500 years ago this week: the conversion of Bartolomeo de las Casas

Here’s an anniversary worth noting. This week marks the 500th anniversary of the conversion of Fr. Bartolomeo de las Casas. Las Casas was the 16th century Spanish Dominican friar who came to “the New World,” participated in the atrocities committed by the Spanish against the native Americans, and later opposed these atrocities vehemently.

Las Casas came to the Americas as a lay man. He was 18 years old in 1502, when he arrived with his father, who was a merchant, in what is today Cuba. They were among the first European settlers in the Americas. He obtained a plantation and bought slaves. But he soon decided to become a priest, and in 1510, he became the first European to be ordained a priest in the Americas. In 1513, he served as chaplain to Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Spanish conquistador, in his mission to take control of the island of Cuba from its natives. In this role, he witnessed even crueler treatment of native Americans than he had seen (and committed) previously.

It was in August 1514 — precisely 500 years ago — that the most significant conversion of Las Casas’s life occurred. He was studying a passage from the book of Sirach in preparation for a homily. It was Sirach 34: 18-22 (here is today’s New American Bible translation):

Tainted his gifts who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods!

Mock presents from the lawless win not God’s favor.

The Most High approves not the gifts of the godless,

nor for their many sacrifices does he forgive their sins.

Like the man who slays a son in his father’s presence

is he who offers sacrifice from the possessions of the poor.

The bread of charity is life itself for the needy;

he who withholds it is a man of blood.

He slays his neighbor who deprives him of his living;

he sheds blood who denies the laborer his wages.

The words dug into his conscience. He prepared a special sermon about the treatment of the Indians for the feast of the Assumption, August 15. He set free his slaves and began preaching frequently that the other colonists should do the same. Las Casas went on to become one of the foremost voices in defense of the human dignity of the native American peoples — which was mostly, unfortunately, ignored.

Five hundred years ago: the conversion of Fr. Bartolomeo de las Casas, who raised his voice with courage in opposition to what would become one of the most tragic offenses against human dignity in history.

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