Monday, August 09, 2021

Account of the First Mass in Brazil in the year 1500

Pêro Vaz de Caminha, clerk of the armada of Pedro Álvares Cabral, in a letter to the King D. Manuel, left us a remarkable account of the first Mass ever offered in the land known today as Brazil. Fr. Henrique de Coimbra, who had arrived with Portuguese explorers, celebrated this Mass on April 26, 1500. Here is a translation of the main parts of the account (see here for the original in Portuguese):

“One of them saw some white rosary beads; he waved to be given them, took great delight in them, and threw them around his neck. Then he took them off and wrapped them around his arm and waved to the earth and back to the beads and the Captain’s necklace, as if saying they would give gold for it. (...)

“When we got off the barge, the Captain said that we should go straight to the Cross, which was leaning against a tree by the river, to be erected tomorrow, which is Friday, and that we should all get down on our knees and kiss it so that they would see how much we respected it. And so we did. The ten or twelve who were there waved to the Cross, and they all went right away to kiss it. They seem to me to be people of such innocence that, if a man understood them and they understood us, they would immediately be Christians, because they, it seems, have no belief, nor do they understand any belief. (...)

“While they were doing it, he and all of us went down to the Cross below the river, where it was. From there, we brought it with those religious and priests in front of us, singing, in procession-like fashion. Some of them were already there, seventy or eighty; and when they saw us coming, some came under it to help us. We crossed the river, along the beach, and put the Cross where it was to stay, which would be the work of two crossbow shots. A hundred and fifty or more came along.

“Once the Cross was erected, with the arms and motto of Your Highness were nailed to it, they set up an altar near it. There the friar Father Henry said Mass, which was sung and officiated by the aforementioned. There were fifty or sixty of them with us, all sitting on their knees, just like us.

“And when it came to the Gospel and we all stood up, with raised hands, they then stood up with us and raised their hands, and stayed like that, until it was finished; and then they sat down again like us. And when they lifted up God [the elevation of the Mass?] and we knelt down, they all stood like this, as we stood with our hands raised, and in such a quiet way, that, I certify to Your Highness, it made us very devout. They stayed like that with us until communion was over, after which those religious and priests and the Captain received communion with some of us others.

“Some of them, because the sun was intense, when we were receiving communion, got up, and others stood and stayed. One of them, a man of about fifty or fifty-five, stayed with those who stayed. This man, as we were thus gathered together, gathered those who remained, and called for others. And walking thus among them speaking, he waved his finger toward the altar and then pointed his finger toward heaven, as if to say something good to them; and we took the meaning of it.

“When the Mass was over, the priest took off his vestments and stayed at the altar, sitting on a chair. There he preached to us from the Gospel and the Apostles, whose day it is today, treating, at the end of the preaching, of this your so holy and virtuous continuance, which increased our devotion.

“Those who were at the preaching stood like us, looking at him. And he called for some to come there. Some came and some went. And when the preaching was over, as Nicolau Coelho had brought many pewter crosses with crucifixes, which he had left from his other visit, they decided that each one should wear his own around his neck. Father Henry sat down at the foot of the Cross, and there he fastened crosses on the people, one by one, tied by a thread around the neck, first making them kiss the cross.”

Many are the striking aspects to this narration. In an age like ours, when false inculturation has made such headway, and with the syncretistic scandal of the Amazon Synod still fresh in our memories, we can look to these missionaries for a lucid picture of what Christian evangelization looks like and how it works. They do not start by building hospitals, schools, or roads, digging wells, distributing food and supplies, much less trying to interfere with political and economic structures. They do not even start by preaching (it would have been difficult, in any case, until they learned enough of the local language). Nor do they start by trying to sneak a peak at what the local shaman is doing so that they can quickly find ways to adapt Christian worship to the spirit of the place.

No. They start by building a makeshift sanctuary, with cross and altar, and proceed to sing in Latin the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in the form they have received from tradition. This (of course) instantly attracts the curiosity and respect of the natives, all of whom grasped that something important was happening, and some of whom perceived at once its transcendent religious character. After the Mass, a bit of preaching takes place (the Mass itself was not burdened with that merely human element), and then the priest begins to distribute crosses to willing bystanders. There is no hemming and hawing, no concern about trampling on the rights of natives or tiptoeing around an indigenous culture. The fundamental need of every fallen human being is to encounter the Cross, to come to know the Savior Himself, and this is attended to first and foremost.

The event was depicted in a famous painting from 1860 by Victor Meirelles (1832–1903), shown at the head of this article. Another painting from around the same time, A elevação da cruz em Porto Seguro (1879) by Pedro Peres (1841–1923), complements both the above narrative and painting.

My thanks to João Silveira of Paix Liturgique for sharing the account and painting with me during our time in Mexico at the Summorum Pontificum Congress.

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