SAINTED OBSESSION : WHEN HELEN RAND PARISH DISCOVERED A PRIESTLY HERO AMID THE CONQUISTADORES, SHE FOUND THE CAUSE OF A LIFETIME

Tom Bates is the author of "Rads: A True Story of the '60s," to be published in November by HarperCollins. He is also a former senior editor of this magazine.

IT WAS THE LAST DAY OF A WEEKEND CONFERENCE ON THE INCAS AND THE HEAVIES were on their way down from New York. As Columbus scholars and social justice advocates streamed into Princeton's Betts Auditorium, the soft, spring air held an edge of anticipation. After the folderol marking the beginning of the quincentennial year, with its parade floats, sailboat races, caravel replicas and the symbolic marriage of the Statue of Liberty to the Cristopher Columbus statue in Barcelona, here was a chance to confront the moral dilemma of history's greatest land grab. Better yet, it was an opportunity to recognize, from the bloodiest days of the conquistadors, a man who might be a true hero.

Advancing his cause that night was historian Helen Rand Parish. Tiny, dressed but for a silver pendant, entirely in black. Obliged to speak sitting down because of her advanced age, she kept the audience rapt with her descriptions of Bartolome de las Casas, a 16th-Century Dominican bishop and social reformer. Las Casas had used his influence as a clergyman and his connections--he was a friend of the Columbus family--to lobby against the enslavement and extermination of Indians in the Americas. His "Brevisima relacion de la destruccion de las Indias" shocked Spanish society in 1552 with revelations of Spanish misdeeds in the colonies ("The children they would take by the feet and dash their innocent heads against the rocks"), brutality that, along with European disease, killed 12 million during the conquest, Parish estimates.

"The men perished in the gold mines with hunger and labor," wrote Las Casas, "the women perished in the fields, being tired out with the same calamities, and thus was a vast number of the inhabitants of this island (Hispaniola) wholly extirpated."

Recounting her tale like a detective story, Parish described the Spanish viceroy's attempts to suppress Las Casas' writings on Peru, especially his treasonous assertion that "Indians must voluntarily accept Spanish rule before it is legitimate." The audience, embracing the figure of Las Casas as his church and popular culture have not, was electrified. Here, she seemed to be saying, was a European who challenged smug Eurocentric assumptions about the Discovery.

For many Americans, it was white America's original sin. Few of us would be here without Columbus' great achievement, but because of it, millions died and slavery flourished in the New World. "Don't Celebrate 1492, Mourn It," the novelist Hans Koning wrote in a New York Times opinion piece, citing Las Casas as support for his opinion. The National Council of Churches condemned the ecclesiastical role in the conquest and declared 1992 to be a year of "reflection and repentance," not celebration. As for the mostly honorific events on the anniversary calendar, a group claiming to represent American Indians even threatened to sabotage them.

But, says Parish, Las Casas offers a way out of this ethical impasse, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. "Las Casas is the answer to the quincentennial debate," she says. "This one missionary who stood up for the rights of man is the glory of the church!"

The grandeur of her tone befits her mission. For Parish, a self-described "Catholic radical" ("radical in the sense of going to root causes"), believes that Las Casas was not simply a great man but a saint--in the literal sense.

WE ARE IN PARISH'S BERKELEY APARTMENT A FEW BLOCKS FROM SPROUL Plaza. It is a medieval-looking place with the second verse of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat " carved into the heavy wooden door: "You know how little/ while we have to stay/ And, once departed/ may return no more." The rooms are stuffed with books, rugs and dark furnishings, a scholar's lair. Toasted crumpets and strong Indian tea await the visitor. "Pick up the chair, pick up the chair and draw closer," she commands. Her vivacity makes her seem larger and younger than she is. She doesn't talk so much as declare, rapping the table with her little fists, her eyes misting when the topic is human suffering. "How can you speak about the love of God to the poor? Only one thing you can say: God does not mean for this to be!"

