SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic –– Hundreds of Catholics gathered at the oldest cathedral in the Americas Aug. 8 to mark the 500th anniversary of the first Catholic dioceses in the Western Hemisphere.
Before a large crowd in Columbus Plaza, in Santo Domingo’s colonial zone, Cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo, retired archbishop of Seville, Spain, celebrated Mass, highlighting Catholicism’s unwavering presence in the region.
“The church does not exist to give up, or to be changed, but to enforce the will of God. We are the voice; Jesus Christ is the Word,” he said during the late-afternoon liturgy that followed a procession. Cardinal Amigo attended the event as Pope Benedict XVI’s envoy.
Earlier in the day, Catholic leaders and Dominican politicians, including President Leonel Fernandez, attended the opening of the Santo Domingo Cathedral Museum, which displays works of art and religious pieces dating to the colonial era. Work on the museum began in 1993.
The celebrations marked the anniversary of the establishment of the first three dioceses in the Americas on Aug. 8, 1511, by Pope Julius II. The other two dioceses are located in La Vega, Dominican Republic, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Five centuries later, Catholic faith in the region remains strong, said Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez of Santo Domingo. The holy year marking the anniversary saw some 200,000 Dominicans journey to the St. Mary of the Incarnation Cathedral in the colonial zone, he said.
“Just yesterday, we had here 1,500 young people who wanted to partake of the Eucharist and receive a blessing before traveling to Spain,” he said. About 2,000 Dominicans ages 15-21 were planning to travel to Madrid Aug. 16-21 to participate in World Youth Day with the pope. It is the largest Dominican delegation ever to attend the event.
Cardinal Lopez said that was a strong indicator of Catholicism’s strength.
Catholicism was brought to the region by Christopher Columbus, who landed on the northern shore of the island of Hispaniola – today shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti – in late 1492. Although he had also explored parts of the Bahamas and Cuba, he decided to establish the first Spanish settlement in Hispaniola after noticing local Taino native people wearing gold.
Initial settlements were destroyed and by 1496 Columbus’ brother, Bartholomew, founded Santo Domingo, located on the island’s southern coast, near a gold deposit.
Although the first dioceses were created in 1504, they did not become functional until 1511, John Frederick Schwaller wrote in his book, “The History of the Catholic Church in America: From Conquest to Revolution and Beyond.”
Construction on the cathedral began in 1512, but the cornerstone was not laid until 1521. Construction was completed in 1541.
Establishing a functioning church proved difficult at first.
“In the early years following the conquest, there were no local bishops,” Schwaller wrote. Even after the dioceses became functional they “were only barely capable of supervising priests in the immediate area.”
That changed when Pope Adrian VI gave full papal authority to Franciscans who worked in frontier regions in the Americas in 1522, Schwaller wrote.
Soon, Catholicism began to spread to other parts of Latin America as conquistadors began conquering indigenous populations throughout the region.
Missionaries traveled to conquered areas, sometimes alone, to convert natives. Although conversion to Catholicism often has been described as a violent process, Schwaller argued that it was “far more intimate” of a process.
“While armed forces did accompany missionaries, or vice versa, most of the early conversions to Christianity did not occur at the tip of a sword or barrel of a gun,” he wrote.
Today, about half of the world’s 1.18 billion Catholics live in the Americas.
However, the rise of evangelicalism has been seen as a threat to the growth of Catholicism in the region. Seldom found decades ago in the staunchly Catholic region, Protestant evangelicals now represent an estimated 15 percent of its population. The number is closer to 30 percent in some Central American countries.
In a letter carried to Santo Domingo by Cardinal Amigo, Pope Benedict XVI said it was time for Catholics to take action.
“Go around the world and preach the good news to all creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. A new evangelization should be undertaken in all cities in the world,” the pope wrote.