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Journey of Faith: Blessed Diego of the Marianas

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

History

Diego Luis de San Vitores was born into a noble family in Burgos, a city in the northern part of Spain, in 1627. His father had been appointed the city treasurer and had received honors and titles from the king for his service; later he became one of the ministers of the Royal Treasury. Diego was a pious boy who, soon after entering the Jesuit school, made known to his family his desire to become a Jesuit.

Even though his parents were devout Catholics, they were strongly opposed to the idea of young Diego becoming a priest. His father loved his youngest son more than any of his other children and he expected him to manage his property and carry on the family name. Moreover, his father saw that Diego, even at his young age, had won the favor of the king and he could almost certainly look forward to a promising career in the government. His father went so far as to send Diego away to a friend's house where the boy was kept under guard for three weeks for fear that he would run off and enter the novitiate. Diego's parents, however, eventually softened in the face of his persistence, and in 1640, at the age of 12 1/2, he entered the Jesuit novitiate near Madrid.

Diego's vocation was a hard-won battle, and he was determined to dedicate himself completely to his work for God. When his father had finally written to his son approving his plans to become a Jesuit, he told him to grow in holiness and be a good Jesuit or else he could no longer call himself his son. San Vitores never forgot his father's warning. In fact, he afterwards wrote his father asking permission to change his middle name from Jeronimo, his father's name, to Luis out of devotion to St. Aloysius.

Diego's early years as a Jesuit were very successful despite the bad eyesight that troubled him from birth. After making his first vows at the age of 16, he did seven years of philosophical and theological studies with distinction and was ordained a priest in 1651. He then spent one year teaching high school and the next five years teaching philosophy and theology to Jesuit scholastics. He carried out these assignments well, but his real enthusiasm and talent showed when he went from place to place preaching retreats and missions. His father happened to hear him preach once and was so overwhelmed by his son's fervor that he broke into tears. San Vitores loved this pastoral work and was so good at it that he was the handpicked successor of the Jesuit who was the recognized master of retreat work in Spain.

Despite the satisfaction that he found in his retreat work, San Vitores experienced a growing restlessness to go overseas to preach the gospel to those who did not yet know Christ. He wrote to the General of the Society volunteering for the missions, but his superiors in Spain were reluctant to lose such a talented individual. San Vitores fell very ill and was close to death when he made a solemn promise to spend his life in the missions if he recovered. He regained his health in a short time, but on two later occasions found himself near death again. Each time he renewed his promise and was cured. Finally in December 1659, his superiors granted his request and assigned him to the Philippine mission. Diego's half-brother, Juan, who was also a Jesuit, had died some years earlier while caring for the sick on a ship bound for the Indies. San Vitores' family, particularly his father, was not happy at the prospect of another of their sons leaving Spain for the Orient never to return again, but his father accepted the decision with resignation. His final request of his son was to allow him to have a portrait of his son painted to remember him by.

San Vitores left Spain in May 1660 on the first leg of his long voyage to the Philippines. Two months later he arrived in Mexico (then known as New Spain), where he could cross the country by land and take one of the yearly galleons to the Philippines. The ship he was to take to the Philippines was delayed for two years, but San Vitores was not the kind of man to sit around doing nothing during this long wait. He spent his time preaching and giving retreats, so successfully that the king's representative (or the viceroy, as he was called) begged the Jesuit to remain in Mexico where he could do much more good than among a small group of pagans in the Philippines. San Vitores, however, was convinced that God was calling him to work among the people in those lands where Christ was not known. When at long last the ship arrived, the Jesuits in Mexico-were as sorry to see San Vitores go as the viceroy was. One of them remarked that the Society of Jesus in Mexico would gladly give up four of its best men in exchange for him. But San Vitores knew he was called elsewhere and together with 13 other Jesuits left Mexico in April 1662 for the Philippines.

En route to the Philippines something happened that changed San Vitores' life. His ship, like all the Spanish vessels crossing the Pacific for the Philippines, put in at Guam for a few days to take on water and fresh supplies before continuing its voyage. Magellan had first discovered the Marianas in 1521 and another early visitor Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, had claimed the islands for Spain in 1565. Since then, Spain had never bothered to colonize or to christianize the islands; its only interest in these islands was to use them for a few days each year as a re-supplying depot for its annual ship to the Philippines. Some sixty years before San Vitores' stopover, a couple of Franciscans had on different occasions done some missionary work there for a year but both left on the next ship after their supplies ran out. Thereafter, the islanders were left to themselves to continue their ancient religious practices.

