Fifth Centenary of First American Baptisms

Author: John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

Letter to Dominican Bishops September 4, 1996

Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, Dear Priests, Religious and Lay Faithful

1. The coming 21 September is the fifth centenary of the first Baptisms conferred in the New World. They took place in the present Diocese of La Vega, on the island then known as Hispaniola. Some children of these lands had already received the waters of Baptism in Barcelona in 1493, and later others in the monastery of Guadalupe (Extremadura) on 28 July 1496, but the words of the sacramental formula were first pronounced on American soil on the feast of the Apostle St Matthew: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", thereby granting divine sonship to the Indio chief Guaticaba, who took the name Juan Mateo, and to the members of his household and family.

It is right that this important event should be recalled, and for this reason I join you all in giving thanks to the Lord for the abundant gifts received from these five centuries of ecclesial presence in America, and for the abundant fruits of Christian life which the Lord has continued to bring forth in the different communities of the Dominican Republic and of all America; with them I praise God, who calls us to new life and introduces us into it through the sacrament of Baptism.

2. "The goal of apostolic endeavour is that all who are made sons of God by faith and Baptism should come together ... to take part in the sacrifice and to eat the Lord's Supper" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10). When on Columbus' second voyage 12 missionaries accompanied Friar Bernard Boyl, the Royal Instruction ordered the Admiral to "work on attracting the inhabitants of those islands to the Catholic faith". Thus, the labours of those first evangelizers aimed at bringing the inhabitants of the island, by preaching and catechesis, to embrace the faith and receive Baptism, since this was the first fruit of that enormous missionary work started by Spain.

Divine grace, which precedes and accompanies the works of men, through the missionaries' preaching called the chief of the Guarionex to the faith. After a two-year catechumenate, he received the sacrament of Baptism together with some of his relatives, thus giving rise to the first Christian community in the New World. In this way the mandate the Apostles and their successors had received from Christ on the mountain in Galilee was fulfilled: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19), a mandate which will remain urgent until the end of time.

Chief Guaticaba, even before receiving Baptism, would accompany the missionaries on their visits to the interior of the island, acting as translator and interpreter, and shortly after his Baptism he received the palm of martyrdom for the Catholic faith, saying in his language as they killed him: "Dios naboria daca, Dios naboria daca", which means "I am the servant of God" (cf. Hernando Colon, Historia del Almirante, chapter 25).

3. A few years ago we celebrated the fifth centenary of that memorable 12 October in 1492 when the two worlds met, and which marked the beginning of the evangelization of America. Subsequently, on 6 January 1494 the first Mass was celebrated in Isabella. The anniversaries we are now celebrating, together with that of 8 August 1511, when Pope Julius II established the first Dioceses in the New World, enable us to say that the Church was truly implanted in America, by which "the history of salvation is enlarged, the family of God grows and is multiplied 'so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God' (2 Cor 4:15)" (Address in Santo Domingo, 12 October 1992, n. 3; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 21 October 1992, p. 6).

Those baptized into Christ have put on Christ

We Christians always attribute a religious character to anniversaries which are celebrated as a special moment of grace for individuals and communities and to which is attributed an important and meaningful role (cf. Tertio millennio adveniente, n. 15). On this occasion we have an anniversary related to the Baptism of the inhabitants of the American continent, and it invites us to rediscover the unfathomable riches of this sacrament and to take up, with renewed zeal, the commitments that flow from it. Moreover, this invitation seems to have been reinforced by the programme of preparations for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, in which, within a systematic plan of ecclesial renewal, I proposed that by reflecting on "Christ, Saviour and Proclaimer of the Gospel" (ibid., n. 40), "a renewed appreciation of Baptism as the basis of Christian living" (ibid., n. 41) should be considered in the year 1997.

4. "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal 3:27). In receiving the sacrament of Baptism, Christians are consecrated, reborn through water and anointed by the Holy Spirit; they enter the Church to make up "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1 Pt 2:9). They have become true sons of God "and partakers of the divine nature, and so are truly sanctified. They must therefore hold on to and perfect in their lives that sanctification which they have received from God" (Lumen gentium, n. 40).

Since they form part of the People of God, Christians incorporated into Christ through Baptism also share in Christ's functions as priest, prophet and king each fulfilling according to his own state the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world. Hence Christians "must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church" (ibid., n. 11), being thus the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Moreover, by virtue of their new birth in Christ, all have the same dignity, the same grace as sons and the same vocation to perfection, according to their different conditions (cf. ibid., n. 31).

The Church raises a hymn of thanksgiving

5. To mark the occasion of this fifth centenary which we are preparing to celebrate, the Bishops of the Dominican Republic have published their Pastoral Letter El Bautismo Don y Compromiso, calling the faithful together so that the joyful celebration will help them to hold their own Baptism in greater esteem and thus give an impetus to "a new evangelization which involves and reaches all, which includes human advancement and is incarnated in our culture, so that Christ, present in the heart and action of Dominicans, will make his kingdom a reality in our midst" (n. 3). Indeed, this celebration must motivate all Dominicans and all the Catholics of America to be more deeply involved in the faith they have received, in constant prayer, in spiritual renewal and in the life of charity and solidarity.

For all this, the universal Church raises her hymn of thanksgiving to the Lord of history for the priceless gift of Baptism, for the acceptance it found in your lands down these five centuries, for the fervour with which the faith and its various expressions have been preserved, for the spiritual riches that the Catholic communities of America have represented and still represent in the ecclesial communion, proved by "the three great loves which have marked the Catholic faith of your peoples: love of the Eucharist, love of the Mother of the Saviour and love. of the Church in the person of the Successor of Peter" (Letter, 12 October 1993, n. 3).

To the Blessed Virgin, Star of the first and of the new evangelization, Mother of God and our Mother, so venerated by Dominicans at her shrine of Altagracia and presented to us in prayer before the mystery of the Word made flesh, I commend the good intentions of the Pastors and faithful to welcome in all its depth the Baptism they have received and to live with generosity and courage its riches and demands. May the Apostolic Blessing which I affectionately impart to you also help you in this task.

From the Vatican, 4 September 1996.

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