Ss. Roque and Companions

(1576-1628)

Anglo-Saxon America has traditionally belittled the efforts of the Spanish pioneers in the New World – more often than not out of religious and political prejudice. One Hispanic frontier institution that has survived such criticism is the “reduction.” This was a religious-cultural plan carried out by missionaries among the American Indians, with the backing of the kings of Spain. Intent upon teaching the natives both the Catholic faith and skills of European civilization, and meanwhile protecting them against enslavement and oppression, the missionaries gathered these nomads into villages where they learned to support and govern themselves. We in the United States are most familiar with the Franciscan reductions or missions of California.

Even more notable were the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay (1609-1760). A moving picture of the Paraguay reductions called “The Mission” was screened a few years ago.

One of the early participants in this brilliant, if incomplete, social experiment was the Jesuit priest Roque Gonzalez. He was himself born in Asuncion, Paraguay, in 1576, the son of noble Spanish parents. An impressively devout lad, Roque became a diocesan priest in 1599, and at once began to carry the faith to the remote tribesmen of Paraguay. After ten years he joined the Jesuits.

Being a Jesuit, Fr. Gonzalez was even more able to continue his missionary explorations on behalf of the Indians. Some of his fellow-Spaniards were angered by him, for he withstood their efforts to exploit and enslave the natives. The Indians, on the other hand, held Roque in deep paternal respect, and were even ready to accept him as a reconciler. He founded among them several reduction villages, and they began to learn there the acts of self-government and self-sufficiency.

If most of the Indians trusted Fr. Roque and his fellow missionaries, the pagan Indian-medicine men did not. Now a medicine man named Nezu began to organize opposition against Gonzalez. One day in 1628 when the priest was busy installing a church bell in the new mission village of Caaro, a slave named Maragua, who was a partisan of Nezu, attacked him from behind, crushing his skull with a tomahawk. Next, Maragua killed Fr. Alonso Rodriguez, and, on the following day, Fr. Juan de Castillo was slain. These two were Fr. Roque’s Jesuit companions assigned to Caaro. After Fr. Roque’s death, we are told, his horse refused to eat or be ridden, and soon died beside the grave!

Paraguayan Catholics, in general, were appalled by these murders, and from the outset considered the three Jesuits three martyrs. In fact, within six months the Church authorities had launched inquiries intended to promote the canonization of all three as “protomartyrs” (first martyrs) of Latin America. If the trio were beatified only in 1934 (at a ceremony I was privileged to attend), it was because the original documents on the case were lost, and a copy of them was found only a century ago. They were finally canonized in 1988.

Almost a century before his beatification, Father Gonzalez came to public notice in a singular way. In 1857 a Dr. and Mrs. T. L. Nichols of Springfield, Ohio, a worthy and prominent Protestant couple, were taking part in a spiritualistic seance. In connection with the seance, a man appeared to Mrs. Nichols who called himself Gonzalez the martyr, and who urged them to examine the religious teachings of the Jesuits. They approached the Jesuits of St. Xavier College, Cincinnati, took instruction, and joined the Church. Moving to England, they became quite well known in British Catholic circles.

Saint Roque’s appearance in connection with a spiritualistic seance says nothing about the practice of spiritualism. What it does demonstrate is that God can communicate graces to mankind in many different ways.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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