The martyrs of Paraguay are three Jesuit priests; Father Roque Gonzalez, Father Alphonsus Rodriguez and Father Juan de Castillo who out of love and passion for Jesus, devoted their lives to the conversion of souls.
Roque Gonzalez was born in Asuncion in 1576 to an aristocratic family. He loved God even as a young child. It did not surprise people when he decided to become a priest. Father Gonzalez was ordained when he was 23 years old. Because he was born in Paraguay, the native Indians of his land had always interested him and so he wanted to work among them. He decided to join the Jesuit order so that he could do missionary work with the natives of his country.
The Reductions were settlements of Christian Indians run by the missionaries as guardians of the native people and their ancient traditions. Their opposition to Spanish colonization, slave traders and the Inquisition led to their suppression in the 18th century. The Jesuit missionaries helped them to build settlements, community centers for the Indians where they could live together, grow in faith, learn skills, receive an education and be protected from slave raiders.
As a Jesuit, Roque worked in the Reductions, first in that of St Ignatius, then later founding six more to the east of the Parana and Uruguay rivers. In the course of his work, he suffered extreme hunger, exhaustion and insect bites. These discomforts he said were more than offset by the love and friendship of the Indian people.
In 1620, two young priests from Spain, Father Alphonso Rodriguez and Father Juan de Castillo heard about Father Gonzalez’s work. They joined him, and together, the trio founded a new reduction near the Ijuhu River.
At some point, Father Gonzalez and Father Rodriguez went to Brazil to begin work on a new settlement. They left Father Castillo in charge of the settlement where they were living. They went to Paraguay in South America to proclaim the love of Jesus to the native Indians. These Jesuit priests preached passionately about Jesus and God’s saving plan for all people. Many Paraguay Indians listened and believed in their message. They asked to be baptized and began to live new lives as Christians.
The local medicine man was angry at the work of the Jesuit priests. They had changed the hearts of so many people that he had lost many of his followers. He organized a group of his believers and plotted to kill the Jesuits.
Father Rodriguez was hanging a small church bell at the new settlement when the medicine man’s followers attacked and killed him. Father Gonzalez was in the chapel when he heard the noise. He too, was killed when he went to check on his friend. The attackers burned the chapel to the ground. Two days later, they returned to Paraguay and killed Father Castillo. These priest were martyred between the 15th and 17th of November in the year 1620
The martyrs of Paraguay were canonized in 1988. The Church honors them as saints because they followed Jesus’ command to his apostles: “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We can join in their work by praying for all the missionaries who bring Christ to people all over the world.
Several missionaries have lost their lives fighting for the conversion of souls; Many lost their eyes, others lost their limbs; for the sake of the kingdom of God, many have forsaken their families; many have forsaken their very selves. It’s really scary when you think about it but then let’s look at it from a different angle; Jesus said, “woe unto that man who would cause any of these little ones to sin; it is better that a stone is tied around his neck and he is thrown into the river than for him to cause any of these little ones to sin” now, if such a terrible fate awaits those who cause others to sin, what great reward there will be for those who out of one little act of love, bring about the conversion of another man. There’s usually a great jubilation in heaven when one soul turns back to God and great grace is bestowed on that person who out of true love for Jesus makes little effort for the conversion of others.
We pray to God for the grace of a true Christian spirit, that we may by little and simple acts of holiness, bring about true conversion in the hearts of those around us. Amen.