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Introduction to Francisco Garcia's Life of Diego Luis de San Vitores

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

History

Francisco Garcia's book is of a genre that has no modern equivalent. Although its title would seem to stamp it as a biography, the book might better be described as part history, part hagiography, part travel adventure, and part devotional literature. It is easy to understand why Garcia's biography was translated into English piecemeal. Three different translators extracted from the volume what corresponded to their own interests, Margaret Higgins selecting what touched on the local history and culture of the Chamorro people, Sr.Felicia Plaza excerpting those parts that touched directly on the life of San Vitores, and Fr.Juan Ledesma translating the remainder.

The idiom of Garcia's volume is as foreign to us today as is the genre. His confident recounting of miracles attributed to San Vitores and some of his Jesuit companions strains the credulity of the modern reader. We are chagrined to find that every little event in San Vitores' life is presented as a moral parable. Will we never be spared the sermonizing that comes through on page after page? The book is cast in a style that was as familiar to 17th century Spanish readers as it is alien to most of us today. We must remember that Garcia's readers lived in a world of sharp contrasts, a milieu in which reminders of the universally accepted religious truths were to be found everywhere. The struggle between good and evil was reflected ceaselessly in everyday life, with the opposing powers often taking the forms of devils and angels. There are few accidents of life in this 17th century Spanish Catholic view of the world; the purposeful intervention of God, one of the dominant themes in Garcia's work, emerges on every page.

Garcia's original was intended as a testimony to the saintliness of Diego Luis de San Vitores, the man who introduced the Christian faith to the Marianas. It was written as a tale of personal heroism, its hero the Jesuit missionary priest whose virtues were not allowed to speak for themselves but were authenticated by numerous instances of divine intervention. Miracles, those extraordinary instances of God's action in the world, were regarded as rather common occurrences in the day in which Garcia wrote, and the volume offers many examples. But such excesses, as we would regard them today, and the simplistic world view that inspired this style of writing should not blind us to the fact that the book rests on a solid historical base. We should recall that Garcia drew upon the missionaries' own letters and annual reports to fashion his biography. Although some of his sources have been preserved and can be found among the rich Spanish collection at the Micronesian Area Research Center, many are no longer extant and have only been preserved in the secondary form in which they appear in Garcia's book.

While drawing a portrait of the life and virtues of his subject, Garcia also intended to present to his readers a history of the first Jesuit missionary enterprise in the Mariana Islands. The scope of the book includes not just the four brief years of San Vitores' life on Guam, but another ten years of missionary work following his death. The volume offers a detailed narrative of the early critical years of mission activity between 1668 and 1682 in this earliest of mission fields in Oceania. As a historical source for this period Garcia's book is indispensable.

Garcia's main purpose, of course, was to promote the advancement of San Vitores, a fellow Jesuit, toward beatification and canonization—that is, official church recognition of his sanctity and formal confirmation of his status as a model for others of his faith. A few years after his death, his brothers in the Jesuit Order recognized the heroic virtues of San Vitores' life and proposed him as a candidate for beatification, the first step toward sainthood. As time passed, San Vitores' process became dormant. Only about twenty years ago was it revived, thanks to the interest of Guam's late Bishop Felixberto Flores, and San Vitores was finally beatified more than three centuries after his death on Guam. In a ceremony that took place in Rome in October 1985, Fr. Diego Luis de San Vitores was elevated to the status of Blessed Diego Luis.

Garcia portrays San Vitores as the bearer of religious and cultural treasures to the islands he sought to convert. San Vitores was not only charged with the task of bringing the people of the Marianas to the faith; the patronato system that dispatched missionaries to the most remote parts of the Spanish realm required him to lead the Chamorro people to submission before Spanish law and civilization. By the terms of this patronato system, San Vitores was to be a harbinger of both the gospel and colonial rule, the latter seen not only as a prerequisite of the former but as a value in its own right. He could rightly be called, then, not only the proto-missionary of the Marianas but its proto-colonizer. The "blessings" that ensued, although envisioned as aiding the people of those islands, were in reality mixed. From the perspective of our own day, they may appear tragic. Yet, we do the man and his work an injustice unless we attempt to see his program through the lens of the beliefs of his day rather than of our own.

From a historical point of view, San Vitores was much more than the man who led both priests and troops into the Marianas to usher in a period of Spanish rule that lasted for two centuries and brought a Catholicism that has perdured to the present day. He was the first missionary in that entire area between the Americas and the east Asian coast that goes by the name of Oceania. The christianization of the Pacific islands followed in time, but San Vitores was at the vanguard of a force that, in its various denominational forms, swept the Pacific within the next two centuries and won enthusiastic acceptance throughout the area. Christianity may have entered the Pacific as yet another Western innovation, but it has not remained such. The church, adapted into and reshaped by local cultures, has been absorbed into the very bloodstream of these island societies. Today the church everywhere in the Pacific wears distinctive island garb.

