Hernando Cortés, Spanish conquistador, explorer and Catholic. The latter title is not one that comes readily to mind in today's politically correct atmosphere. Modern historians often portray him as a ruthless brute, annihilating the native people and plundering their treasures.
In reality, Cortés was a great soldier of the Church with a deep devotion to Mary. He landed on the shores of Mexico on Good Friday, April 22, 1519. Many schoolbook historians broad brush the past and attribute Cortés and his men with motives of greed for gold and glory. However, that view fails to reveal what this deeply religious soldier and leader viewed as his true mission upon landing on the shores of what then was truly an evil empire.
Because so much of the written history we rely on today is from an Anglo-Protestant perspective, Spain's role in bringing the Christian faith to the new world is minimized by many early historians. It is important to remember the deep essence of purpose Cortés and many of his soldiers held. Cortés and his men never entered into a march or a major battle without having their confessions heard and Mass said. Cortés carried blessed medals of both St. James the Apostle and Mary close to his heart. Many of the men also carried rosary beads with them. Little did Cortés or his men realize, when they landed in 1519, what large a role Mary would play in birthing a New Spain.
When Cortés and his soldiers first encountered the indigenous people of Mexico, some of the first Aztecs thought Cortés was the god, Quetzalcoatl. In ancient Mayan-Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl, ironically, was light-skinned with light-hair. Legend held that he had left their lands centuries before to the east but promised to return one day to reclaim his throne and bring back the knowledge of the "one true God" to his people. Cortés never claimed to be Quetzalcoatl but this legend held back the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II from sending warriors and immediately wiping out Cortés and his soldiers when they landed in 1519.
Upon landing, Cortés planted a cross on the eastern shores of what is now Vera Cruz (English translation: True Cross), Mexico. He had Father Olmedo say Mass for his men on the sandy shores. Then a delegation from Montezuma (who was deeply troubled that Cortés/Quetzalcoatl had come on ships described by his spies as "floating islands") welcomed him, gave him presents of silver and gold and promptly asked him to leave immediately. In the banquet prepared for Cortés and the soldiers on board his "floating islands", the Aztecs sprinkled dried human blood on the food, as a test for Cortés. For if he were indeed Quetzalcoatl, perhaps he would be pleased to taste human blood again. Cortés and his men reacted with utter disgust, spit the food from their mouths and ordered Montezuma's envoys off their ships.
The sprinkling of dried human blood was nothing compared to the horrors of what lie ahead over the next two years. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a scale unimaginable to the Spanish. No one will ever know exactly how many men, women and even children were sacrificed across the lands ruled by the Aztecs and the other Mayan-tribes for centuries before that. The law of the Aztecs required a thousand to their god Huitzilopochtli, the god of death, sun and war, in every temple every year. Historians tell us there were 371 temples when Cortés arrived. There were other ritual sacrifices as well to other gods. One Mexican historian estimated that one out of five children were sacrificed. Sometimes entire tribes were exterminated by sacrifice.
Month after month, year after year, in temple after temple, sacrificial victims came down the long roads leading to the pyramids, climbed the steep steps to the top of the platforms, and were bent backwards over convex slabs of stones. An immense knife with a blade of midnight black volcanic glass rose and fell, gutting the victim open. His or her heart was torn out while still beating and held up for all to see, while the ravaged body was kicked over the edge of the temple where it bounced down the steps a hundred feet below. The Aztecs priests who performed these sacrifices then consumed the blood that was collected, especially enjoying the consumption of the victim's heart. Other body parts were saved for other rituals, the dried blood saved to garnish at special ceremonial meal times. It was a culture of blood, death and gore on a scale that was unimaginable to the Spaniards.
Cortés and his men quickly realized the extent of the Satanic society they were up against. They knew their primary mission was to stop the evil practice of human sacrifice and bring souls into the Church. The gold and riches for the Spanish crown was secondary. Some of the soldiers were there for treasure to be sure. But throughout the next two years, it would not be gold or silver that would win the battles against the 25 million indigenous people that Montezuma ruled over. These Spanish soldiers knew that the true treasure to help them survive the battles to come would be the treasures of the Church: Jesus, Mary and the sacraments. Gold and silver was of little value in battle. When fighting for one's life, prayer was key.
