The Bishop's Page: Lessons from America's First Evangelization

Authored by Archbishop José H. Gomez in Issue #28.3 of The Sower

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'Let us go forth with confidence to the throne of grace.'

More than 500 years after the Gospel was first proclaimed in the New World, America again needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

That Gospel is more than a philosophy of life. It’s a divine person—with a face and a name, and a heart that beats with the very love of God. So the purpose of our catechesis must always be to bring about an encounter with Jesus Christ—to help all our brothers and sisters come to know and love Jesus.

But how do we catechize a culture that has grown indifferent to religion, a society in which more and more people live as if God does not exist? Lately, I’ve come to believe that in our catechesis there is much we can learn from our country’s first evangelization.

Consider the early account of the missions in New Mexico written by a Spanish Franciscan, Fray Alonso de Benavides, in February 1634:

In every pueblo where a friar resides, he has schools for the teaching of praying, singing, playing musical instruments, and other interesting things. Promptly at dawn, one of the Indian singers, whose turn it is that week, goes to ring the bell for [morning prayer] . . . . [After that] the bell is rung for Mass. All go into the church, the friar says Mass and administers the sacraments. . . . Mass over . . . all kneel down by the church door and sing the Salve [Regina]in their own tongue.

Fray Alonso goes on to describe how after Mass every day the friars and their Indian converts would spend time serving the poor and the sick. The missionaries oversaw schools and visited neighboring pueblos to baptize converts, hear confessions, and to offer guidance and advice. They were involved in the local economy, helping people run their farms and raise cattle and sheep.

Fray Alonso says: ‘One of the greatest tasks of the friars is to [mediate] the disputes of the Indians among themselves, for, since they look upon him as a father, they come to him with all their troubles, and he has to take pains to harmonize them.’ He concludes his report by commemorating the martyrs, saying that their work to spread the Gospel has been ‘watered with the blood and lives of ten of their brethren.’

Fray Alonso is giving us a picture of how to evangelize and catechize a culture. Notice that their days were centered on the Eucharist and prayer, and that people were taught to pray in their own language. Notice, too, that the friars and their lay associates are involved in every area of the people’s lives—education and social service, work and worship; they’re also trying to shape the arts, teaching singing and music.

Like America’s first evangelists, we must go fearlessly into the heart of our culture, into the heart of our people’s lives—bringing the Gospel into their homes, into all their many occupations, into their schools and into their arts and sciences, into the media and into the political arena.

Why did the first evangelists here teach music and song to their converts? Because there is nothing truly human that is alien to the Gospel. So, we must open every aspect of our culture—our poetry, literature, music, movies, and art—to the transcendent, to the mystery of God.

We must help people discover God in the ordinary and the everyday—in work and worship, in caring service to our families and neighbors.

Like the friars in New Mexico during the first evangelization, we must also be peacemakers, reconciling opposing factions in their communities, seeking social harmony and the common good. We live in violent, angry times. Yet the good news we proclaim is the good news of God’s mercy, of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. So let us make it a priority to teach our brothers and sisters how to forgive one another and how to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful.

Finally, the first evangelizers recognized that they belonged to a communion of saints—they remembered the martyrs who had died to help them spread the faith. We too, need to know our saints and blesseds, to learn their life stories, their words. We need to imitate and draw inspiration from them. We need to seek their heavenly intercession. In these holy men and women, God reveals to us the American face of Christ, the way of holiness that is uniquely suited to the challenges of our culture.

One of our newest American saints is St. Rafael Guízar y Valencia. As a bishop during the Mexican revolution of the 1920s, he devoted his life to the poor and the oppressed, and for that he suffered persecution and exile. In fact, during his exile he preached from the same pulpit that I preach from today in San Antonio’s historic San Fernando Cathedral. St. Rafael had great faith, the kind of faith we need as we seek to catechize an indifferent or often hostile culture.

Everywhere in these great lands we walk on hallowed ground, in the footsteps of the saints and blesseds, known and unknown, who have gone before us. Our catechetical mission is to raise up a new generation of saints.

And may our Lady of Guadalupe, the Queen of the Americas, the bright star of the New Evangelization, pray for us.

This article is originally found on page 11 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact sower@maryvale.ac.uk

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