All this would seem a dubious distinction in the judgment of many today. If San Vitores was venerated by Garcia and his European contemporaries as the bearer of the message of salvation, there are many of our own day who regard him as sowing the seeds of cultural destruction. The message of peace that San Vitores intended to convey was somehow perverted into a violent force that all but swept away the people and their ways. San Vitores, the hero of Garcia's volume, is the villain of many a modern day revisionist history. Even if the so-called Spanish-Chamorro wars were never the bloodbath they were often depicted as being by authors who were no less ingenuous than Garcia, albeit in a very different way, the Chamorro population was incontestably reduced to a mere fraction of what it had been just before the arrival of the first missionaries. Mounting evidence shows that it was the scourge of disease and epidemic rather than than the notoriously inaccurate arquebuses of the small rag-tag company of Sapnish and Filipino troops that led to depopulation. Although this mitigates the charges of deliberate genocide, it does nothing to reduce the death toll. Even worse in the eyes of 19th and 20th century critics, the survivors were herded into towns and forced to live as colonized subjects of a foreign king.

Then why this publication? Garcia's book offers us a "text," to use the term of which post-modernists are so fond. As Margaret Higgins recognized, it offers an almost first-hand, if biased, chronicle of the first lasting contact between the people of the Marianas society and Europeans. However filtered the vision of these events, Garcia's work offers a far more primitive text than the derivative French narrative of Fr.Charles LeGobien, Histoire des Isles Marianes, which has been preferred for generations. The popularity of LeGobien's account over the decades is in large part due to the greater availability of this work, which was translated into English years ago. With this translation of Garcia, we may hope that this oversight will be corrected. In the future those with historical interests in Marianas history and San Vitores' personal religious journey may consult one of the oldest primary sources on both.

Francisco Garcia, the author of this work, died just two years after his life of San Vitores was first published in 1683. Garcia, a Jesuit priest who spent years working in Madrid, was an ardent publicist for the overseas missions even though he himself had never served in one. Garcia corresponded directly with some of the Jesuit missionaries in the Marianas and related news of their achievements to the Duchess d'Aveiro, the queen mother of Spain and generous benefactor of the missions. His published works included the lives of three Jesuits who labored and died in the Marianas: Luis de Medina, the first of the missionaries to be martyred, and Carolus Borango, another martyr, in addition to San Vitores. Garcia's devotion to the work of his fellow Jesuits led to his appointment as assistant postulator for the causes of several Spanish Jesuits. Garcia also penned several biographies of Jesuits who had already been raised to the altar, among them Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Francis Borgia.

His life of San Vitores was widely acclaimed in the religious circles for which it was written. An Italian translation of Garcia's work on San Vitores came out in 1686, and the German version appeared in 1732. LeGobien incorporated much of Garcia's original material in his own chronicle of Jesuit work in the Marianas, which was published in 1700.

An English translation of Garcia's volume was not attempted until the 20th century, and even then only in parts. Margaret Higgins, a Guam resident with a passion for local history, translated most of Book Five and published it serially in the Guam Recorder between 1936 and 1939. Years later, in 1985, the portion she translated was published as a monograph by the Flores Memorial Library under the same title as this present volume.

The next major contributor to the translation process was Sr.Felicia Plaza, a Mercedarian sister who had taught on Saipan for many years before she began working for the Micronesian Area Research Center at the University of Guam. More than any other single person, Sr.Felicia was responsible for the rapid growth of MARC's prized collection of Spanish documents. From 1968 she traveled widely in Europe and Mexico to gather copies of key materials on the early missionization and colonization of the Marianas. In 1980, Sr.Felicia completed the translation of Books One and Two, and the first four chapters of Book Three. Her English version of the first part of Book Three appeared as a number (No.22) of the MARC Working Papers.

Fr. Juan Ledesma, SJ, was the third person to contribute to the English translation. Ledesma is a Filipino Jesuit who, like Garcia himself, has had a lifelong interest in the achievements of his religious brothers. While assisting the postulator for Fr. San Vitores' cause for beatification between 1985 and 1989, Ledesma translated the remainder of Garcia's book: Book Four (on the miracles of San Vitores) and the later chapters of Book Five. Even before this, he rendered Alberto Risco's book on San Vitores into English. This was published in 1970 under the title The Apostle of the Marianas.

It was left to Fr. James McDonough, SJ, a priest who has served on Guam for over 25 years, to pull together and polish these partial translations, shaping them into this present volume, the first full English translation of Garcia's biography of San Vitores. During the quarter-century he has worked on the island on which San Vitores shed his blood, Fr. McDonough has assumed many different roles. At times Fr. Jim has been a teacher, at times an administrator at the University of Guam, but always a dedicated Jesuit priest whose life and labors have proclaimed the same ideals that San Vitores lived and died for. Let this translation of a memorial to the man who inaugurated the evangelization of Oceania also stand as a testimony to the good works and devotion of Fr. Jim McDonough, one his spiritual offspring.


In Life and Martyrdom of the Venerable Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, ed by James McDonagh (Guam: University of Guam, 2004), 1-5.

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