Empire strikes back | Angelus News

All those old movies I’ve had my teeth cut while watching late-night TV always seem to have the same category of heroes and villains. Good people are English, and bad people are Spanish. England stood for honesty, kindness, and fair play, and Spain was scornful, superstitious, and an enemy of freedom.

History is written by “winners,” and when Errol Flynn changes his buckle from British war men to Spanish warships in many films, the result is always the same. The British Empire, and all the good it represents, triumphs, while the evil Kingdom of Spain slips back into the shadows, will no doubt appear again in Errol Flynn’s next film.

When my wife and I visited Mexico recently, I saw a different aspect of the Spanish Empire. That doesn’t mean I’m here to defend or support colonialism, a historical reality awash with negativity that it most deserves.

But modern Mexico is full of remnants of the once mighty Spanish Empire, especially as seen through the prism of all the houses of worship the empire left behind. Whether it is metaphysically possible to have two “first” impressions or not, I am struck by the sheer scale of Mexico City’s geography and how many churches can be found in this metropolis. By the end of the week, it felt like we had visited most of them.

Although some of these churches look ancient by our standards, and some of them are downright slanted (thanks to the mushy topography that occurs when you build one of the world’s largest cities on top of what was once a lake) within the churches. red candles lit next to all tabernacles. People, not just us tourists, are praying silently. The Blessed Mother, whether depicted as Our Lady of Guadalupe, or in another robe she uses to reach out to her children, looks down on us with loving eyes.

And because we brought our own bishop and two priests, there was the holy sacrifice of the Mass. It may sound different, and even look a little different from when the original Franciscan missionaries came, but the bread and wine being transformed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord are all the same.

Apart from the church, we also visited the lost remains of an elaborate pyramidal civilization. Traveling is good for the brain as well as the soul, and I know that these pyramids outside Mexico City are, as I thought, not something the Aztecs left behind. They were ruins when the Aztecs first saw them. It was like walking through a secluded graveyard where all the information on a tombstone had been lost.

The Pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico. (Shutterstock)

The Spanish Empire may be as dead as the empire that built the pyramids of Teotihuacan, but something else thrived. As old and musty as some of the churches we visited, faith had not yet returned home in defeat to Europe. The light is still on. Despite the many techniques of the Spanish Empire that were troublesome to conquer the land and its people, the tireless work of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits undertook some of their own empire-building, and the fruits of that labor are alive and well in Mexico today.

The Spanish Empire, or at least the empire envisioned by the likes of Queen Isabella and King Charles V never came to fruition—or did it?

The Roman Empire now exists only between book covers and the Roman structures are the stuff of guided tours and museum visits. But the cathedral and chapel that Spain built 500 years ago remain. The ancestors of the Spanish colonial governor and the indigenous peoples subjugated by that governor worshiped God together, and weaving this tapestry together were the Church and holy men and women who saw themselves as soldiers of different lines.

The church has always been able to adapt and incorporate the cultures it encounters; identify what is right and sanctify it, while resisting and changing what is not. Human sacrifice, out; Passover sacrifice without blood: in.

The church and its members were not always perfect, and priests and religious were not always accepted by the Spanish ruling class. But through it all, this wondrous mixed world, with all its contradictions and elements of the old and the new, is as alive today as when the Mexican bishop asked for some form of physical evidence from a lowly Aztec Indian convert.

Spain may never achieve the much-sought-after hegemony over arch-foe England, but the faith it instilled in many parts of the world remains — and it is a legacy more precious than all the gold Hernan Cortez could ever dream of.


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