The Servant of God John Zumarraga, Confessor, First Order
John was born in the Basque province of Biscay in Spain, and there entered the Franciscan Order. Due to his extraordinary virtue and talent, he was frequently appointed to the higher offices in his province. He was guardian of the friary at Abroxo near the capital of Valladolid, when the King of Spain, Emperor Charles V, arrived there to spend Holy Week at the friary, as was his pious custom.
The emperor was greatly edified by the perfect order, the holy zeal, and the austere poverty which prevailed in the convent. But above all, he was delighted with the conversation of Father John, at whose piety, zeal for souls, and enlightened wisdom he could not marvel enough. When, therefore, the question arose in 1528 of appointing a bishop for the recently conquered realm of Mexico, the emperor believed that he could not propose a better person to the pope than Father John.
Only in obedience did John accept this great honor, for there was a heavy burden associated with it. In Mexico it would be his task to set the affairs of the Church in order, promote the propagation of the Faith, and at the same time protect the native Indians against unjust oppression by the emperor’s officials, concerning whom many complaints had been sent to the emperor. The latter gave Father John special authority and urged him to depart for the new country even before he had received episcopal consecration.
John found conditions in Mexico in a very bad state. The highest as well as the lowest officials sought to enrich themselves at the expense of the newly acquired provinces. They treated the natives like slaves, drove them from their property, which they took for themselves, and sent them into the mines to dig gold and silver for them. Many of the Spaniards led scandalous lives and proved to be a hindrance to the conversion of the natives.
With great prudence, John began to remonstrate with the officials. But they endeavored to justify themselves on the score that they were the conquerors. They even contended that the Indians were not real human beings and had no claim to be treated as such. Then John informed them of the authority that had been given to him by the emperor and threatened to punish them if they did not desist from their unjust course. That infuriated them. They sought to take his life and showed themselves hostile to all priests, especially the Franciscan missionaries.
Since every attempt at kindness was in vain, John publicly pronounced the ban of excommunication on the godless and obdurate officials. A spear was hurled at him as he did so, and only by a miracle did he remain alive. From now on he had to endure no end of annoyance. His letters to the emperor were intercepted, and no mail from Spain was delivered to him until John got an honest sailor from Biscay to be his secret messenger. Forthwith a new royal governor came, who deposed the recreant officials. John was calumniated and recalled to Spain in 1531, but he easily refuted the charges raised against him. He was highly commended for his courage and firmness, received episcopal consecration, and was sent back to Mexico with new powers as Protector of the Indians.
John returned to Mexico as bishop in 1534, and could now labor for the salvation of souls with less hindrance. His report to the general chapter of the order at Toulouse mentions the following results achieved: More than a million Indians baptized; over five hundred pagan temples deserted; and whereas formerly twenty thousand children were sacrificed to the devil every year by having their living hearts torn out of their bodies and burnt before the idol, now there were just as many children being reared in a Christian way, and they, in turn, were leading their parents to the Christian religion.
The bishop labored in person and without rest at the conversion of the Indians.
In the last year of his life, John’s see of Mexico was raised to an archdiocese, but he never wished to be called archbishop. When he felt his strength leaving him and his end drawing near, he invited all who had not yet received confirmation to present themselves at Pentecost. He had administered the sacrament to fourteen thousand persons in Pentecost week when his strength failed him on Friday. With great edification, he received the last sacraments, and died happily on Sunday during the octave of Corpus Christi, June 3, 1548, in the eighty-third year of his life. His last words were: “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Several miracles have occurred at his grave in the cathedral in Mexico.
*from the Franciscan Book of Saints by Marion A. Habig, OFM
Pelayo's resistance initiated the nearly 800-year-long Reconquista to take back his country from the ruthless invader who had conquered his homeland and sought to erase his culture and his faith. His actions would lay the foundations of a Kingdom for Christ that would eventually reach around the world and spread the Catholic faith to millions of souls. Read more...
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