During his short stopover at Guam, none of the priests set foot on the shore; this was still regarded as too dangerous. The islanders, however, brought their produce to the ship to barter for small pieces of iron that they would use to make tools. As San Vitores watched these naked men clambering around the ship clutching the precious bits of metal they had been given, he was touched with pity and love for them. Spaniards and islanders alike seemed to be only concerned with accumulating riches, and no one had brought the light of the gospel to these islands. Meanwhile, these poor people were living and dying in total ignorance of Christ and his love for them. San Vitores made some futile attempts to communicate with the people in sign language, but they understood nothing of what he was trying to say. The priest knew then and there that these were the people he was called to serve. As he later wrote in a letter, he felt that the words of scripture -- "I have sent you to proclaim the gospel to the poor" -- were addressed to him. If no one had preached the good news to these people, he would do so. He was certain that this was the work that God meant him to do.

San Vitores reached Manila in July 1662 and immediately went to work learning the Tagalog language. For a time he was assigned to the Jesuit College of Manila where he taught theology and performed various other duties, but he had always been more comfortable in the pulpit than in the classroom. He spent more and more of his time in the villages working with the simple people, until finally he was assigned to do parish work in the outlying areas of Luzon and Mindoro. All the while, his heart was really set on returning to the Marianas, and he deluged Spanish officials in Manila and Madrid with requests that he be allowed to begin a mission there

San Vitores met with strong opposition at first; many of the authorities felt that it was foolish to go to the great expense of sending out a missionary expedition for the sake of a few thousand people. There was work enough to do in the Philippines without looking for new apostolic fields elsewhere. San Vitores persisted in his requests, however. Finally, in June 1666,San Vitores received the necessary permission and financial support from the queen Mother, Mariana, in whose honor the islands were later renamed. The Jesuit was overjoyed at the prospect of returning to the remote island group, and he spent the next year preparing for the expedition. In August 1667 he left the Philippines for Guam, but by way of Mexico, where he spent several months getting additional funds to support the new mission. At last, in March of the following year, he left Mexico bound for the Marianas. With him went five other Jesuits, several lay volunteers (both Filipino and Mexican), and 32 soldiers to protect the small mission party.

The galleon San Diego with the missionaries aboard reached Guam on June 16, 1668. The Jesuits and their helpers received an enthusiastic welcome from the Chamorros who lined the shores of Agana to greet them. The missionaries were led to the house of the local chief, Quipuha, who offered them food and shelter and told them that they were free to go about preaching their religion at will. The Jesuits planted a cross in the ground as a sign of their consecration of the island, which they renamed San Juan. On their first day ashore, San Vitores said mass outdoors in the presence of the hundreds of curious Chamorros who had assembled, and afterwards he said a few words of greeting in the local language. The priest had learned some of their language and had even written out a simple catechism in Chamorro with the help of a man who had been shipwrecked on Guam some years earlier and who had returned with the Jesuits to help them in their missionary work. Many of the people showed an interest in learning about the new religion, and the priest baptized 23 children after the mass and the sermon.

At the invitation of Quipuha, San Vitores established the mission headquarters at Agana and built small wooden huts to serve as the residence and the church, which he named San Ignacio after the founder of the Jesuit Order. Meanwhile, chiefs from different parts of Guam and from Rota had gathered to ask for some of the priests and lay catechists to live in their village. To determine where the priests and their helpers should be assigned, San Vitores soon began a long tour of the island with one of the catechists, visiting many villages and instructing whatever people he could along the way. On his return, the missionaries met to make their plans for the evangelization of the Marianas. They decided that two of the priests would be sent to Tinian and another to Rota, while one priest and the scholastic, Lorenzo Bustillos, were to be assigned to remain on Guam and work with the superior. The Jesuits were to baptize children and the sick immediately, but they were to instruct adults in the faith before they were baptized. To young and old alike they would teach the prayers and songs that had already been translated into the Chamorro language.

The garrison of troops, most of whom were Filipinos, were also under the authority of San Vitores since he had been given full power in civil as well as ecclesiastical matters. A gentle individual with a firm belief in the power of love to convey the message of peace that he brought the islanders, San Vitores imposed firm controls on the soldiers. From the very beginning he allowed no forts or military camps to be built; the troops were quartered in a simple wood building without any palisade surrounding it. Those soldiers who had muskets -and fewer than half of them did -- were strictly forbidden to shoot except in self-defense. San Vitores was well aware that hot-headed soldiers could subvert the very gospel message of peace that he was announcing, and he did all that he could to prevent this from happening.

As San Vitores went from village to village instructing the people in the faith, he presented a strange sight. The thin priest, then 41 years old, walked around barefoot wearing a cloak of palm leaves over his threadbare black habit and a conical palm-leaf hat on his head. Around his neck he wore a large rosary and carried a long wooden pole with a crucifix attached to the top. San Vitores had always been very nearsighted, but he refused to wear his glasses, which he considered a luxury among a people so poor; instead, he had to be led along by a rope tied to his waist to avoid bumping into trees and rocks. In a small satchel he carried his only baggage: his breviary, a bible, the holy oils, and a supply of holy cards, sugar lamps and biscuits that he would pass out to children who could recite their prayers and catechism lessons without a mistake.

