Antigua - founded in 1543 and named Santiago de los Caballeros.
The city of Antigua was the third capital of the colony of Guatemala. This Spanish colony included almost all of Central America including Chiapas which today is part of Mexico. After devastating earthquakes in 1773, the capital of the country was moved to Guatemala City. Many Guatemalans abandoned the city of Antigua, but some of the ruins of colonial buildings remain. The name of the old capital, Santiago de los Caballeros, was changed then to Antigua Guatemala (the old Guatemala).
Where have we been and where are we going?
We arrived on Tuesday of Holy Week in Antigua to experience the famous processions which rival Seville, Spain as a tourist attraction. We found ourselves enveloped in late medieval architecture, and anticipating our participation in late medieval piety with the processions and rituals. The small town of about 35,000 is packed with visitors from all over the world for Holy Week.
Preparing for the Good Friday Processions in Antigua
The baroque architecture of the ruins of the 1773 earthquake is still easily perceived, and some of the buildings have been restored to look like the originals. The dominating architecture transports you back to the days of the Spanish empire.
Bartolome de Las Casas, O.P.
Joanne and I went for a brief walk in the city. We came upon the Merced, the remains of a church and convent built by the Mercedarian Fathers from 1749 – 1767.
Church of the Merced in Antigua
Despite being constructed to withstand earthquakes, the complex was badly damaged in the 1773 earthquake. The restored version of the church is a close version of the original building.
In the front of the building is a statue of Bartolomé de Las Casas, O.P., Bishop of the area from 1543 to 1547.
Statue of Bertolome de las Casas outside the Church of the Merced
He was called ‘Defender of the Indigenous People.’ Opposing the prevailing theology of the day, Las Casas insisted that the Indigenous were fully human and had full rights as human beings. He denounced the ‘encomienda’ system established by Imperial Spain for the Spanish Americas in 1502. According to this system the encomendero (owner) was given an allotment of indigenous people to protect and instruct in the Roman Catholic faith. In return the indigenous were to provide labor and tribute to the encomendero. A similar program was used in Spain in the reconquista (reconquest) of Muslim territory. Gustavo Gutierrez writes that a key reason for Las Casas’ fierce opposition was that “these laws perpetuate and definitively establish the system of distribution (of native people), or encomienda, that is the servitude of the Indians and the exploitation of their labor.” (Gutierrez, Gustavo, Las Casas, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1993, p. 284.)
Las Casas instructed confessors to refuse absolution to encomenderos unless they freed the Indians working as slaves on their work sites. (Ibid. p.33) The nearby provinces of northern and southern ‘Vera Paz’ (true peace) were named reflecting the quality of life advocated by Las Casas and his Dominican Friars.
The founder of Liberation Theology, Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez, notes that Las Casas insisted that the colonial economic system be completely abandoned not merely adjusted. (Ibid. p. 288) United States’ global neo-liberalism of today is a similar economic system that desperately needs to be changed. Gutierrez refers to the Latin American Bishop’s documents from Medellin, Columbia (1968) and Puebla, Mexico (1979), which advocate change in political and economic structures, to demonstrate that the Church’s tradition of justice for all, preached by Las Casas, continues. (Ibid. p. 286)
We toured the beautiful baroque Merced Church. Inside parishioners were preparing their float for the processions.
Three of us decided to go to visit the Santo Domingo Church; we thought it was a church, but it turned out to be a luxury hotel and a museum. The original church and Dominican convent were destroyed in the 1773 earthquake. Remains of the original church can be found in the hotel-museum complex.
Dominican Shield displayed in the Hotel/Museum of Sancto Domingo in Antigua
I talked to a museum guide about Bartolome de Las Casas and also the massacres of the indigenous during the civil war. I asked him if he felt that revenge was necessary. He thought awhile and responded, “No! Father Bartolomé would say no.” I asked another Guatemalan about the guide’s response and he said, “It’s a Ladino (upper class) comment – he’s told you what you wanted to hear.”
Holy Thursday at the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral
On Holy Thursday we went to Mass at the Cathedral. We arrived early, but the plaza in front and the church itself swarmed with people. We saw room available in the front of the church; Joanne and I went up to claim the seats, but we were told they were reserved. We went to a side aisle; our companions remain in the back standing. At least we had the wall to lean on during the long ceremony. The entrance procession included the Bishop, clergy and well dressed lay leaders of the church, certainly Ladinos or upper class. They took the reserved seats in the front near the altar. The Bishop washed the feet of the important Ladinos in the Holy Thursday ritual which attempts to enact the story of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper.
The readings of Holy Thursday are selected to point to key understandings of Salvation History. The homilist, the Bishop of the area, chose to emphasize the importance and the need for priests.
It is ironic that the myth of the Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood was in the process of collapse during the 16th century in northern Europe yet still remains viable in Guatemala with similar 16th century trappings. Is it that some Latinos & Ladinos, by necessity are better at salvaging the good from a myth and simply ignoring the obvious absurdities?
The myth of the priesthood and the Eucharist establish an upper class institution yet still were a challenge to the racism and greed of the U.S. dominated, global economic system. The numerous martyred priests and religious are witnesses. Is it reasonable to ask: do the myths enveloping Jesus, the young Jewish handyman executed by imperial Rome, in one way or another make sense of our lives politically and personally?