Carlos Sodré Lanna

The great epic Portuguese and Spanish colonization and evangelization of our huge continent

hat reality did the Europeans who came to America 500 years ago encounter in its beaches and mountains, jungles and plains? Did it correspond to the ‘noble savage’ myth in a paradisical America?

It soon became obvious that things were not quite like that. The natives were neither innocent nor always kind or peaceful or eager to learn.

In the Americas, before the Discovery, there was a heterogeneous array of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes averse to any higher organization, and often warring with each other.

There were some larger societies, run by magical-religious tyrannies like the Aztecs and the Maya, in Mexico, as well as the Incas in Peru, which had cities and even rudiments of a primitive, fragile, but stagnant state.

In the Americas, practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism predominated from north to south.

Infanticide, euthanasia, and other violations of natural law were common, as were sinister rituals with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, which ended in moral disruption and idolatry. This situation illustrates the divine teaching contained in the Holy Scriptures: “Omnes dii gentium daemonia” (Ps. 95: 5) –– All the gods of the Gentiles are demons.

The Aztecs routinely performed the most nefarious human sacrifices to placate the “gods” with the blood of the unfortunate victims.

Historians recount that in front of the pyramidal temples thousands of prisoners waited in line for their deaths. The victim, carried to the top of the pyramids, grasped by five priests, two of whom held their legs, two their arms, and the fifth their heads turned back, was placed with his back down on the sacrificial stone. The High Priest opened his chest with a knife and grabbed his heart with his hands, offering it to the gods.

Exhausted by the carnage and covered in the blood that splattered on their long, unwashed hair, the priests took turns. The victims’ hearts were placed in a basin and their bodies were thrown down the temple steps to a courtyard where those in charge of this horrible function shredded them. Then the various parts were sent to anthropophagy banquets: the best parts were sent to the court tables and the rest to the warriors.

At the inauguration of a new temple, over twenty thousand prisoners could be sacrificed in one ritual celebration! Some historians report that in 1487 the tyrant Ahuitzotl sacrificed eighty thousand human victims in one feast in the same city.

The Maya also offered constant human sacrifices in analogous religious rituals. Nor were the Incas, in the south, exempt from this monstrous practice.

When the Inca king was crowned, virgins were slain in the sun, and when he fell sick, boys were killed in a burnt offering. The wizard-priests anointed their faces with the blood of these victims. As the new king’s coronation feasts were celebrated, a large number of couples of boys and girls were buried alive.

The same organization was not found in regions of nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes, but the vices usually were the same and cannibalism was widespread, including in Brazil.

There, most of the tribes formed small, self-contained clusters that went about the territory from one point to another and usually stayed in each place for no longer than four or five months. They inhabited huts with about twenty-five “families” on average.

Here are some fundamental aspects of this harsh reality that today’s eco-tribalists try to hide.

The Evangelization of the Indians

However, the Church, which is a Mother, did not retreat from the consideration of these crimes or abandon these lands in horror. Nor did the colonizing Catholic nations give up their endeavors, imbued with missionary desire.

Once the oppressive darkness of paganism had been dispelled, the theretofore unfortunate Indians got to know the true sun of justice, Our Lord Jesus Christ learned to love the kind intercession of His Most Holy Mother, the Virgin Mary. Then the paths of Christian civilization were opened for them, breaking the tyrannical dominance of the barbarism that subdued them, as well as the ominous influx of priest-magicians and shamans.

Whole indigenous tribes and peoples allied themselves with the Europeans to conquer and civilize the Americas. The savage rule of native chiefs became a humane and Christian authority.

Villages of Catholic Indians arose everywhere. Natives of all the Americas learned to write in their languages ​​and read the catechism and Catholic doctrine in them.

Indians were acculturated in the ways of Christian civilization and protected by the laws of Catholic monarchies, which took impressive measures to defend them from the abuses that might occur. Great miscegenation ensued.

The Indians’ exceptional intuition and privileged understanding of religious marvels, their capacity, and sensibility for art were imprinted on masterpieces of American Baroque and marked the spirit of Iberian-American peoples in a peculiar way.

These precious traits remain as suggestions and sketches of providential designs yet to be realized on this continent of hope.

Overseas Christendom

The Cathedral of Cusco

History also records the kings’ dedication to the natives, their new and weak vassals. They sent letters to the discoverers and colonizers and enacted laws that still impress us today for their missionary concern and effort to adapt to the realities in defense of American Natives.

In this magnificent work that united altar and throne, more than 16,000 heroic missionaries crossed the ocean in Portuguese and Spanish caravels to brave the jungles and mountains of America.

Discoverers, conquerors, officers and soldiers, founders of towns and cities, prelates, missionaries, civilizers, and colonizers all devoted their lives to this epic endeavor.

An American nobility was born, and in some cases, an indigenous nobility was recognized whose members often contracted marriage with representatives of the Portuguese and Spanish nobility.

Religious and laity, including converted Indians, shed their blood as martyrs. The Church raised many of these combatants of Christ the honor of the altars, including the martyrs Saint Roque Gonzalez, Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, and Saint John del Castillo.

Illuminating America with their holiness were spiritual potentates such as Saint Toribius of Mogrovejo, patron of the American Episcopate; Saint Martin de Porres, a mulatto saint; great mystic figures, such as Saint Rosa of Lima and Saint Mariana of Quito; Blessed Juan Massias in Peru and Gregorio Lopes in Mexico; Blessed Marie de I’Encarnation, in Canada; apostles like Saint Francis Solano, Saint Peter Claver, Saint Louis Beltran, and Blessed Jose de Anchieta.

Blessed Marie de I’Encarnation

Saint Martín de Porres

Saint Roque González

Viceroys, General Governments, and courts appeared in Portuguese and Spanish America, constituting a huge political-administrative network with the Spanish cabildos and the Portuguese municipal seats.

Villages and settlements abounded in which crafts, commerce, agriculture, and cattle raising flourished.

It is not surprising, therefore, that on the occasion of the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of America, in his commemorative encyclical Quarto Abeunte Seculo (four centuries having passed), Leo XIII deemed this epic saga a part of God’s plans and exclaimed that it was “the greatest feat the world had ever seen.”


  1. José Antonio Arze y Arze,Sociografia del Inkario, Libreria Editorial “Juventud,” La Paz, Bolivia, 1989.
  2. Salvador de Madariaga,Hernán Cortes, Instituição Brasileira de Difusão da Cultura SA. –– IBRASA, São Paulo, 1961.
  3. 3.Gabriel Guarda,.O.S.B, Los laicos en la cristianización de América, Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, 1987.

(Source: Catolicismo – December 1992)