That passion for social justice is what drew her to Las Casas back in 1948, when she came across his story in historian Louis Henke's masterpiece, "The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the New World." The character that so engaged her was born in 1484 in Seville, the Spanish port from which Columbus would sail eight years later. He grew up with an Indian slave to wait on him, a gift from his father, who had gone off to seek his fortune in the New World. In 1502, the young Bartolome de las Casas sailed to Hispaniola to help manage his father's holdings, which included land, slaves and an inter-island provisioning business.

Five years later, he returned to Europe, earning a law degree from the University of Salamanca and priestly orders from Rome. Sailing back to the New World in 1510, he used his rapport with the natives to assure the conquest of Cuba in 1513, for which the Las Casas family was rewarded with a Cuban encomienda-- a land grant that included the natives living on the property. Bartolome managed the property, and although he treated his own Indians well, he had not yet spoken out against the encomienda system.

But the atrocities he witnessed--including the slaughter of 2,000 men, women and children in Cuba, and the influence of Father Pedro de Cordoba, a Dominican missionary who urged an end to the mistreatment of Indians--brought about a gradual change of heart. In 1514, he underwent a public conversion, freeing his slaves and renouncing the business he had inherited from his father.

It was then, at 30, that Las Casas began to agitate on the Indians' behalf in the Spanish Court. By 1517, he had persuaded the government in Madrid to limit forced labor, establish protective communities for the Indians and to use peasant farmers rather than soldiers to colonize the Spanish Main.

Las Casas subsequently joined the Dominican order in Santo Domingo, capital of Hispaniola, and began collecting materials for his "General History of the Indies," amassing evidence of misrule that would later shock the world. It was his work, Parish says, that led the church to declare in 1537, in the famous encyclical "Sublimus Deus," that Indians were fully capable of the faith and that anyone who mistreated them was subject to automatic excommunication.

His influence reached its height in 1542, when his "Account of the Holocaust of the Indies" prompted the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (formerly Charles I, King of Spain) to issue his "New Laws" for the colonies, including a provision on the encomienda whereby slaves could no longer be inherited. The stubborn priest died at court in 1566, still fighting for Indian rights.

Parish sees in Las Casas "a precursor of democracy. Thomas Jefferson had his works in his library, and the United Nations Charter is based directly upon his writings," she says. "He is the predecessor of all liberation theologians in Latin America. He was an adviser to kings; Popes listened to him. In his own lifetime, his ideas were incorporated into the laws of the Indies. By canonizing Las Casas, the church can show that from the beginning it has stood for our modern, not-yet-realized notions of justice."

HELEN PARISH IS SO IMMERSED IN HIS STORY THAT SHE SOMETIMES seems to forget what century she is living in. "From the time I was born in 1512 . . . .," she starts to say, placing herself in the year that Las Casas first began to wake up to the plight of the Indians. She has humorously introduced herself at symposiums as "Helen Rand Parish, alias Bartolome de las Casas," and she devotes all of her scholarly attentions to him. "Bartolome de las Casas: The Only Way," an anthology edited by Parish, was published earlier this year by the Paulist Press.

For those able to read Spanish, Parrish's two-volume "Las Casas en Mexico" is due out in late October from the prestigious Mexico City publishing house Fondo de Cultura y Economica. And Jim Clark, director of the University of California Press, expects to publish her long-awaited biography, "Las Casas: The Untold Story," next year. For Parish, whose first book on Las Casas, co-authored with the late UC Berkeley historian Henry Wagner, appeared 25 years ago, a lifetime of work is nearing completion. If she could just get the truth before the Pope, she believes, he would see Las Casas as she does.

In the past few years, Parish has been to Madrid, the Caribbean and Rome in the service of the cause. It is strange, she says. When she's in Spain, people ask her if she's "pro-Las Casas." "It's like asking, 'Are you pro-Mt. Everest?' " People still don't understand how big, how universal, Las Casas is, she complains.

What kind of person would become so obsessed with such an obscure and convoluted cause? "This is my background," says Parish, whose 80th birthday was yesterday, two days before the official 500th anniversary of the Discovery. "My mother was a newspaper person, a ghostwriter. I was a reporter in my teens. I have always been first a writer and then a scholar, always." A few more details come out. She was born in Connecticut. Her father was a metallurgist who specialized in insulating smokestacks. Her mother was French; hence Helen's feisty Gallic aura and facility in Romance languages.

