An advent sermon 1511
On 21 December 1511, the fourth Sunday of Advent, a memorable event occurred in the Dominican church in Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola – today, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Antonio de Montesinos, a friar, got up in the pulpit and preached what has become known as the first cry for social justice in the Americas. Dominicans had been present in the New World for just over a year, but his words stung the ears of his listeners:
“I am the voice of Christ crying out in the desert of this island… the most shocking and dangerous voice you have ever heard. You live and die in mortal sin for the cruelty and tyranny done against these innocent peoples. With what right and by which justice do you hold these Indians in such horrible servitude? By what authority do you carry out such detestable wars against the people of these lands – people so meek and peaceful?…Are these not human beings? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this? How can you be in such a profound and lethargic slumber? Be certain that in the state in which you find yourselves you can no more be saved than…those who lack or have no faith in Jesus Christ.”
These are startling words, and they received a startling response. Diego Colon, Columbus’ son and successor, protested vigorously about Montesinos’ preaching to fr. Pedro de Cordoba, the 28 year old superior of the local community. Colon was stunned at de Cordoba’s response: “We are all authors of this sermon; fray Montesinos was simply our mouthpiece, our thundering apocalyptic voice.”
Setting the scene
Fr Antonio Montesinos was among the first 15 Dominicans that the Master of the Order, the famous Thomas de Vio Cajetan, sent in 1510 to help evangelize the ‘New World.’ The fact that the Master of the Order was involved in sending these friars shows how important he regarded their coming. It was just 18 years since Columbus had ‘discovered’ the lands we call the Americas.
It is quite difficult for us at five centuries remove to recognize the significance of the ‘finding’ and opening up of the Americas. James Allison has described it like this:
“It was and is momentous… the greatest event since the Incarnation was how it was seen by some in the 16th century. Certainly, landing on the moon has had no such effect and the discovery of penicillin has not had such universal consequences.”
Columbus’ discoveries quickly meant that many European people arrived in the Carribean, happy to become part of the conquest on behalf of the Spanish Crown, to colonize and begin the process of the wholesale theft of the continents’ resources. The Franciscans accompanied them. Other secular priests and religious orders followed. This group of Dominican friars, including Montesinos, was part of this “second wave.”
By 1511, the basic mandate for priests and religious coming from Spain to the Americas was clear. They were to make Christians of the indigenous population, and to look after the Spanish colonists’ and soldiers’ (conquistadores) spiritual and pastoral needs. It was presumed that the Dominicans would fit into the religious arm of the colonization process, now running at full speed.
But they didn’t. Why was that, and what was it that this first group of Dominicans saw when they arrived? To understand this we must look at what happened to the local people at the hands of the colonizers.
The first colonizers had immediately found they needed cheap labour to fulfil their ambitions of exploiting the mineral and other resources they regarded as theirs by right of conquest. Columbus himself began what became known as the encomiendas system of supplying labour for the Spanish conquistadores’ business endeavours. Its theory is simple. The Spanish Crown entrusted (“commended”) Indian people to the local Spaniards, known as encomenderos. The Spaniards got the right to demand labour or tribute from the native people while the encomenderos, who became virtual slave owners, were obliged to provide religious teaching and protection for their Indian labourers. This was a rather unequal bargaining arrangement by any objective standard.
As the system grew, the encomenderos were obliged to defend the land for the King. The system was institutionalized by the first royal governor of Hispaniola, Nicholas de Ovando. The Indians were compelled to work, to be paid a daily wage and “treated as free persons for such they are, and not as slaves,” one of the terms of the royal order of 1503.
However, despite the terms of this royal order, in the first 20 years of Spanish rule there was wholesale exploitation of the Indians. Thousands of them ‘died like flies’ because of the introduction of European diseases like influenza, and also because of the fact that they were unaccustomed to work in the way in which the Spaniards drove them to work. The indigenous people commonly lost heart amongst themselves. Queen Isabella of Spain, hearing of some abuses, had forced Columbus to return the first 300 Indian slaves he had brought to Spain in 1494. But because communication back and forth across the high seas to Spain was slow and spasmodic, the encomiendas system continued to grow unhindered.
It was against this tough background that Antonio Montesinos preached. The friars in his community had been well prepared for their mission through the spirit of renewal that had spread from the priory of San Esteban in Salamanca. This had given them the tools they needed to see what was happening in Hispaniola. Two things stood out in the style of their evangelization. The first was that they lived poorly among the people. Religious poverty meant that their first convent in Santo Domingo was a set of huts, made of palm branches. It was at the same time their church and studium. They had little materially (but were able to bring some theology books), but quickly learned the truth of the situation of the local people. At the same time they learned the truth about the excesses of the conquistadores. The second and more important feature of their evangelical style was that they preached communally. They prepared their homilies together around a table by candle-light.
One North American historian, Louis Hanke, has described Montesinos’ sermon as “one of the great spiritual events in the history of humanity.” The friars who prepared it with him had scrutinized the signs of the times and interpreted them in the light of the Gospel (Gaudium et Spes, 4). Five hundred years down the track it is important to recall this powerful sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Advent 1511 by Antonio Montesinos, and to link it to our times.
The question raised by Montesinos still rings true: Where in New Zealand or in other parts of the world are people being treated as virtual slaves and not as human beings? Will we be the prophets who will work to change these wrongs? There are many glaring examples: our world-wide banking system that needs a thorough overhaul; the peoples of the third world kept poor structurally by the ever growing and impossible demands of our first world lifestyle – to name just two in which we are all involved. This Christmas Day, the feast of the incarnation, may we celebrate anew the fact that God took on a human face in a humble child who gave his life for us all, but especially for the vulnerable poor and those without champions for their human rights. What positive choices will we make to help renew our world? Viva Montesinos!
Kevin Toomey OP is the editor of Tui Motu