Saint Roque Gonzalez, Alfonso Rodriguez Olmedo and Juan del Castillo, Priests SJ, and Martyrs

Roque González was born in Asuncion, Paraguay, in 1576. As a young man, he studied with the Jesuits but became a diocesan priest. His first assignment was to work with native peoples near Asuncion. He did this so well that the bishop made him pastor of the cathedral. In 1609, at the age of 33, he joined the Jesuits. While still a novice he was sent to work with the Guarani people, who lived along the Paraguay and Pilcomayao Rivers. The aim was to convert them to Christianity in order to make it easier for the Spaniards to pass through their territory on their way to Peru. González became fluent in the language and could preach effectively. Although baptisms were few, the people became more friendly and stopped making attacks on Asuncion.

After spending two years in this mission, he was transferred in 1611 to the St Ignatius Mission, which did very well under his pastoral care. These missions were known as “Reductions” from the Spanish verb reducer (to bring together), because their idea was to bring people to live together in towns. In St Ignatius, González laid out a public square (plaza), supervised the building of houses, set up a school and built a church. In addition to providing living space, he also taught them how to farm and to raise sheep and cattle. And he continued preaching the Gospel illustrating its message with colour, music and processions.

The four years he stayed there saw the development of the model he would follow during the next 12 years in other locations. He set up a number of Reductions in areas which are now part of southern Brazil, Paraguay, and north-east Argentina. His success was due to his many talents – architect, mason, farmer, doctor as well as pastor. He also was fully inserted into the communities, living like them and eating what they ate. In times of hunger, he was hungry too.

In 1619, he was the first Jesuit to enter what is now Uruguay, when a chief from there asked González to set up a similar Reduction for his people. The invitation was accepted and in 1620, the town of Concepcion was founded. Later he set up other missions, including Candelaria, and the Assumption Mission at Iyui, a village of 400 people. He put Juan del Castillo, a recently ordained Jesuit in charge of it. Then, in the company of another Jesuit, Alfonso Rodríguez Olmedo, he set out for Caaro to set up a new mission.

They arrived on 1 November, and called the new mission All Saints. Within a few days they had already baptised three children. But this brought them into conflict with Nezu, the local religious leader, who resented the influence of the missionaries which he felt threatened his own. He decided to get rid of them. As González was leaving the chapel one morning after Mass, he went to help some men setting up a bell. As he bent down, some of Nezu’s men split the priest’s head open with an axe. When Olmedo came out to investigate, he, too, was struck down. The bodies of the two priests were thrown into the chapel which was set on fire. It was 15 November, 1628.

Alphonsus Rodríguez Olmedo was born in Zamora, Spain in 1598, and arrived at the Latin American mission in 1616 as a scholastic and, after studies at Cordoba, Argentina, was ordained priest in 1625. He was sent with Juan del Castillo to work as a missionary under Roque González. As mentioned, he was González’ companion in setting up the new mission at Caaro where they came in conflict with the local religious leader and were both killed.

John del Castillo was born in Belmonte, Spain, in 1596. He began studying law but then joined the Jesuits and became a missionary to Latin America while still a scholastic and, like Olmedo, studied theology at Cordobaand was ordained in 1625. His first missionary assignment was to Itapua, where Fr Roque González found him and took him along to found several new missions.

As mentioned above, González had put the young priest in charge of a mission at Iyuí, named Assumption since it had been founded on August 15, while González set off with Alfonso Rodríguez Olmedo to Caaro. The day after the murder of González and Rodríguez, a number of Nezu’s supporters went to Iyui. They attacked del Castillo before taking him into the jungle where he was beaten to death and his body set on fire. His remains were later recovered and buried together with his two companions.

These three were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. González was the first native-born person from any of the Americas to be canonised as a saint. They are remembered for their missionary zeal and their fortitude in defending the indigenous peoples against oppressors.

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