With her identical twin sister Olive, she received her master's degree from Yale at the age of 17, worked for a while at the Atlanta Constitution, followed by graduate study in Latin American problems at USC. Then it was on to National University in Mexico City and eventually to Berkeley in 1936, drawn there by the great Latin Americanist Eugene Bolton, who accepted both Helen and Olive into his seminar on 16th-Century Spanish colonial history.

She went on to make a living as a free-lance writer, ghosting a number of books for Viking Press and pursuing her scholarly interests at Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. As a research associate there, she has assembled the world's largest collection of rare Las Casas books and documents.

She never married, and from time to time, well-meaning friends would try to find a mate for Helen. "I see no reason to get married and have children," she would say dismissively. "My sister did it for me!"

Parish, in fact, grew up wanting to be a priest. Denied such a career, she has contented herself by advancing the cause of Las Casas and maintaining a vow of celibacy. But the church's refusal to accept women as priests still rankles. "The non-ordination of women is contrary to the nature of humanity," she says. When, several years ago, the Dominican Institute of Theology awarded her an honorary doctorate of divinity, she mounted a lighthearted protest by showing up for the ceremony in a cardinal's scarlet cap.

When she was a child, her mother introduced her to the classics of utopian thought, from Thomas More to Saint Simon. At the Atlanta Constitution she had investigated the causes of rural poverty, and she still contributes to rural charities. In the cause of Las Casas, she seems to have found a way to synthesize her priestly and political inclinations.

THOUGH WRITERS SUCH AS MARIO VARGAS LLOSA HAVE HAILED HIM AS the most active and influential of New World reformers, even many Catholics would be hard-pressed to identify Bartolome de las Casas. The so-called "Apostle to the Indians" rates not even a mention in the current Catholic Encyclopedia and was condemned as a troublemaker in older editions. "Everywhere he found abuses, and everywhere painted them in the blackest colours, making no allowances for the dark side of the Indian character," complains the 1908 volume.

As she works to rescue Las Casas from such interpretations and neglect, Parish seems to wear the hats of historian and hagiographer interchangeably, although she rejects the latter label. "Saints are , regardless of whether the church says so. All I'm after is the truth," she insists.

There are three steps on the way to sainthood: The Pope must first declare the candidate "venerable"--that he lived a life of heroic virtue. Next comes beatification, a determination by the Vatican that a miracle occurred through prayers to the candidate. Canonization could follow upon the verification of a second miracle. The Pope can waive the requirement for either miracle.

The subject of miracles presents no great problem for Parish. People from many nations recognize Las Casas as a saint and pray to him, she contends, adding that in France alone he has been credited with three miraculous cures. The church will not investigate those claims until Las Casas is declared venerable.

For Parish, two questions help distinguish a saint from an ordinary humanitarian: "Was he divinely inspired? Was he providentially assisted?"

Donning her hagiographer's cap, Parish says yes to both. "Las Casas always thought he was called by God. Even at the end of his life when Friar Rodrigo de Ladrada, his companion and secretary of many years, would hear his confessions aloud--they were both getting deaf--Las Casas would yell at him, 'Your reverend hasn't done enough for the Indians!' In other words, it's a call, it's a duty, it's something God has imposed on him."

As for providence, Parish sees the hand of God in Las Casas' timing. "The two great moments of his life, when he happened to come to court, were the only two moments he could have been heard," she says. The first was his trip to Spain in 1516 to tell King Ferdinand about abuses in his colonies. But Ferdinand died shortly after his arrival, which was fortunate for Las Casas because the king's interest in the natives' well-being ranked well below his interest in gold. Las Casas was left to deal with the regent, Cardinal Cisneros, a cynical but practical man who agreed to a Las Casas proposal for saving the remaining Indians by placing them in self-governing villages--"Crown Towns"--that would pay tribute to the king. But the friars sent to help him, Hieronymites noted for their managerial skills, soon pronounced the plan unworkable, and the first Crown Town experiment, on what is now the Venezualan coast, ended in disaster.

