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from issue no. 08 - 2009

The historical precedents

Friar Toribio, the Indios and “easy” baptism

by Gianni Valente

Friar Toribio de Benavente “Motolinía”

Friar Toribio de Benavente “Motolinía”

The campaign of the Buenos Aires parish priests to facilitate baptism has an illustrious historical precedent, one crucial for the outcome of the proclamation of the Christian message in Latin America. The Franciscans, the first to arrive in the lands of the New World recently conquered by the Kingdom of Spain, were inclined to baptize the Indians with great facility, to the point of simplifying the ritual and postponing until after baptism the teaching of Christian doctrine. The Dominicans and the Augustinians showed themselves to have other ideas, and were more cautious in administering baptisms, to the degree of requiring of the natives a proper catechumenal preparation.
The divergence in approach gave rise to theological disputes that soon re-echoed in Europe. The strict theologians of the University of Salamanca also intervened in the case: “before receiving baptism these barbarian infidels must be sufficiently instructed, not only in the faith but also in Christian habits (Western and Spanish ways of acting) at least in what is necessary for salvation”.
The reasons by which the Franciscans then justified their own modus operandi came out of their direct contact with the natives. It was their familiarity with local peoples that persuaded them of the presumption and irrelevance of all the provisions – perhaps a flag-waving of theological or moral principles – that appeared to the Indians as an obstacle and barrier to their desire and request to be baptized.
Brother Toribio de Benavente Motolinía – one of the “twelve apostles”, as the dozen monks who arrived in Mexico in 1524, just four years after the conquistador Hernán Cortés, were called – recounted in his chronicle, in apt and simple words still relevant today, the choice made by himself and his brethren. For them the Indios were the chosen of the Lord, as are all the poor of the world. Complicating the early stages in the life of faith for them would be like laying hands on the gifts that God had promised in a special way particularly to them: “These men here”, writes Toribio speaking of the Indios, “should not be refused what they ask, given that the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs; because they do not even have a torn mat to sleep on, nor a good cloak to cover themselves with, and the poor house they inhabit is open to God’s sky”. One had to take into account their fearful and timid nature, not to be mistaken for apathy or lack of interest in the new Christian life: “Many times they come to be baptized and they should not be examined harshly: I have seen many of them who know the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria and Christian doctrine, but when the priest asks them, they get upset and are unable to speak”. The impatient anxiety of zealots is especially harmful, influenced also by the prejudices of a culture that considers itself superior: “Some priests, who begin to teach them, would like to see them saints in the two days passed working with them as if it were ten years that they were educating them. They resemble the fellow who bought a thin, weak ram and fed it a piece of bread, and immediately set about touching its tail to see if it had got fat”. Above all, in their justification, the Franciscans reported how baptism filled the newly baptized, who often had undergone long journeys fraught with danger to receive it, with a simple and contagious joy. “After being baptized it is quite something to see the happiness they display with their children borne on their shoulders, it almost seems that they are beyond themselves with joy.” The reaction is of a completely different kind if baptism is denied: “It was the greatest sorrow in the world to see what they did, and how they wept, and how disconsolate they were, and the things they were saying...”.
At that time, professing faith in the mysterious ways of God who saves us by His grace, Pope Paul III rejected the theories of those who believed that the Indios were by nature “incapable” of receiving the Gospel message and with the Bull Altitudo divini consilii (1537) backed the Franciscans in their concern to facilitate baptism. Some decades later, taking its cue from the disputes with Luther, the Council of Trent again reiterated that the sacraments were not mere “stamps” of the Christian faith, and that the efficacious grace of the sacraments is not produced by the holiness of who administers them, nor by the dispositions of who receives them, because it is opus operatum a Deo. If a sacramental sign is performed validly it is efficacious in itself, and can touch and transform the hearts of men according to the divine will.
The guidelines in the handbook produced by the diocese of Buenos Aires traces the thread of continuity that unites the choices of the current porteños pastors to those of the Franciscans of the first Latin American evangelization. Today, as then, the concern to baptize all those who request it is prompted by the mode of operation of the sacraments themselves. And it helps to clear away the “lamentable confusion” (so described by the late lamented Father Tello as early as 1988) prevailing in the pastoral practice of the last decades: the misconception shared by many – and often fuelled by good intentions – that the gift of the sacraments requires a certain degree of “spiritual awareness” of Christian doctrine, to be gained through programs of preparation on the model of professional training courses.
If many still recognize the sacraments as gratuitous acts of the Lord – the Argentine handbook points out – it is not so much due to the strategies of the higher clergy, but rather to the sensus fidei preserved among the faithful by popular piety. That tradition of acts and practices by which the people evangelize themselves “better even than priests are accustomed to do”, and of which the concern to baptize their children is “the most important manifestation”. “By these routes”, Father Tello would explain in his more impassioned homilies and speeches, “passes the path most taken by our people, let us call it sacramental: a material fact (the baptismal rite) perceived as a sign that God takes them for His own. That’s how it is for our people. They bring the child to be baptized and he puts on Christ. This is Catholicism, to the very depths: I bring the child to this: maybe he will live like a wretch, but he is already garbed in Christ”. And this “theological certainty,” the handbook’s compilers add, “takes precedence, in our view, over any other consideration of a moral kind or of ecclesiastical practice”.

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