Blessed Diego Aloysius de San Vitores

Blessed Diego Aloysius de San Vitores, Priest and Martyr, SJ

Diego (James) Aloysius de San Vitores was born of a noble family in Burgos, Spain, in 1627.

His parents wanted him to follow a military career but Diego had a desire to be a Jesuit from the age of 11. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1640, studied philosophy and theology in Alcalá de Henares before being ordained on 23 December, 1651. Despite his desire to be a missionary in China or Japan, the young Jesuit taught grammar at Oropesa and then taught young Jesuits studying theology in Madrid. Finally the superior general, Father Goswin Nickel, assigned San Vitores to the Philippines missions in 1659.

He left Spain on 15 May, 1660 and sailed first to Mexico where we spent 18 months before continuing on to the Philippines. While in Mexico City he gave mission and preached in the streets. In 1662, on his way to the Philippines he stopped over in Guam and vowed to go back there some day. Three years later, through his close links to the royal court, he persuaded King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Maria Ana of Austria to order that a mission in the Ladrones group of islands about 1500 km northeast of the Philippines be established.

On arriving in the Philippines, he spent some months learning the local language. He was made master of novices and dean at the university in Manila. During the five years he spent there, he also did missionary work in other parts of Luzon and on the island of Mindoro.

When a mission opened in the Ladrones Islands, Diego was chosen to lead it. In June 1668 , he set sail from Acapulco in Mexico to Guam. He gave the Chamorro archipelago the new name of “Islas Marianas” (Marianas Islands) in honour of the Queen Regent of Spain, Maria Ana of Austria, as well as the Virgin Mary. The missionary landed on Guam in the village of Hagatna where he was greeted by Chief Kepuha. Kepuha’s family gave him land to establish the first Catholic mission on the island. On 2 February 1669 Diego established the first Catholic church in Hagatna and dedicated it to the “Dulce Nombre de Maria” (Sweet Name of Mary).

Work in the new mission began very smoothly partly because of a shipwrecked Spaniard whose friendship with several island leaders opened a path for the Jesuits, who imitated the simple life of the natives by walking barefoot, eating frugal meals and wearing a garb made of matted fibres. After only six months, the Jesuits had baptised some 13,000 people.

After Chief Kepuha’s death in 1669, relations between Spain and the Chamorro leaders deteriorated. Trouble began in 1670 when Fr Luis de Medina was martyred on Saipan, one of the Las Marianas islands. Diego began to pray for the grace of martyrdom. Then war broke out in 1671. Following several attacks on the Spanish mission, a peace was finally negotiated. Although he was inspired by the peaceful methods of St Francis Xavier, Diego recognised that a military presence would be necessary to protect the missionaries on Guam. In 1672, Chamorro resistance increased, led by Makahnas and Kakahnas (indigenous priests and priestesses) from the Chamorro nobility, who felt they would lose their leadership position and status under a Catholic mission and a male-dominated Spanish society.

On 1 April 1672, Diego set out with his Visayan companion Pedro Calungsod to save a servant from what they considered a dissolute life. When the two men entered the village of Tumon, they met a man named Matapang who was one of the mission’s first converts. Matapang threatened Diego, who left the village but did not go far away. When Matapang found him, he threw a spear without warning into the chest of Diego’s companion. The missionary, realising his own end was imminent, grabbed his crucifix and fell to his knees. A companion of Matapang struck the Jesuit in the head, killing him instantly. The bodies were then thrown into the sea.

Diego de San Vitores was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1985. He is remembered for his missionary zeal in preaching God’s word to native populations and is acknowledged as the “Apostle of the Marianas”.

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