Friar Diego de Landa writes in his book Yucatan, Before and After the Conquest in 1566, translated by William Gates: "(Cortés) preached to them the vanity of idols, and persuaded them to adore the cross; this he placed in their temples with an image of Our Lady…"
In fact when Cortés finally did reach Montezuma's capitol city of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City), he boldly ordered that the top of one of the main human sacrificial pyramids be stripped of its evil idols, the human-blood stained walls be cleansed and that an image of Virgin Mary and a cross be erected in its place. Everywhere Cortés went, Mary and the cross were their companions. The soldiers wore the emblem of the cross on their steel helmets, on their breastplates and carried it on their banners. Mary was carried close to their hearts in medallions and by the recitations of rosaries. And when the Aztecs did capture Spanish soldiers throughout the campaign and drag them away, Cortés and his men knew they might become victims of the very practice they were determined to stop.
As the (Protestant) American historian William writes in his book, History of the Conquest of Mexico, originally published in 1843:
As the long file of (Aztec) priests reached the flat summit of the pyramid, the Spaniards saw the figures of several men stripped to their waists, some of whom, by the whiteness of their skin they recognized their own countrymen. They were going to be victims of sacrifice…what sensations the stupefied Spaniard must have gazing on this horrid spectacle, so near they could almost recognize the persons of their unfortunate friends, see the struggles and writhing of their bodies, their screams of agony.
Human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztecs when Cortés landed, was on a scale we cannot imagine. Or can we? In Aztec society, in Mayan society before that and other American-indigenous societies some of the brightest, most educated, well-trained and respected leaders were standing atop those pyramids in Aztec-Mayan society carrying out the bloody deed of human sacrifice to satisfy the hunger of their evil gods. Today some of our brightest, best educated and well-trained and respected leaders have convinced people in our society that it is a basic human right to sacrifice an innocent child in a Mother's womb. And instead of throwing that baby down the steps of a pyramid for everyone to see, it is quietly taken out with the trash. Satan still desires death. Our society today has passed laws to give him want he wants; convincing many that slaughtering their most innocent citizens in their mother's wombs is a basic human right.
Cortés conquered Aztec society in a bloody conflict. He immediately sought peace afterwards, opening the doors for his Spanish missionaries to convert the millions to the Catholic faith. Language and cultural barriers threatened the peace almost immediately after the battles ended. It took Mary's sudden appearance to St. Juan Diego and her self-portrait left on Diego's tilma (cloak) to convert people en-masse to the Church. Nine million Aztecs asked to be baptized by 1540 and tens of millions more were added within twenty years.
An incredible list of miracles, cures and interventions are attributed to Mary because of this image. Yearly, an estimated 20 million visit her Basilica, making her Mexico City home the most popular Marian shrine in the world, and the most visited Catholic Church in the world next to the Vatican. In all, twenty-five popes have officially honored Our Lady of Guadalupe. His Holiness, the late John Paul II, visited her sanctuary four times: on his first apostolic trip outside Rome as pope in 1979, and again in 1990, 1999 and 2002.
If we want the evil of abortion to end, let us be reminded of how a great devotion to our Blessed Mother has brought down evil societies, transformed peoples' hearts and led nations back to the Church. We always find in Mary the perfect mediator of God's grace to mankind. Nearly 500 years ago, she was there for Hernando Cortés, his soldiers and St. Juan Diego and his people. Surely Our Blessed Mother will help us again if we call upon her intercession.
Cortés died in Spain, 460 years ago on December 2, 1547 at the age of 62 on his way back to Mexico. The historian Bernal Diaz tells us he was still wearing medallions of St. James the Apostle and the Blessed Mother when he passed onto eternity.