St Diego de San Vitores is the best known of the missionaries and catechists who were killed while preaching the Gospel in the Marianas Islands.
Diego led the first mission there in the late seventeenth century. He and his companions were at first well received but then met resistance from the Chamorou people. Both missionaries and people were caught in a circle of violence and sickness that took the lives of many thousands.
The life and work of St Diego illustrate both the heroism of the early missionaries in planting Christian faith and the tragedy that followed their initiative. Through the work of the missionaries over forty years many people became Catholic.
But the native population of Guam diminished by from over 30,000 to 3,000 in those years, victims to illnesses introduced by the newcomers and to the effects of the military repression of local resistance led by local leaders.
The people saw the missionaries as representatives both of religious faith and foreign power. For Catholics today it is hard to hold together both these aspects of the mission.
Diego was among the most generous of the Christian missionaries of his time. A nobly born Spanish Jesuit, he asked to join the Philippine missions, believing that this missionary work would make all the difference between salvation and damnation for those to whom he preached. After his ship called in at Guam on the way to the Philippines he was determined to return to preach the Gospel there and lobbied for three years for the mission.
In 1668 he did return with five other Jesuits, catechists and 30 Spanish soldiers for protection. He was determined to go among the people with empty hands, keeping the soldiers unarmed in the barracks.
Initially his preaching was well received. Many people were baptised and other village leaders asked for missionaries to come.
Many were baptised. But the missionaries soon met resistance, partly because of rumours that people who died after being baptised had been poisoned in the ceremony, partly because of tribal rivalries, and also because of the missionaries’ condemnation of such Chamorro customs as respect to ancestors and sexual initiation.
The missionaries were set upon and Diego requested a strong troop of soldiers to defend missionaries and Christians. Eventually he and companions were killed after baptising a child against the wishes of his angry father. For Diego the child’s salvation trumped parental rights.
After his death the Spanish sent more troops; more Christian missionaries died; counterinsurgency measures led to deaths and the disruption of village culture, and a massive smallpox epidemic broke out. By the end of the century resistance was crushed and the population greatly reduced.
In our century we are all too familiar with clashes of culture between colonising powers and Indigenous people, their mutual misunderstanding, and their lethal consequences for the First Peoples.
We can also appreciate both the generosity and the cultural blindness of the missionaries, both the humiliation and the resilience of the people to whom they came. Their story impels us to appreciate more fully God’s gift both of faith and of the freedom to receive or decline its cultural trappings.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.