Parish also finds it providential that Las Casas' next great crusade at court, in 1542, coincided with the return to Spain of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was so outraged that he personally investigated the charges and instituted the "New Laws" at Las Casas' request.

In fact, the reforms Las Casas extracted from the Crown and the Holy See were routinely sabotaged by powerful colonists and corrupt officials. In 1532, his anti-slavery sermons caused such an uproar that he was forbidden to preach for two years. In Nicaragua, angry settlers dragged him from his pulpit and drove him and his entourage into the jungle. In Chiapas, Mexico, where he was sent as bishop in 1544, parishioners responded to his demand that they free their slaves by denying food to him and his missionaries.

The effect of the papal bull of 1537 was blunted when the provision for excommunication was dropped. Even the "New Laws" were compromised when Charles V, after accepting a gift of 2 million ducats from Peru's slave owners, revoked the section providing for a phasing out of the encomienda.

The salient point, Parish says, is that Las Casas persisted in the face of such obstacles for 50 years. That is the kind of "heroic virtue" the church expects of its saints.

From the formal opening of the cause to the beatification to final recognition of sainthood, canonization can be a lengthy and expensive process. Preparing the positio, or Latin summary of a candidate's life and qualifications, and the extensive historical and medical research needed to "authenticate" a miracle can cost a bundle.

The controversial cause of Junipero Serra, who was declared "venerable" in 1985, was helped by millions raised from wealthy California Catholics, by White House connections and the tireless stewardship of Father Noel Francis Moholy, vice postulator of the Franciscan order. Likewise, the beatification in May of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of the secretive and influential Opus Dei order, resulted from one of the most concerted efforts the Vatican has ever seen.

"The Dominicans, though they can boast of more canonized saints than any order, are notorious for being slipshod when it comes to pushing causes," admits Father Antoninus Wall, a past president of the Dominican Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley and a Parish admirer. In fact, he notes, non-Dominicans seem more active in the cause than Dominicans, not out of any lack of respect for Las Casas but simply because "we aren't PR oriented."

The Dominicans informally decided to press for sainthood for Las Casas in 1983, according to Father Innocenzo Venchi, the Dominican postulator general in Rome who oversees candidates for sainthood from his order. Two years later, in January, 1985, the cause received a further boost when Lascasitas gathered at a Berkeley symposium that Parish helped organize. Featuring talks by prominent Las Casas scholars, the proceedings concluded with Dominican Master General Damian Burn calling on members of the order to pray for the canonization of Las Casas.

They're still praying. Venchi, a 60-year-old piemontese who has handled hundreds of causes in his 17 years as procurator general of the order, says that the Las Casas campaign, in the absence of strong institutional support, might have withered on the vine were it not for the fiery advocacy of individuals such as Parish, whose scholarly contributions he describes as "very important."

A BITTER DAY OF WIND AND FOG IN THE EAST BAY. ONCE AGAIN WE ARE talking of sainthood. "Best definition I've heard was a child's," Parish says. "The clergyman asked him, 'What do you think a saint is?' and the child, who has never seen anything but the figures in the stained glass window, says, 'The saint is the fellow the light shines through.' " That's Las Casas, she believes. If only she could get the Vatican to go along with her.

The most immediate problem facing Parrish and the Lascasitas is overcoming concern about his temperament and his methods, Parish says. "He has been accused, quite incorrectly, of two shortcomings which would, were they true, raise an impediment to canonization," she explains. "One is that he meant well but exaggerated everything. He was a lawyer, he was pleading a cause, and he made up all this stuff about the atrocities. The other is that though he defended the Indians, he was for Negro slavery and had some responsibility for introducing slavery into the New World."

Both charges are completely false, Parish says. Because enemies of Spain cited his "Brevisima" to support the "black legend" of Spanish cruelty in the New World, it was in the interest of the Spanish government to say he had exaggerated the extent of the abuses. In fact, she says, the "Brevisima" was actually a summary of a much longer document in which he named names. "I assure you that in the Brevisima he was not exaggerating, he was toning it down," says Parish. "Only the Holocaust of the Jews in modern times compares" to the death toll from the conquest.

