António Vieira

Six Sermons

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Editor(s): 
Mónica Leal da Silva, Liam Brockey
Translator(s): 
Mónica Leal da Silva
Liam Brockey
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190858568.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his “Sermon for the Success of the Arms of Portugal against Those of Holland,” the first of those in António Vieira: Six Sermons, the Jesuit Padre Vieira (1608-1697) lets his audience listen in on a conversation with God, as a Dutch fleet laid off the shores of Salvador da Bahia in 1640, about to encroach on the colonial capital: “But since, Lord, You so want and demand, do as it pleases You. Deliver Brazil to the Dutch, deliver the Indies to them, deliver the Spains to them [...], deliver as much as we have and possess to them [...], put the World in their hands; and as for us, the Portuguese and the Spaniards, leave us, repudiate us, ruin us, finish us. But I only say, and remind Your Majesty, Lord, that the very ones that You now disfavor and cast away, You may one day want and not have” (46).

For contemporary readers who might expect baroque prose, systematic theological exposition, or contextualizing scriptural exposition in early modern preaching, Vieira's sermon (one delivered rather early in his career) might come as a surprise. It offers an argument with God, at times pleading and, at others, bordering on taunting. The sermons Monica Leal da Silva and Liam Brockey have edited, translated, and introduced—a small fragment of Vieira’s corpus of sermons, delivered over the course of several decades and originally published in twelve volumes between 1679 and 1699—consistently seduce and shock, affect, surprise, and edify, bringing more of the work of this renowned diplomat and orator into English for the first time.

Da Silva and Brockey’s introduction helpfully attunes readers to Vieira’s life, preaching, and thinking, and it also provides contextualization for each of the six sermons that the editors include in this volume. The Jesuit Vieira possessed remarkable global reach, not only where his words, at once seething and refined, impressed listeners firsthand—in Bahia, Lisbon, and Rome—but also in places as far-flung as Mexico City and Beijing, where his sermons were read by the likes of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and his brother Jesuit missionaries.

Aside from the Jesuit’s rhetorical skill, geographical breadth, and impact on prominent figures of the 17th century, why read his sermons today? First of all, Vieira’s sermons bring much to bear on the genre of sermonizing in the 17th century, shedding light not only on political developments in the Portuguese Empire of his day, but also providing a unique vantage point into the practice of Catholicism in the 17th century Atlantic world. Here we have a preacher with a creative enough view to contemporaneously draw the genre of sermonizing itself into question in his preaching—that is, to preach about how preaching can and should be done. In his Sexagesima Sermon, for example, the Jesuit argued that the devil could quote scripture and he mocked the juxtaposition of the prophetic and penitential garb of mendicant friars with the polished and flowery words that came out of their mouths when they took the pulpit (121). For Vieira, sermons ought to be organized around one clear and specific point, and also edify and perturb, working on the audience’s senses. Sermons should “convert” the listener—a phenomenon Vieira describes as helping the listener “enter into himself and see himself” (101). (The impact of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and its emphasis on putting the divine truths into relation with the real developments of history and on a God who calls people through their senses, is evident here and throughout Vieira’s sermons.)

Readers will no doubt be interested in Vieira’s idiosyncratic position on some of the most pressing political questions that defined his day: indigenous and African slavery and questions related to New Christians, the Inquisition, and purity of blood. While readers who look to Vieira as a modern liberal proponent of human rights will be likely to come away from Vieira’s sermons dissatisfied, the fact is that Vieira was a more than able negotiator. He drew on the support and protection, at different points in his life, of King João VI and the Society of Jesus, avoiding inquisitorial censure and allowing a certain quality of freedom in his thinking, preaching, and action. Given these circumstances, Vieira, always apocalyptically-minded and thinking about God’s plan in human history, somehow managed to paint a picture of Portuguese imperial ventures as part of the divine plan, and, at the same time, to point to the damnation of those who abused their power by holding slaves or to the corruption involved in the persecution of new Christians and the expulsion of Jews. If on the question of new Christians and Jews, Vieira’s position was firm, his stance on indigenous and (especially) African slavery was sometimes more middling, falling short, for example, of calling for a wholesale abolition of African slavery in the Portuguese Empire. Vieira’s thinking on these issues offers a window onto the possible and “thinkable” (to use Michel Rolph-Trouillot’s term) grounds for religiously-based institutional critique in his day.

The picture of Vieira’s work and thinking that coalesces in this small but well-selected collection of his sermons is that of a preacher at once skilled, savvy, and adventurous in his thinking. Teeming with knowledge of scripture, theology, and current events alike, what emerges from the Jesuit’s sermons is the use of scripture as a point of departure into unlikely terrains, quick to meet the all-too-present and historical, the stuff of his audiences’ real lives, whether they be royalty in Portugal, colonists in Spain, or Afro-Brazilian members of a lay fraternity. At the same time, in Vieira’s work, the scripture becomes free to roam and wander the real world, unmoored from its original context, often in way that must have been both challenging and delightful to hear. Da Silva and Brockey’s edition would be perfect for an undergraduate history course on colonial Latin America or Brazil or religious history surveys of various temporal and spatial configurations. Who knows, it might offer some coveted lessons and needed inspiration to orators—preachers, teachers, and politicians—of our own day as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard Hoffmann Reinhardt is a doctoral candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History at the Univeristy of Michigan.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mónica Leal da Silva was born in Lisbon, Portugal, and educated at the University of Lisbon. She has taught Portuguese language and literature at the elementary, secondary, and university levels for over twenty years. Since emigrating to the United States, she has taught at Princeton University and Michigan State University. Mónica Silva is the author of three acclaimed works of children's literature, as well as works of cultural criticism, published in Portugal. She has also translated works of historical scholarship in the United States and the U.K. In addition to teaching and writing, Mónica Silva has contributed to published forums on social and educational issues. 

Liam Matthew Brockey is an historian of Early Modern Europe, and a specialist in the history of Roman Catholicism and the Society of Jesus. Educated at the University of Notre Dame and Brown University, he has written extensively on Jesuit missions in China, Japan, and India, as well as on the Portuguese empire. He is the author of two monographs, Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 and The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia, and many journal articles. Liam Matthew Brockey recently served as President of the American Catholic Historical Association, and was elected to the Academia Portuguesa da História.

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