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Born at Durango in the Basque provinces in 1468; died in Mexico, 3 June, 1548. He entered the Franciscan Order, and in 1527 was custodian of the convent of Abrojo, where he received Charles V. Shortly afterwards he was appointed one of the judges of the court for the examination of witches in the Basque province. From his writings it would appear that he looked upon witches merely as women possessed of hallucinations. By this time more detailed accounts of the importance of the conquest of Hernan Cortes began to be received, and on 20 December, 1527, Zumárraga was recommended by Charles V for the dignity of first bishop of Mexico. Without having been consecrated and with only the title of bishop-elect and Protector of the Indians, he left Spain with the first civil officials, auditors (Oidores), towards the end of August, 1528, and reached Mexico, 6 December. Thirteen days after, two auditors, Parada and Maldonado, persons of years and experience, died. Their companions, Matienzo and Delgadillo, assumed their authority, which was also unfortunately shared by Nuno de Guzmán, who had come from his territories in Panuco. Their administration was one of the most disastrous epochs in new Spain and one of great difficulty for Bishop Zumárraga. Cortes had returned to Spain just previous to this and in his absence no limits seem to have been placed to the abuses of the auditors. They impoverished the Indians by taxes, sold them into slavery, branded them with hot irons, sent shiploads to the Antilles, offered violence to Indian girls, and persecuted with incredible fury the followers of Cortes.
Bishop Zumárraga, as Protector of the Indians, endeavoured vainly to defend them. His position was a critical one; the Spanish Court had not defined the extent of his jurisdiction and his faculties as Protector of the Indians. Moreover, he had not received episcopal consecration, and was thus at a disadvantage. The Indians appealed to him as protector with all kinds of complaints, sometimes greatly exaggerated. His own Franciscans, who had so long laboured for the welfare of the Indians, pressed him to put an end to the excesses of the auditors. It was clear that he must have an open conflict with the civil officials of the colony, relying only on his spiritual prerogatives, which commanded no respect from these immoral and unprincipled men. Unfortunately, some members of other religious orders, envious perhaps of the Franciscans, upheld the persecutors of the Indians. Bishop Zumárraga attempted to notify the Spanish Court of the course of events, but the crafty auditors had established a successful censorship of all letters and communications from New Spain. Finally, a Biscayan sailor concealed a letter in a cake of wax which he immersed in a barrel of oil.
Meanwhile news reach Mexico that Cortés had been well received at the Spanish Court and was about to return to New Spain. Fearful of the consequences, Guzmán left Mexico, 22 December, 1529, and began his famous expedition to Michoacan, Jalisco, and Sinaloa. The two other auditors remained in power and continued their outrages. In the early part of 1530 they dragged a priest and a former servant of Cortés from a church, quartered him and tortured his servant. Bishop Zumárraga place the city under interdict, and the Franciscans retired to Texcoco. At Easter the interdict was removed, but the auditors were excommunicated for a year longer. On 15 July, 1530 Cortés, invested with the title of Captain General of New Spain, reached Vera Cruz. The Court appointed new auditors, among them Sebastian Ramirez de Fuenleal, Bishop of Santo Domingo, and the lawyer Vasco de Quiroga, afterward the first bishop of Michoacan. In December of the same year the new "Audiencia" reached Mexico, and with their arrival began an era of peace for both Bishop Zumárraga and the Indians. Matienzo and Delgadillo were sent as prisoners to Spain, but Nuño de Guzmán escaped, being then absent in Sinaloa. According to ancient and constant tradition it was at this time (12 December, 1531) that the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe took place.
Meantime the calumnies spread by the enemies of Zumárraga and the partisans of the first auditor had shaken the confidence of the Spanish Court, and the bishop received an order to repair to Spain. He set sail in May, 1532. On his arrival he met his implacable enemy Delgadillo, who, though still under indictment, continued his calumnies. Owing to this no doubt, Charles V had held back the Bull of Clement VII, dated 2 September, 1530, naming Zumárraga bishop. Zumárraga had, however, little difficulty in vindicating his good name, and was solemnly consecrated at Valladolid on 27 April, 1533. After another year in Spain, busied with matters relative to the welfare of the colony and favourable concessions for the Indians, he reached Mexico in October, 1534, accompanied by a number of mechanics and six women teachers for the Indian girls. He was no longer Protector of the Indians, as the paternal administration of the new auditors rendered this office unnecessary. On 14 November, 1535, with the arrival of the first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, the rule of the new auditors ended, but Mendoza was no less paternal in his treatment of the Indians. According to Fray Toribio de Motolinia the number of baptized Indians in Mexico in 1536 numbered five millions.
They were a flourishing community, but the difficulties of the situation must be borne in mind in order to appreciate the task that confronted the first Bishop of Mexico. The great multitude of Indians who asked for baptism, said to have greatly increased after the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, forced the missionaries to adopt a special form for administering this sacrament. The catechumens were ranged in order, the children in front, the prayers were recited in common over all, the salt, saliva, etc., applied to a few, and then water was poured on the head of each one without using the holy oils nor chrism, because these were not to be had. So long as the Franciscans were in charge of the missions there was no question raised, but as soon as members of other religious orders and some secular ecclesiastics arrived, doubt began to be cast upon the validity of these baptisms. To put an end to dispute Bishop Zumárraga submitted the case to Rome, and on 1 June, 1537, Paul III issued the Bull "Altitudo divini consilii", which declared that the Friars had not sinned in administering baptism under this form, nothing being said with regard to its validity since on this score there could be no doubt, but decreed that in future it should not be thus administered except in cases of urgent need.
