The last three decades of the twentieth century witnessed the martyrdom of thousands of Christians in Latin America, witnesses for justice in the face of oppression and dictatorial regimes. They included bishops – most notably Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala – as well as priests, sisters, and lay pastoral workers, as well as numerous Protestants who also allied themselves with the poor.
But the history of martyrdom and persecution in the Americas did not begin in the twentieth century.
On February 26, 1550, Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso, a Dominican friar who was bishop of Nicaragua, was martyred in León, Nicaragua.
Fray Antonio, born in Spain, arrived in the Americas in 1544 and began to write the Spanish crown denouncing the suffering of the indigenous populations. The governor of Nicaragua, his brother, his wife and sons were treating the indigenous with extreme cruelty and enslaving them. Fearing that his letters to the King were being intercepted and destroyed, he wrote in one letter, “I write these letters hurriedly in order that Your Majesty might be aware … of the great need that exists in these parts for justice.”
He was named bishop of Nicaragua and ordained in Gracias a Dios, Honduras (now Gracias, Lempira) by the bishop of Guatemala and the bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas, another advocate for the indigenous.
While in Gracias, Bishops Antonio de Valdivieso and Bartolomé de Las Casas, brought their case against the Spanish oppressors to the Spanish court there, the Audiencia de los Confines. They were virtually ignored and were mocked as cocinerillos de los monasterios – monkish cooks. (I am not sure of this translation of cocinerillos: cocinero means cook, but cochino means pigs.)
Bishop Valdivieso managed to get to his diocese, despite efforts to physically prevent him. Once there, he continued his prophetic preaching.
On February 26, 1550, the governor and his brother sent hired thugs to the bishop’s house where he was stabbed to death.
Antonio de Valdivieso is a witness to the role that the church should continue to play in the world – being good news for the poor and denouncing injustice and all that prevents people from living as children of God. Would that we had more religious leaders like Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso.