One of the most remarkable achievements in Jesuit history was the creation of the Jesuit Reductions (ad ecclesiam et vitam civilem esse reducti) in Paraguay which lasted from about 1609 until 1767 when the Society of Jesus was dissolved.
For many people Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons put Paraguay on the map for the first time and brought the Jesuit period to life. Joffé’s film deals with the devastating effect upon the indigenous Guaranís arising from transfer of power over the Reductions from the Jesuits to civil authorities. Not only had the Jesuits tried to protect them from the slave, gold and silver hunters who flooded in from Europe, bringing prostitution and alcohol, but also from the locally born mixed race populations in both Spanish and Portuguese colonies who sought to enslave them with differing degrees of cruelty. In the protected environment of the Reductions, the Jesuits, in a remarkably short space of time, raised the Guaranís to a very high level of cultural sophistication and introduced them to European agricultural expertise and many other skills.
The Guaranís became bilingual in the Guaraní language and Latin, performed baroque music to a very high standard and also learnt to compose music. The Jesuits included some highly proficient musicians, most notably Domenico Zipoli who gave up an important musical post in Rome in order to join the Jesuits in the Reductions. Outstanding also was Father Anton Sepp who not only taught music but created workshops for the construction of instruments. Most of the music from the Reductions was thought to be lost until a chance discovery in the 1970s of thousands of pages of musical manuscript including many compositions by Zipoli. One historian has described the Jesuit period as a vanished Arcadia.
Paraguayan conductor, composer and musicologist Luis Szarán has contributed to this book a chapter on Music in Paraguay which also includes some fascinatinginformation on the Jesuit period. Maestro Szarán founded Sounds of the Earth (www.sonidosdelatierra.org.py), a project which teaches music to thousands of orphans, street kids and other underprivileged children.
Paraguayan Robert Munro is the commissioning editor and publisher of Paraguay: 200 years of independence in the heart of South America, fully illustrated in colour, on many aspects of Paraguayan history, geography and culture and has gathered together a team of contributors from diverse backgrounds, each of whom draws from a different area of expertise. The particularly excellent chapter on The Jesuits’ Influence in National Identity is by Margaret Hebblethwaite whose name will be familiar to readers of The Tablet for which she was Assistant Editor from 1991 to 2000 when she founded Santa Maria de Fe, a charitable educational project in Paraguay where she now lives (www.santamariadefe.org). It is located in one of the 30 villages which were created by the Jesuits during the period of the Reductions and probably has now the most interesting ruins and museum from that period.
The reviewer, Paul Duffy was a pupil of St Ignatius College, Stamford Hill and has always had an interest in the history of the Jesuits. He lived and worked in Paraguay for nearly three years when he had close contact with the Jesuit community.
To purchase Paraguay: 200 years of independence in the heart of South America,
please visit: www.paraguay200.com
This review was originally published in Jesuits and Friends.