The Jesuit had made a decision to live as poorly as the people to whom he was preaching, and his companions soon began to imitate his example. All of them gave up chocolate and the other European foods that they had brought with them and would only eat taro or sweet potatoes, shredded coconut and a little fish. San Vitores even gave up eating fish, although he would disguise this penance of his by telling people that he could not eat fish or meat because he had no teeth with which to chew it. San Vitores slept on the ground without a mosquito net or any other protection. The poverty that he practised may have seemed extreme to some of the other Spaniards of his time, but the priest saw it as nothing more than an expression of his apostolic mission "to proclaim the gospel to the poor."

Despite the promising start of the new mission, trouble was not long in coming. In August 1668 just two months after the missionaries' arrival, Fr. Luis de Morales and his companions were ambushed on Tinian as the priest was on his way to baptize a dying man. Two Spanish soldiers were hacked to death with machetes and Fr. Morales received a spear wound in the leg. At about the same time another priest, Fr. Luis de Medina, was attacked and badly beaten by a hostile mob in a remote village of Guam. The Jesuits blamed these outbreaks of hostility on a Chinese castaway by the name of Choco, who was spreading the story that the priests were poisoning people with the water they were using for baptism. There may have been other reasons, perhaps more important ones, for the sudden violence. The Jesuits were strong in their denunciation of some of the ancient religious customs and they may have offended the Chamorro nobility by baptizing members of the low class before the nobles themselves. It is also possible that the violence was triggered by a feud with Quipuha, with whom the missionaries seemed to be allied, or some act of theft or rape performed by one of the soldiers. Whatever the real cause may have been, San Vitores was convinced that Choco was responsible for the change in heart among the people and he meant to do something about it. Within a short time San Vitores journeyed to confront Choco, debated him in public, and ostensibly converted him by the end of the week.

Shortly after this San Vitores brought Morales, now healed of his wounds, back to Tinian and installed him as the pastor of that island. He also spent time preaching to the people of Saipan and Rota, who were beginning to show a strong interest in Christianity. San Vitores returned to Guam in time to celebrate the dedication of the new Agana church, built of stone and lime, and the opening of the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, a boys school that was supported by a grant from Queen Mariana herself, San Vitores also attended Quipuha, the chief who had provided faithful support for the missionaries, during his last illness and death.

When San Vitores set out on his next expedition to the northern islands, in July 1669, trouble broke out once again. San Vitores himself was taken prisoner on Saipan and his life was threatened before he was finally released. The lay catechist that he had left on Anatahan, however, was not as fortunate. He was seized by a band of angry Chamorros and stabbed to death after a child he had baptized a few days earlier had died. Warfare had also broken out on Tinian. San Vitores visited the island to try to make peace between the rival factions, but was unsuccessful in bringing about a reconciliation and soon returned to Guam to bring his companions the sad news of these unsettling events. In the meantime, Choco had abandoned any pretense of living as a Christian and was once again telling people his malicious stories about the evils of baptism.

San Vitores was very disturbed about the recent turn of events in the northern islands. Although he remained convinced that the Chamorro people should not be brought to Christianity by threat of musket or sword, he began to feel that sterner measures than before were called for if the future of the mission was to be guaranteed and peace was to be brought to the islands. He had personally prayed for martyrdom in his beloved islands, for he believed that blood shed in Christ's name would nourish the growth of the faith there. Yet, the mission itself must not be wiped out in its early days, for this would leave his people without preachers and the means to save their souls. Hence, he rallied some of his first Guamanian converts and summoned several of the Spanish troops to return with him to Tinian, where by a display of force he succeeded in bringing an end to the warfare on the island. Soon afterwards he wrote Queen Mariana for another two hundred troops to reinforce his small detachment and suggested that Spanish ships stop over at Guam more frequently to "carry out punishment and remedy whatever misfortunes might occur."

The troops that San Vitores requested were slow in coming, and the violence continued in the meantime. In January 1670, shortly after peace was restored on Tinian, Fr. Luis de Medina returned to nearby Saipan with two catechists to resume his work. For two days the missionaries were taunted and abused by the people wherever they went. Then, as the priest was preparing to baptize a sick infant, he and his assistants were assaulted by an armed band. Medina and a Filipino catechists, Hipolito de la Cruz, were killed in the attack. Father Medina was the first of the Jesuits to die at the hands of the Chamorros.

An uneasy peace followed for the next year and a half, as the Jesuit superior and his companions continued visiting the villages preaching the gospel. The arrival of four new Jesuits in June 1671 allowed San Vitores to reorganize and expand the mission. Guam was partitioned into four parishes with a church and pastor for each, while priests were again assigned to Tinian and Rota in a new attempt to convert the northern islands.