Other difficulties arose apropos of marriage. In their pagan condition the Indians had many wives and concubines, and when they were converted the question arose which were wives and which were concubines, and if perchance there had been a valid marriage with any one of these women. The Franciscans knew that certain rites were observed for certain unions; that in some cases where separation or divorce was desired, it was necessary to obtain the consent of the authorities, and that in other cases the consent of the interested parties sufficed; that therefore there were valid marriages among the Indians. Others denied that this was the case. Bishop Zumárraga took part in all these discussions until the case was submitted to the Holy See and Paul III in the same Bull "Altitudo" decreed that the converted Indians should keep the first woman they had taken to wife.
A third important difficulty concerned the position of the regulars and their privileges. Adrian VI on 9 May, 1522, directed to Charles V the famous Bull "Exponi nobis fecisti", by which he transferred to the Franciscans and other mendicant orders his own Apostolic authority in all matters in which they judged it necessary for the conversion of the Indians, excepting for such acts as required episcopal consecration. This provision affected regions where there was no bishop, or where it required two or more days of travel to reach him. Paul III confirmed this Bull on 15 January, 1535. The bishops found their authority much limited, and a series of assemblies followed in which Zumárraga with his customary prudence tried to arrive at an understanding with the regulars without openly clashing with them. Various modifications were adopted with the consent of the regulars on condition that these "should not impair the privileges of the regulars". The question therefore remained open. In 1535 Bishop Zumárraga received from the Inquisitor General, Alvaro Manrique, Archbishop of Seville, the title of Apostolic Inquisitor of the city of Mexico and of the entire diocese with extensive faculties, including that of delivering criminals to the secular courts. He never availed himself of this title nor established the tribunal, although he did indict and deliver to the secular courts a resident of Tezcoco who was accused of having reverted to idolatry and offering human sacrifices.
Meanwhile Las Casas had gone to Spain and obtained from the famous Junta of Valladolid (1541-1542) the approbation of the celebrated "Nuevas Leyes". These laws conclusively and decisively prohibited the enslavement of the Indians, withdrew all grants from all kinds of corporations, ecclesiastical or secular, and from those who were or had been viceroys, governors, or employees of any description whatsoever; previous grants were reduced; Indians were taken from owners who had ill-treated them; all governors were deprived of the faculty to "encomendar" (a system of patents which amounted to a virtual enslavement of the Indians); owners were compelled to live upon their own possessions; and in all newly discovered territory no grants could be made. Francisco Tello de Sandoval, commissioned to carry out the new laws reached Mexico on 8 March, 1544. The gravest difficulties confronted him. Those affected by the new laws were almost all the Spaniards of the colony, many of them far advanced in years, who had passed through all the trying period of the conquest, and whom the new laws would leave in abject poverty. These had recourse to Bishop Zumárraga to intercede with Tello to obtain a suspension of the order until they could be heard before the Spanish Court. The representatives of the colonists found the emperor, Charles V, at Mechlin, on 20 October, 1545. In virtue of the situation as explained to him, he modified the general tenor of the laws so that while still correcting the principal abuses, they would not bear too heavily on the Spaniards of the colony. Through the prudent intervention of Bishop Zumárraga and the compliance of Tello, Mexico was undoubtedly saved from a bloody civil struggle such as engulfed Peru on account of the enforcement of these same laws and from which the Indians emerged worse off than they were before.
The last years of Bishop Zumárraga's life were devoted to carrying out the numerous works he had undertaken for the welfare of his diocese. Among the chief of these should be mentioned: the school for Indian girls; he famous Colegio Tlaltelolco; the introduction of the first printing press into the New World; the foundation of various hospitals, especially those of Mexico and Vera Cruz; the impetus he gave to industries, agriculture, and manufactures, for which he brought trained mechanics and labourers from Spain; and the printing of many books. At the instance of the emperor, Paul III separated (11 February, 1546) the See of Mexico from the metropolitan See of Seville, and erected the Archdiocese of Mexico, appointing Bishop Zumárraga first archbishop and designating the dioceses of Oaxaca, Michoacan, Tlaxcala, Guatemala, and Ciudad Real de Chiapas, as suffragans. The Bull of appointment was sent on 8 July, 1548, but Bishop Zumárraga had died one month previously.
ICAZBALCETA, Biografia de D. Fray Juan de Zumárraga (Mexico, 1897); Mexico a traves de los siglos, II (Barcelona); MENDIETA, Historia eclesiastica Indiana (Mexico, 1870).
APA citation. (1912). Juan de Zumárraga. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15767a.htm
MLA citation. "Juan de Zumárraga." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15767a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Christian native peoples of Mexico.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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