But that is the easy one. The slavery charge, repeated in the Catholic Encyclopedia, in school books and by respected black historians such as John Hope Franklin, has been more difficult.

Like other reformers of his day, Las Casas at first saw some merit in substituting blacks for the Indian workers who were dying like flies in the gold mines. Colonists made that proposal to him in 1518, and he passed it along to the Court. At the time, Spain was full of North African slaves taken in wars between Islam and Christian Europe, and the church approved of the taking of slaves in such "just wars." Captives could eventually buy their freedom. When Las Casas later found out that the Portuguese were fomenting tribal warfare to fill their slave ships, he promptly denounced the whole business. "He realized that the slavery of blacks was as contrary to the will and the law of God as the enslavement of Indians. You cannot imagine a more honest, truthful confession," Parish said. "In reality, Las Casas was the only European to denounce black slavery in the 16th Century."

Last November, Parish and the Dominicans' Venchi addressed the bishops of Mexico in plenary session in Tepeyac, just outside Mexico City. Parish had prepared a defense of Las Casas against all the old "canards," as she calls the charges against him, but she had not had time to translate her hour-long speech into Spanish. The cold of her unheated room in a Dominican guest house and the thin, polluted air of the sprawling capital added to her discomfort. But on the appointed day, Francis Patrick Sullivan, a Jesuit priest and Las Casas translator, found her a nice, warm room and went over the speech with her, writing in Spanish equivalents for some of the more difficult words and providing Parish with what she likes to call her "daily miracle."

The bishops met in an ornate room that resembled the U.S. Senate chambers. "History records a thousand conquests and 10,000 wars, all atrocious," Parish told them, drumming the lectern so insistently that she reminded Sullivan of the rabbit in the Eveready ad. "But only Spain produced a figure of great stature who headed a reform movement of clerics and laity to champion the rights of the conquered during the conquest."

LAS CASAS IS NO LONGER AS CONTROVERSIAL A FIGURE AS HE WAS IN colonial times. Last year Spain at long last recognized the crusading priest by establishing an annual $50,000 prize in his name for outstanding service to Indians in the Americas. The Spain '92 Foundation, which is promoting the quincentennial, presented a theatrical work by Jaime Salom on Las Casas and his good works in Washington in February. And a television documentary on "Columbus and the Age of Discovery," co-produced by WGBH in Boston and the Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario, included a substantial Las Casas segment.

Now, Parish believes, it is the church's turn to recognize him. Because Las Casas is remembered as the bishop of Chiapas, it is up to his successors, the bishops of Mexico, to formally nominate him as a candidate for sainthood. At a July meeting in Mexico City, the Dominicans voted to ask the bishops to do just that. Parish, buoyed by the recent apology by the Guatemalan church to the Mayans for its role in their subjugation, also hopes for endorsement from virtually all the bishops attending the Latin American Episcopal Conference, which has been meeting in the Dominican Republic since the first of the month.

John Paul II, scheduled to visit Santo Domingo tomorrow to commemorate the Discovery, has sainted more people than all other 20th-Century pontiffs combined. Beatifications often have been granted on short notice to satisfy the need of a papal visit. What could be more suitable in October, 1992, Parish asks, than to recognize Las Casas as one whom, in the darkest days of the conquest, the light shined through?

John Paul is just the one to do it, Parish thinks. "He talks the social doctrine of the Church. There are pictures of him helping the Indians and saying, 'I will be your voice.' "

But Father Venchi, speaking over the phone from his Aventine Hill office, advises patience. For one thing, he says in careful Italian, in addition to Parish's work, he is also awaiting completion of the "Opere Omnie," a critical edition of Las Casas' writings in Spanish. The beatification of Las Casas is very unlikely this year, he says.

In the slow-moving bureaucracies of Rome, a canonization can take not just years, but centuries. "I have never asked to live to see the canonization, only to finish my work," Parish says with a sigh. But then, reflecting on the influence her upcoming books may have, she brightens. "The whole thing should happen next year," she says. "And isn't that a good way to start the next 500 years?"

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