Against the abyss: a Dominican anniversary

2011-12-19 Vatican Radio

On the fourth Sunday of Advent December 18th, the worldwide Dominican order remembered a landmark anniversary: the 500th anniversary of the preaching of a homily that condemned social injustice and upheld the human right of all indigenous people to live freely, and with dignity.

The year was 1511. The place, the island nation of Hispaniola, now modern-day Haiti. When it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Hispaniola was inhabited by Taino Amerindians. But the Spanish conquistadores who took over the island had virtually annihilated them within 25 years.

The first Dominicans arrived in 1510 to care for the Spanish settlers but soon became aware of the atrocious injustices being committed against the native population. So the small Dominican community together prepared the Advent homily and chose their most powerful orator, Friar Antonio Montesinos to read it out to the mostly Spanish congregation. And it was to be a homily like no other:

“Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you declared such detestable wars on this people who were living, cal mly and peacefully on their lands, where you have allowed an infinite number of them to be consumed in their sickness, resulting in death and destruction never hear of before? Through the excessive work you demand of them, they fall ill and die, or rather, you kill them with your desire to extract and acquire gold every day. And what do you care of the person who instructs them in the Faith and that they know their God and Creator, are baptized attend Mass, keep holy days and Sundays?

Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? This, do you not understand? This, do you not feel? Are you in such a profound sleep that you are lethargic? Be certain that in such a state as you are, you cannot be saved...”

Sister Toni Harris is justice and peace promoter for the Dominican Sisters International here in Rome. She says the Hispaniola sermon remains one of the most powerful expressions of the Dominicans’ on-going commitment to serving justice and peace throughout the world.

Listen to the interview with Sr. Toni Harris in this program by Tracey McClure: