Witnesses to the Truth: Statements and Opinions

Report of the Definitorium of the Custody of Santa Elena to the King

San Agustin: October 16, 1612

After the turmoil of the Revolt had subsided and peace had returned to the land, the friars had reason to observe that a singularly propitious period was dawning for the evangelization of La Florida. A sign of the happy change was the arrival in July, 1612, of a group of twenty missionaries to serve at the various pueblos and mission-centers, as likewise the jurisdictional elevation of the Florida mission. Some time before 1608 – perhaps as early as 1605 – the group of friars then laboring in La Florida had been raised to the rank of a custody, the Custody of Santa Elena, embracing also a number of friars working in Cuba. A custody may be regarded as a mini-province, or a future province in the process of being formed. And indeed it was not long before that still higher status was decreed for the mission. At the General Chapter of the Order held in Rome in 1612 during the season of Pentecost, the Custody became the Province of Santa Elena, with headquarters in San Agustin.

In that era of slow communication – quite apart from the bureaucratic formalities required for Spain's acceptance by the royal placet of a new ecclesiastical entity in its dominion – the effective implementation of the decree had to await the formal promulgation of its provisions. Hence it was that, meeting in October of 1612, the governing body of the group in La Florida signed their Report as the Definitorium of the Custody of Santa Elena. In part the Report read:

In the early days we experienced great hardships along with threats of death. On various occasions they (the natives) tried to kill us – as indeed in the Province of Guale they did slay five friars and capture others. Though they did not kill them because of doctrine, it is certain that they slew them because of the Law of God they were teaching them and because of our moral precepts – so contrary to their way of life and their customs. Specifically they slew them because we would not consent that any married Christian should have more than one wife. It was for that very reason, and no other, that John the Baptist was beheaded – for he had reproved Herod for that very same thing. This is the reason which Indians gave and, recognizing their sin, to this day cite for their slaying of the friars.

It is a recognized fact in this land that since the death of these blessed religious the native people have been turning more docile and peaceful, attaining their present state. It is the pious belief that these blessed ones (the slain friars) are in God's presence, interceding for the conversion of this land.12

In this message to the King the friars give expression to the new spirit of euphoria which after more than three decades of hardship and rejection was surging through the group of missionaries. They speak not only of their joy over the recent progress of the mission, but even more enthusiastically they refer to the anticipated growth in the future.

In their rejoicing over the prospects for expansion of the work which until recently had been contending with indifference, opposition and persecution, the friars were mindful of their brethren who had given their lives for the sake of the Gospel. In the sacrifice of the martyrs of 1597 they readily saw and acknowledged the source of heavenly blessings for the work of the mission. Recalling the martyrdom – now fifteen years in the past – the Definitors gratefully recognized that the sacrifice of their confreres had undoubtedly merited an outpouring of graces upon the land. They were – however unconsciously – repeating what, centuries earlier, Tertullian had written: "Sanguis est semen." The blood of the Martyrs of 1597 had become the seed of a new and vibrant Christianity.

Referring to the sacrifice of the Martyrs, the members of the Definitorium gave witness to the motive for which their fellow-missionaries had sacrificed their lives: it was for the defense of the Law of Christ in respect to the qualities of Christian marriage. As Christ had insisted on the absolute fidelity of the spouses one to the other, the slain missionaries had expounded that law of Christian marriage, endeavoring to lead their converts to embrace and to observe that high ideal. United in the bond of Christian marriage, husband and wife were to practice absolute fidelity one to the other. St. Paul, echoing the explicit teaching of the Savior, had told the first Christians: "A man shall leave his father and mother and shall cling to his wife, and the two shall be made into one" (Ephesians 5.31).

Just a few decades previously the Council of Trent (1545-63) had solemnly reaffirmed the law of Christ prohibiting polygamy and divorce. By their profession the friar-missionaries were pledged to defend that law. Emissaries of the King of Heaven, they were also children of Catholic Spain. All of them had lived through the period immediately following the Reformation, the period which all through Europe had witnessed violent and even bloody struggles for and against Catholic doctrine. The question of the nature and the properties of the Sacrament of Matrimony was not the least of those struggles.

Sons of Spain, they had also known of the travail of the Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon, who, having become Queen of England, for no legitimate reason was repudiated by England's King Henry VIII. The tragedy of that story must have impressed on the souls of these Spanish missionaries a new sense and a deeper awareness of their obligation to defend the sanctity of the bond of Christian marriage. As theologians trained in the spirit of the Tridentine reform and motivated for the preaching of the Gospel, they had certainly imbibed the Church's conciliar teachings. It was for that reason also that they were propelled to insist that only in the teaching of Christ regarding marriage – difficult for human nature as it might be – would their converts find true fulfillment and eternal life.

Carta-memorial de los religiosos del Definitorio de la Custodia de Sant Elena de La Florida a Su Majestad sobre el estado de la conversión de los indios después de la muerte de los religiosos. San Agustin, 16 de octubre de 1612 (AGI, Audiencia de Santo Domingo, 232), ed. Omaechevarría, MH 12 (1955): 367.

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The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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