The great epic of Portuguese missionaries in the evangelization and colonization of Brazil
Harsh was the reality that the Portuguese encountered when they arrived in Brazil five hundred years ago. The natives did not correspond to the myth of the “noble savage” living in a paradisiacal America.
Before the Discovery, Brazil was inhabited by a heterogeneous group of nomadic and semi-nomadic indigenous tribes opposed to any higher organization and in a permanent state of war with each other. Practices of cannibalism, human sacrifice, infanticide, euthanasia, and various other violations of natural law prevailed from north to south, as well as sinister rituals with hallucinogenic drugs which ended in acts of idolatry and moral debauchery.
However, upon learning of such aberrations, the Catholic Church neither ignored nor abandoned these lands. Nor did Portugal set aside its endeavors, in which the propagation of the Faith took a special place.
The Early Missions
The first missionary actions in Brazil were taken by the Order of Saint Francis and later by the Society of Jesus.
Friar Henrique de Coimbra, who celebrated the first Mass in our country, was a Franciscan, and so were the priests who came here at the beginning of colonization to carry out the great work of spreading the Catholic Faith. Soon after its discovery, Brazil was born in the shadow of the cross that presided over the first Mass, celebrated by that Franciscan priest.
Until 1585, however, the performance of Franciscans was sporadic. In Vitória, in 1558, Friar Pedro Palácios built the Captaincy of Espírito Santo, a chapel which gave rise to the current Penha Sanctuary. Over some twenty years, the Friars of Saint Francis settled in other captaincies. The action of this Order became very important in 1584 with the creation of the Custody of Brazil. Dedicating themselves to catechesis, the Franciscans soon expanded throughout the colony, building churches and pacifying rebellious Indians.
The Jesuits arrived in Brazil just nine years after the creation of the Society of Jesus in 1549, when the first sons of Saint Ignatius landed in Bahia with Governor Tomé de Souza. Their head was Father Manoel da Nobrega, a missionary, administrator and expert diplomat.
Several Jesuits worked with him, devoted themselves body and soul to “Brazil’s enterprise” to the point of sacrificing their lives, as did Blessed Ignatius de Azevedo and his 40 companions, martyred by French Calvinist corsairs in 1570, and 12 others murdered by the English and French in 1571.
In those difficult times, the Jesuits were pioneers who explored the hinterland, peacemakers of indigenous people, builders of fortresses, schools, and villages for mission Indians; creators of our first theater, as well as of Brazilian medicine and architecture; preservers of indigenous languages; chroniclers, such as Father Fernão Cardim of everything that happened in the nascent country; the colony’s early intellectuals, such as Father Antonio Vieira, a remarkable speaker and skilled diplomat, one of the greatest figures in the Portuguese language, who was extremely active among the natives.
Altar and Throne United
In his History of the Society of Jesus in Brazil, the distinguished Jesuit historian Father Serafim Leite describes this period as follows: “While Portuguese settlers and administrators ruled the land and culture as a source of wealth and an element of sovereignty, the Jesuits of the Assistance of Portugal loved the land and the human beings it had nourished over the centuries.The former took over the body: Brazil was born. While the Governors, Captains, and officials were establishing the foundations of the State, the men religious supported our edifice with such high and noble forms as to give it the solidity of Eternity.”
We make a special mention of the outstanding figure of Blessed José de Anchieta, nicknamed the Apostle of Brazil, who synthesized the spirit of the missionary work of the Jesuits and other religious orders that came to catechize our Indians.
After the Jesuits, the Carmelites in the year 1580 were the next religious order to settle in Brazil. Their catechesis was very important in the Amazon in the sense of incorporating that region into the Brazilian community.
In 1584 came Benedictine monks, who founded several monasteries in the national territory, devoting themselves more to education than catechesis to relieve the work of the Jesuits in that activity.
Franciscans, Jesuits, Carmelites, Benedictines, Mercedarians, and members of the regular clergy plunged into the farthest corners of this huge homeland devoting themselves to catechesis and valiantly helping the enormous work of colonization.
Other religious orders, like the Salesians, did not participate in our history from the beginning but have been providing services to this day in catechesis and missions with the Indians and in the meritorious work of educating our youth.
We must also mention the Marists, Lazarists, Minims (Saint Francis of Paula), as well as the Sisters of Charity (Saint Vincent de Paul), those of Divine Providence and other orders unknown in the early days of Brazilian history and which have just come to our country.
The Church in Brazil
Brazil’s oldest bishopric was established in 1552 in Salvador, and its first bishop was Pero Fernandes Sardinha. The diocese comprised all the lands of Brazil, a situation that lasted until 1639, when the diocese of Rio de Janeiro was created, which encompassed the southern captaincies. Salvador, in 1676, became an archbishopric; the diocese of Pernambuco was created at the same time. There followed the creation of the Bishopric of Maranhão, in 1677, Grão Pará, in 1717, São Paulo and Mariana (MG) in 1745, in addition to the Prelatures of Cuiabá and Goiás. In this way, the ecclesiastical government, clergy, and organized worship was established throughout the land.
Assuming a persecutory and anticlerical attitude of dire consequences for national history, and driven by hatred for the Catholic Church, Pombal expelled the Society of Jesus from Brazil in 1760, sending away more than 600 Jesuits, closing their colleges and schools, leaving the indigenous villages they managed unattended. This tragic episode in our history is too complex to deal with in this article.
In 1822, Brazil’s independence from Portugal was proclaimed. The Imperial Constitution of 1824 established that Catholicism would continue to be the official religion of the nation. When the Republic was proclaimed in 1889, the ominous separation between the Church and the State was established in our country.
Leo XIII Praises the Discovery
Looking at this vast if succinctly presented historical panorama, one can understand why Pope Leo XIII, during the IV Centenary of the Discovery of America, in 1892, in his commemorative Encyclical Quarto Abeunte Saeculo (after the fourth century), considered that great fact as part of God’s design and called it “the greatest achievement the times have ever seen.”
In fact, driven away from the darkness of paganism, the natives got to know the true Sun of Justice, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and learned to love the intercession of His Most Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary, opening for them the paths of Christian Civilization.
Indian settlements arose throughout the vast continent, protected by the laws of Catholic monarchies. Evangelizers and civilizers dedicated their lives to this great epic, which united altar and throne, discoverers, conquerors, settlers, founders of towns and cities, prelates. They shed their blood as martyrs, men and women religious, laity, and Indian converts.
Villages, towns, and cities were established everywhere, in which crafts, agriculture, cattle breeding, coastal fishing, commerce and all kinds of activities flourished.
There arose General Governments, City Halls and courts, constituting a huge political-administrative network: thus Brazil was born.
Source: Catolicismo – March 1994