by Fr. Charles Polzer, SJ

Fr. Charles Polzer, SJ, is director of the Documentary Relations of the Southwest and curator of the American Division Jesuit Historical Institute at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Company is to be commended for focusing this issue on Jesuit apostolates in Canada and Mexico. For some errant reason we look upon these neighbor nations as if they were foreign missions that are only now feeling the impact of the Society. Our lack of knowledge of our own history impedes a proper evaluation of what the Society has stood for and what it stands for today in the Americas. Too often we are content to let labels and headlines distort the richness of reality, both past and present. Take the North American Martyrs, for example. The label leads us to believe no others died in service of the faith except at the hands of a few Indian tribes in the northeastern United States. Who today pays homage to Padre Segura and the missing Jesuit ministers of the Ajacán mission on the Chesapeake?

A score of Franciscan friars from coast to coast should also figure in the roster of martyrs, some of whom died more than a century before our Jesuit martyrs. Dominicans, Augustinians, Geronymites, and many other religious also spent their lives bringing the Gospel to North America. Knowing the history of New France, La Florida, Havana, and New Spain transforms our appreciation of the presence of the Company in the Americas. Without this historical perspective, we lose sight of the continuity of our commitment to the poor and to the spread of the Gospel. Neither Canada nor Mexico is a foreign mission; both are regions that carry on a near half-millennium of Ignatian endeavor.

Jesuits in Canada obviously tread a distinguished trail, especially of French Jesuits, who penetrated Indian territory from the interlaced lakes and dense woods of the north to the swollen river deltas of the Gulf of Mexico. They were not conquerors; they were servants of God hunting the welfare of people who had yet to hear the Word. The French companies wanted pelts; the Company of Jesus wanted converts.

No one wants to resurrect the political battles of those times, but our ignorance of the details of those difficult missions has allowed distorted presentations of our history by revisionist ideologues. The ruggedly raw portrayal of Jesuits in The Blackrobe twisted the heroism of sacrifice and the asceticism of the Society into a macabre, adolescent psychodrama. Who could take pride in that kind of historical plunder?

The spotlight falling on apostolic works in Mexico illuminates the plight of a nation racked by economic woes and social disorientation. It blinds us to the staggering record of constancy and service wrought by the Jesuits of the Province of New Spain for two centuries before their expulsion in 1767. From all over Europe and North America, courageous young men converged to offer their lives in service to indigenous peoples scattered over regions from the isthmus of the Western Hemisphere to the mountain fastnesses of the northern continent. They explored, they built, they planted, they harvested, they taught, they protected, they spent themselves in service, and they died often alone and now forgotten. But they succeeded in helping Native peoples form communities that could survive the grueling rigors of European expansion.

We in the United States pay so little tribute to the heroism of the French and Spanish missionaries. We teach our history in defiant ignorance, and in that same ignorance we often succumb to current trends of political correctness. Bereft of a historical context, we view the old apostolates of the Society as malevolent, misguided cooperation in the unethical conquest of the world. Yet a careful, detailed analysis of the work of Jesuits long since deceased reveals almost unparalleled service in education and in establishing systems of justice and charity. Remember, in those times the excesses of many European monarchs felt the stinging criticism of the Company to the extent that most Jesuits were exiled and finally suppressed.

It was historians, in particular Francis Parkman, Reuben Thwaites, and Herbert Bolton, who discovered the expansive richness of the work of Jesuits in America. Their work contributed to the development of whole disciplines, including anthropology, linguistics, and frontier studies. And the records of the Society were central to their work. They long since put the lie to the Black Legend that Spain and her missionaries were out to enslave the world, and they showed that the Society's missionaries on both American continents had the welfare of the indigenous peoples at heart. Remember the colonial slogan "The best Indian is a dead Indian"? Well, the Spaniards claimed the best Indian was a healthy Indian working for the strengthening of the empire.

Long before Harvard trained its seminarians, Jesuits in Mexico City and Puebla were fully engaged in higher education that went beyond theology into science and culture. Remote mission centers trained Native youth in all the basics of reading, writing, mathematics, music, and the humanities. And as the frontiers moved northward, Jesuits were there to open missions and schools from Culiacán to Chihuahua. The Californias, which rebuffed Spanish adventurers from Cortez to Atondo, were explored and evangelized by stalwart Jesuits from Italy, Germany, Spain, Mexico, and Central America. The men of the Company were in lockstep, challenging the pace of progress.

Although they faced the same sorts of problems we face today, especially financial ones, they responded with ingenuity and enthusiasm. The famous Pious Fund of the Californias truly shaped history because its Jesuit inventors wanted a reliable source of funds for their far- flung apostolates. The generosity of friends combined with shrewd management created one of the most powerful resources in the history of the Americas, influencing the role of the Church into the twentieth century.

How many of us remember the agony of the Blackrobes of the Americas who were forced to march to their exile (many to their death), tossed into the holds of tiny ships, sequestered in cramped quarters -- all to satisfy the wild anticlericalism of European monarchs? Their suffering was followed by the suffering of the people. Universities were stripped of faculties, haciendas of compassionate managers, missions of devoted protectors, and the people of their land and property. It is into that social vacuum that the Company has tried repeatedly to return, to regain lost ground, and to render unselfish service.

As Company does in this issue, we witness the resilient continuity of apostolic service by those who share Ignatius's vision of being men and women for others. This is the story being told in these pages -- a return and a rebirth of the work of the sons of Ignatius and their associates.

We need to see the Society's works in Canada, Mexico, and the United States as integral parts of an apostolic continuum that responds to society's needs not as an institutional juggernaut, which our manpower projections will never permit, but as adaptive and innovative missioners. Less and less should our apostolates remain in isolation, because the phenomenon of cultural amalgamation presses hard upon us throughout North America. The history of the Ajacán, Huron, and Piman missions are as much a part of our common history as that of the Delaware, Sioux, and Blackfeet. The faculties of Puebla, Mexico City, and Guadalajara are as much a part of our tradition as those at Fordham, Santa Clara, and Regis in Toronto.

Company's casting its gaze outside the borders of the United States reminds us that we all share a deep-seeded, widespread tradition in service to the peoples of the Americas. And the day will soon come when an article about Canadian and Mexican apostolates is as germane to ourselves as an article about JVC members in Alaska or the explorations of Jogues or De Smet.

To know our history is not enough; the facts will always remain. What is important is to craft an understanding of those facts that embodies an Ignatian appreciation of those apostolic works that know no borders or ideology. We must see the Americas as our forebears saw it -- a hemisphere of opportunity for new ideas, schemes of justice, and systems to respect and enhance human rights.

As I see it, the whole of our history and the whole of North America should stand as a guiding light for the next millennium. There is strength in our accomplishments; there are correctives for our mistakes. There is genuine hope for our labors, which will stand tall and worthy of our traditions, no longer just Canadian, Mexican, or Yankee, but truly American, truly Ignatian.

Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, [email protected] Created: 5/22/96 Updated: 5/22/96