialism and the conquest. (This year, Mexico has been marking the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán, to the conquistadores, and the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain.)
The apology by Pope Francis to the people of Mexico came in response to the letter from López Obrador. While it was made public Sept. 27 by the Mexican bishops conference, it was dated Sept. 16 and issued from Basilica of St. John Lateran—the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome.
The apology, received calmly in Mexico, set off a furor among conservative politicians in Spain.
José María Aznar, a former president of the Spanish government, made a series of racist jokes about López Obrador during a meeting in Seville of his Partido Popular. Another prominent PP politician, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of the Madrid regional government, told a U.S. audience that Spain had brought to Latin America nothing but “freedom, prosperity, peace, understanding.” Spain’s socialist government had earlier dismissed the call for an apology, saying “the arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.”
The Spanish reactions brought to mind the fury of Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and governor of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo when, in December 1511, a young priest denounced the crimes of the land-owners and colonial authorities against the Taíno Indigenous nation.
Leaders of the Dominican religious order in Santo Domingo had chosen Antón Montesino (more commonly referred to now as Antonio de Montesinos), to deliver a message to land-owners and the colonial authorities. By then, the leaders of the Taíno people had already been killed. Tens of thousands more died from famine and disease.
Drawing from gospel descriptions of St. John the Baptist (John 1:19b-28), Montesino spoke:
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island… Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labours, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day?… Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?”
The young priest’s words sparked immediate anger. In the congregation that day was Diego Colón, the island’s governor and son of Christopher Columbus. Montesino could barely complete the celebration of Mass. Later in the day, Colón led a delegation to a meeting with the Dominican superior, Pedro de Córdoba, who told him the sermon was the responsibility of the entire community.
A week later, on Dec. 28, Montesino preached again on the same themes. This time, Colón and others sent their protests to King Ferdinand V in Madrid. Over subsequent years, priests were recalled, studies were carried out, promises were made and broken—and the Taíno people continued to die. Worse, the colonial enterprise, based on slavery and ruthless exploitation, expanded throughout the hemisphere. By the time Hernán Cortés headed for Mexico and new genocides in 1519, between 80 and 90 per cent of the Taíno population on Hispaniola had died, and the pattern was being repeated in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Also present for Montesino’s homilies was a young priest who was also a land-owner, Bartolomé de Las Casas. As became his practice over the next 55 years, he wrote everything down.
The Montesino sermon was a turning point for Las Casas. He came to see that Jesus Christ was being crucified again in the slaughter of the Indigenous people. He joined the Dominicans and dedicated his life to challenging the church and the Spanish empire of his day. In 1543, he was named bishop of Chiapas, but only spent about six months there before opposition from colonial land-owners forced him to carry his struggle to defend the Indigenous people to Rome and Madrid.
Much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561. In his long life, he was able to correct errors: among them, failure to denounce slavery, particularly that of Africans. He later advocated that all slavery be abolished.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first publication in Spanish of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, the book that opened the door to subsequent decades of writing theology from the context—the ways people practice their faith in their real lives.
In Las Casas, Gutiérrez found a model leader and writer who bore faithful witness to the struggles of his time. Gutiérrez wrote a lively biography: Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Orbis, 1993).