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Bartolome de las Casas: the Church’s Worst Saint?

Today’s saint just might have the singular distinction of being among the (morally speaking) worst saints we honor all year, at least going from the first half of his life. Our saint is Bartolome de las Casas. He lived from the late 1400s to the mid 1500s, a period of tremendous change and flux in the West. Right now I’m reading a new biography of Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation, and am reminded of the radical and rapid shifts on the European continent at that time due to Rome’s waning authority and Luther’s hand in that. And even as all this was happening, colonization was in its heydey, Spain being the chief leader of the Western expansion into the Americas.

Bartoleme was one of the Spaniards who settled on the American islands, Hispaniola (Haiti/Domnican Republic). He followed in the footsteps of many others in taking natives by force and making them slaves. Hard to believe, but such were the times: he was a priest at this point, the first to be ordained in the Americas. And he was for many years very much a part of this unbelievably cruel treatment of the island natives. The Spanish were possibly at this time the worst, committing egregious atrocities against those they deemed “sub-human.”

Well, no one is beyond redeeming, the next part of his story reminds us. As he was preparing for a sermon on Pentecost Sunday, Bartolome was forced to wrestle with a Scripture reading that would turn his world upside down and change the course of his life. I’m reminded of the various saints in our calendar whose lives were changed completely by a single reading from Scripture, such as St. Francis who gave up all his possessions when he read about Jesus telling the rich man to do the same. Or St. Nicholas of Myra, who I believe converted on hearing that very same passage centuries before Francis.The reading that changed Bartolome’s life was from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament:  "If one sacrifices from what has been wrongfully obtained, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable. … Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the man who offers sacrifice from the property of the poor. The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood.“

From there, he joined other Dominicans on the islands in condemning the Spaniards’ treatment of the natives. There had been many good priests all this time preaching against what they saw, even denying the rite of Confession to many of the encomenderos, the name for those who held lands and exploited people. This, he knew, carried considerable risk, as many of those were driven out and sometimes worse by the people who didn’t want to hear their message.

Frustrated with his lack of progress on the islands, Bartolome eventually traveled back to Spain in order to have influence in the Spanish court, but the power of the encomenderos was great, and he was time and again thwarted in his efforts. He made several attempts to create a new system on a small scale, creating plans for Spanish peasants to inhabit the lands, but these plans were constantly frustrated by larger forces.Finally, he became a Dominican friar himself, moved back to Hispaniola where he spent the rest of his life among the brothers there, and he WROTE. He made the pen a sword to fight injustice, writing down the history of the Spanish conquests and all its atrocities that he not only witnessed, but early in his life actually took part in.

It’s a moving story. There’s nothing more powerful than a person trying to atone for past sins. They can be among the most zealous reformers, and today we remember this man, not overlooking his faults, but understanding them as the force that made possible the virtue we celebrate today.