Jesuit missionaries and solitary cyclists: remembering to ride by the rules

February 27, 2013

Rules and Precepts of the Jesuit Missions of Northwestern New Spain. By Charles W. Polzer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976).

PolzerBy disposition and habit, I’m a solitary cyclist, preferring most of the time to travel day after day by myself. This may be one reason why I’m drawn to Spanish missionaries in the desert Southwest, solitary and romantic figures like Junipero Sera in California and Eusebio Francisco Kino in Arizona and Mexico.

Despite the independent solitariness that their work forced upon them, however, these missionary priests participated in a surprisingly regulated communal way of life. For this reason, they are models for me, a solitary cyclist who has learned to travel according to the disciplines maintained by PAC Tour, the company that conducts some of the trips I take these days.

On the evening before a tour begins, Lon Haldeman gathers the riders together, hands out a page or two of procedures for the tour, and spends up to an hour going through them carefully. The guiding principles are consistency of schedule, efficiency of procedures, and mutual responsibility. Now that I have ridden with PAC Tour for half a dozen trips, I understand and affirm the “rules and precepts” that shape the patterns of life we enjoy with one another.

My understanding of the system within which Eusebio Kino, the inspirational model for my cycling, comes from Rules and Precepts of the Jesuit Missions of Northwestern New Spain, a monograph by Charles W. Polzer, who like Kino was a member of the Society of Jesus. Part Two of the book, which I have not read, consists of translations of eighteen documents dated from 1610 to 1763 that state the rules and precepts under which Jesuit missionaries lived and worked.

Part One, which I have read, contains Polzer’s interpretation of the way of life of these men who lived with solitude and community constantly in tension.

Jesuit MissionsThe solitariness is easy to understand. Kino’s territory was the northernmost of four mission districts in the river valleys of Sinaloa that “had sprawled out along the Gulf coast [of Mexico], crept upward into the mountains, spread into the cactus desert of Sonora and the Pimería Alta, and had even crossed the Gulf into California” (p. 24). Small Native American communities were scattered throughout this vast region.

Even though Kino often traveled in company with one or two other priests and a small band of soldiers, their daily life was markedly different from the ordered pattern of prayer, study, and good works that was the model for Jesuit communities.

When they were at their missions, each missionary was usually the only European with learned and religious inclinations in residence. By himself, he was under obligation to live according to his Jesuit obligations and to conduct the mission community in ways that were punctiliously similar.

Polzer describes two regulatory systems that governed Jesuit priests even in their solitariness. The more obvious was the interlocking governmental and ecclesiastical institutions. Bishops and princes and their vassals, in Europe and New Spain, paid scrupulous attention to the missions. They were, of course, interested in the Christianization of the native people. Becoming Christian, however, was understood in cultural terms as much as in religious patterns of life.

In this period following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the “stress in the Roman Church at the time was on doctrinal purity and conformity to Roman tradition. In the mission apostolate there was no question about cultural variation; conversion presupposed the total acceptance of Christian dogma and Greco-Roman culture” (p. 40). Many of the rules under which the missionaries worked were designed to guarantee that these expectations were being observed and the intended results achieved.

This system of governance, which was largely secular in its spirit, was interested in mundane issues such as where the money came from, who controlled it, and what was to be done with it. Since the missions were economic institutions as much as religious, and since salaries came from governmental and ecclesiastical sources, there was much to dispute.

At a deeper level, the missionaries were governed by the religious obligations of their religious profession in the Society of Jesus. Polzer describes “the asceticism peculiar to the Society of Jesus—the Ignatian stress on obedience.” These rules combined with the practical circumstances of life in the wilderness “set up scrupulous tensions among the Jesuits who found themselves facing limitless problems that strained their dedication and imagination.”

The rules and precepts which Polzer compiles in this book, and evidence from the records kept by the missionaries, “show the miniscule concern of superiors for exact observance. Because the perfection of the religious life depended largely on such exact observance of the rule in the minds of the Jesuit missionaries, it is a most reasonable assumption that these rules were truly the norms of conduct. What the rules demanded was most probably what the men actually did” (p. 14).

PAC Tour cyclists will be travelling within a gentler system of guidelines. If it’s not fun, Susan Notorangelo asks, why do it? Lon’s guidelines are there to increase the likelihood that all of us, riders and crew together, will have fun.

And that’s exactly what I intend to do!