Pope Praises Jesuit Missions In Paraguay After Apology For Church Crimes Against Indigenous Peoples

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Pope Francis is balancing out his apology for the crimes the Catholic Church committed against indigenous during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas with high praise for the Jesuit missions in Paraguay that brought Christianity and European-style education and economic organization to the natives.

The Argentine Jesuit praised the Jesuit "reductions," as the missions were known in Paraguay, as an almost utopian social and economic experiment — one that was immortalized in the 1986 film "The Mission." He said Saturday they were "one of the most important experiences of evangelization and social organization in history."

"There the Gospel was the soul and the life of communities which did not know hunger, unemployment, illiteracy or oppression," he said. "This historical experience shows us that, today too, a more humane society is possible."

The Jesuits founded the Paraguay missions in the 17th and 18th century as an alternative to the colonial encomienda system, in which Spain's king granted land in conquered territories to those who settled there, who then had indigenous peoples live there and work the land. The missions were relatively autonomous from Spanish rulers — intentionally so to protect the Guarani from the abuses of the encomienda leaders who wanted them as a source of labor.

The missions were well defended — the Jesuits created a Guarani militia — and were economically successful, with the Jesuits teaching the Guarani to have both individual and communal property to provide for families who couldn't provide for themselves, according to "The Jesuits in Latin America: 1549-2000," a history of the order on the continent written by the Jesuit historian, the Rev. Jeffrey Klaiber. Unlike missions elsewhere in the Americas, where indigenous rebellions against the missionaries were rife, there were no such rebellions by the Guarani in Paraguay, Klaiber wrote.

Francis cited the Paraguayan mission experience as an example of the type of economic and social system that looks out for the common good rather than individual interests, and creates an inclusive society where the poor aren't left on the margins. It's the type of a financial system that he has been calling for repeatedly to correct the "perverse" global financial system today, and especially on his three-nation South American pilgrimage.

"Where there is love of people and a willingness to serve them, it is possible to create the conditions necessary for everyone to have access to basic goods, so that no one goes without," he said.

Francis comments came just days after he issued a sweeping apology for the sins and "crimes" of the Catholic Church against the continent's indigenous peoples — an apology that received thunderous applause from a gathering of indigenous and civil groups in neighboring Bolivia. By contrast, Francis' comments Saturday about the Jesuit missions were met with silence by a similar gathering of indigenous and non-governmental groups in Paraguay.

Ricardo Pavetti, a member of the Academy of Paraguayan History, said the Jesuits were eventually expelled by the Spanish from Paraguay in the mid-18th century precisely because the missions were so economically and militarily successful. He said the missions were hardly democratic and were at times "despotic," but that the Jesuit missionaries were highly capable men who taught the natives trades and how to read and write.

"With distance the Jesuits created something like, to use a metaphor, a communist Christian republic," he told The Associated Press. "It seems to be a contradiction, but it's the best illustration to understand what happened a long time ago."