Your Three Minutes of Civilization

Courtesy of the Jesuit Reductions of Paraguay…

It’s really too bad more hasn’t been written about the Jesuit Reductions:

The singular nature of the Reductions has roused the interest and admiration of numerous thinkers, philosophers, historians, economists, and explorers to an exceptional degree. Men of the most divergent callings and denominations have expressed their warmest appreciation. These opinions, in conjunction with the brilliant testimonials of the Spanish kings, of governors, inspectors, bishops and others should be sufficiently weighty to characterize as lies and slanderous accusations the spiteful attacks of professed enemies of the Church and the Jesuits. It is to be regretted that prejudice against the Jesuit Order still spreads these lies of history. The Reduction system undoubtedly had its weak points and imperfections; they may be advanced against the system, but this should be done in a manner consistent with objective historical research. It is certainly inconsistent to bestow immoderate praise upon the system of the Incas, and at the same time to find fault with the Reduction system, which adopted and Christianized all the good features of that system. An objection frequently advanced against the Reductions, even by well-meaning writers, was that the Reduction system did not educate the Indians up to autonomy but allowed them to remain in a state of tutelage. This policy, they maintain, explains the decline of the Reductions after the expulsion of the Jesuits. In answer it may be briefly stated that

  • The work of the Jesuits was destroyed before it had reached its highest development.
  • As a matter of fact, the Jesuits used every effort to educate the Indians up to autonomy. Their efforts were frustrated by the deep-rooted indolence of the race. Proof of this is found in the fact that the Indians who left the Reductions and emigrated to the Spanish colonies failed to rise to independent positions, even among the most favourable conditions.
  • The Reduction system must not be measured by European standards but according to the conditions prevailing at the time in Spanish colonies. “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 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 and the unitas passed their lives.”
  • The system employed was, in fact, the only means adopted to save the Indians. “Whatever one may say of the Jesuit Missions,” Dr. K. Haebler writes (“Jahrbuch d. Geschichtwissenschaft”, 1895), they absolutely merit the praise that theirs were the only settlements in which the Indians did not die out, but rather increased in number.” Of the 80,000 Indians living in the Province of Santiago del Estero in the seventeenth century, only 80 remained about 1750; of 40,000 in the Cordóba territory only 40.
  • To what extent the self-reliance of the Reduction Indians and their appreciation of the unencumbered right of property was actually developed under Jesuit training was proved by their conduct during the war of the seven Reductions (see below), which, as is well known, was occasioned by the refusal of the Indians to surrender their land to the Portuguese, and by the fact that, for the first time in this matter, they rebelled even against the will of the Fathers. The dissolution of the Reductions after the departure of the Jesuits was not the result of their system, but of that which succeeded it.

The one criticism of the reductiones was that it kept the Guarani simple.  The rejoinder to this criticism was that no other system of human improvement took a community so swiftly from primitive conditions to Christian utopia.  The ruins of the Jesuit missions are a testament to the superiority of this remarkable tribe and the Jesuits who led them.

Naturally, the story of their downfall was made famous by the epic film The Mission.  Without spoiling the movie:

…and this was one of the smaller churches that survived the Spanish and Portuguese when the two empires divided and systematically wiped out the Guarani settlements.


This here?  If you look in the distance, that small bit in the center?  Is about as tall as a man.  That’s how massive this parish church was.

George A. Lane, SJ (h/t to The Lion and the Cardinal):

In 1607 the Superior General of the Society of Jesus formed a new province of the Order to be known as the Province of Paraguay. The principal subjects of this missionary effort were the Guaraní Indians, nomadic tribes who lived in an area south and east of Asunción in Paraguay. These were primitive people, cannibals in fact, who lived together in small groups with allegiance to a cacique or chieftain. Yet for all their primitive characteristics, the Guaraní Indians had a remarkable receptivity to Christianity.

The work of the missioners among the Indians in South America was greatly hampered by the European colonists. Slave hunters, called Paulistas because they set out from São Paulo, regularly captured thousands of Indians and sold them into slavery. In one year alone, these raiders are reported to have killed or captured some thirty thousand Indians. They totally destroyed the first two Reductions of the Paraguay Province… Besides these flagrant abuses, the bad example of the colonists in general made belief in Christianity all but impossible for the Indians.

For these reasons, together with the difficulty of keeping up with nomadic people, the Jesuits decided to separate their Indians from the Europeans and establish the mission settlements or Reductions [a transliteration of the Spanish word reducción, which may perhaps best be translated as community] in otherwise uninhabited areas…

One of the pioneer missioners, Father Ruiz de Montoya, spoke of the Reductions as gatherings of Indians and Indian villages into larger towns and into political and humane societies. He also offered a more dynamic description: These Indians scattered amid forests were gathered by our efforts into large towns and transformed from rustics into city-dwelling Christians by the constant preaching of the Gospel

Ten years after the founding of the Paraguay Province, the number of Jesuit priests and brothers assigned to it had grown from seven to 113. The Indian settlements eventually numbered more than thirty cities and came to be known as the Guaraní Republic.

The Reductions formed a sort of semi-autonomous unit within the Spanish Empire. Each mission normally included from two thousand to four thousand Indians directed by two or three Jesuits. A superior living in Candelaria, roughly in the center of the mission area, was in general charge of the Jesuits and he appointed the priests and brothers to each mission. He, in turn was under a provincial superior and the provincial answered to the general of the Society of Jesus in Rome… The internal government of each mission town was provided by the chiefs or caciques, the elected cabildo, and the chief magistrate who was appointed by the governor on the pastor’s recommendation.

In these remarkably organized settlements, the Jesuits provided for all the spiritual and material needs of the Indians, training them to practice not only the Christian faith, but numerous trades and crafts as well. And because of their exceptional native talents, the Guaranís were soon able to practice most of the trades and crafts known at the time. Some became tailors, carpenters, joiners, builders; others became stone cutters, blacksmiths, tile makers; still others became painters, sculptors, printers, organ builders, copyists and calligraphers.

As the Reductions developed, each had an elementary school with Indian teachers educated by the Jesuits. In some of the Reductions, printing presses were set up and books were published. As early as 1705, the Indians had built their own presses and even made the type as well.

The skill of the Indians is especially evident in the beautiful stone work seen in the ruins of the churches. And the churches themselves were the scenes of liturgies, complete with polyphonic music, that were equal to those performed in the cathedrals of Europe…

The great tragedy of the Jesuit Reductions of Paraguay came about in 1767 when the Jesuit priests and brothers were expelled from Spain and all of its colonies. By order of the king the men were rounded up and deported to Europe. The population of the Reductions declined and, in succeeding years, time and military actions took their toll on the buildings.

What remain today are noble ruins, some sculpture, and the memory of one of the brightest chapters in human history.

[Lost Cities of Paraguay: Art & Architecture of the Jesuit Reductions 1607-1767 by C.J. McNaspy, SJ. Photographs by J.M. Blanch, SJ. Loyola University Press: Chicago, 1982]

For 180 years, the Jesuits built utopia.

…and today, it’s all gone.

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