Violence broke out anew just a few months later, this time on Guam itself. After a young Spaniard was found murdered in the woods the Spanish military commander ordered the arrest of several Chamorros and had one of the chiefs of Agana killed for resisting the order. The villagers became so enraged at this that they gathered a force of some 2000 warriors and attacked the mission headquarters. The Spanish soldiers hastily threw up a wooden palisade around the church and rectory, mounted an old pair of cannon salvaged from a sunken ship, and defended the makeshift fortification. San Vitores, as always, assumed the role of peacemaker throughout the siege. Repeatedly he held high his crucifix before the eyes of the hostile army in an overture of peace, but this was answered with insults and a volley of stones. Even when the Spaniards had captured the enemy leader, San Vitores insisted that he be released in a further futile effort to dampen passions. At last after forty days, following the failure of the Chamorro forces to overrun the stockade, the Spanish troops burst out of their defenses in a desperate sortie and put the islanders to flight.

Soon San Vitores was back doing the work he so much loved: preaching Christ to the children and adults of the villages. Never one to remain in the more settled confines of his Christian community, San Vitores pushed on to the rugged interior of the island visiting one hamlet after another in search of souls. He returned to Agana only to make his retreat, celebrate Christmas, and assist at the death of one of the Jesuits who was a victim of tuberculosis. In January 1672 he was off again, this time to one of the remote villages on the eastern side of the island to build a church and establish a Christian community.

Meanwhile, the island was rife with barely concealed turmoil. Those chiefs who opposed the Spanish were secretly rallying their forces for a new offensive, and there new reports almost every week of plots to assassinate one or other of the missionaries. The next bloodshed occurred at the end of March when a young Mexican catechist whom San Vitores himself had recruited was ambushed and killed in Ritidian, a village in northern Guam that had become a haven for Chamorro dissidents. As soon as San Vitores had heard of the attack he dispatched two Filipino catechists and a Spanish soldier to carry the news to Agana and warn the Jesuits there of the possibility of a general uprising. The three of them had not gone very far when they too were ambushed by hostile Chamorros; one of them was killed on the spot, while the others fled until they were finally caught and stabbed to death. San Vitores, who knew nothing of the death of his three messengers, remained in his parish for a few more days to finish the construction of his new church despite the insistent rumors of a plot against his life.

Finally, on April 2, 1672, San Vitores left for Agana along with Pedro Calangsor, a faithful Filipino catechist. On the way they stopped at Tumon to look for a mission helper who had deserted at the first sign of trouble a few days before. The priest hoped to persuade him gently to return to his faith and his work. He never found his frightened assistant, but he did meet a Chamorro noble by the name of Matapang, an old friend whose life he had once saved and whom he had converted. When San Vitores greeted his friend and offered to baptize his daughter, Matapang made the surly reply that the priest would do better to baptize the skull in his house and stop killing children. Matapang then stalked off to find some weapons and companions to help him put an end to the priest. While Matapang was gone, San Vitores entered the house and baptized the sick child. He knew that his former friend would be furious at him for this, but he felt that the salvation of the child outweighed the threat upon his own life. Possibly Matapang could even be placated in time. San Vitores and his helper were waiting at the outskirts of the village when Matapang returned with a friend, both of them armed. First they went after Pedro, who refused to abandon the priest; within a few moments he fell dead with a spear in his chest. San Vitores fell to his knees and uttered a prayer of forgiveness for his assailants. He had barely enough time to kiss his crucifix before the two men were on him; one of them split the priest's skull with a stroke of the cutlass while the other buried a spear in his heart. Matapang then stripped the priest's body of crucifix and cassock, tied stones to the naked body, and took it far out in the bay where he cast it into the sea.

As San Vitores had lived, so he died -- with love and forgiveness in his heart and a prayer on his lips. He had realized his dream of martyrdom and those who knew and loved him everywhere shared the joy of his triumph. Bells rang and the Te Deum was chanted in Manila, Mexico and Spain; sermons were preached and books written on the striking way that his life bore witness to the Lord whom he preached. His Jesuit companions in the Marianas mourned his loss even as they rejoiced in his victory but, before all else, they carried on the work he had begun. There would be many more battles further and greater tensions, and long years of hardship and toil before the Marianas would finally attain both the peace and the faith for which San Vitores labored so tirelessly. San Vitores was not the last missionary to die a violent death in that mission field. Twelve Jesuits and two dozen lay catechists in all, most of them Filipinos and Mexicans, shed their blood for the sake of the church in the Marianas. Yet San Vitores remained, long after his death the inspiration of the mission just as he had been its founder. He is, in a real sense, then, not only the Apostle of the Marianas, but the Apostle of Micronesia.

Guam: Atlas Publication, 1985. Also published as: "Diego Louis de San Vitores." The Pacific Voice, 6 October 1985: 4-6.

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