A COMPASSIONATE POPE?
Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the United States has been as auspicious occasion. As this is being written mid-visit, the Pope has begun his trip in Washington, DC. It is amazing to see the crowds that throng around the White House and the Vatican Embassy for just a glimpse of the Pope. Early this morning, I spotted swarms of young people headed to the White House, white balloons in hand, with hopes of only being in the Pope’s presence.
People seem to love this Pope because of his humility and compassion. He has said that women who use birth control or have had abortions can be “forgiven” and return to full participation in church culture. He has stressed that people should love their LGBT neighbors. He has lifted up the poor and been an advocate for climate change. A self-identified immigrant, he has asked for compassion for immigrant peoples. While he has not retreated from entrenched Catholic theology, he has offered a compassion that may return lapsed Catholics to the church.
One of the task the Pope has taken on, however is to canonize Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who established Spanish missions through out California. He had direct involvement in the establishment of at least nine of the twenty-one missions. Junipero Serra is hailed by many, and was beautified by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Beautification is last step before sainthood, and canonizing Junipero Serra on US soil may be important. At the same time, it is fair to ask what kind of man the compassionate Pope Francis is canonizing and whether Junipero Serra’s sainthood is a celebration for some and a curse for others.
In order to establish Spanish missions in California, Junipero Serra had to “Christianize” the Native American population. On one hand, Junipero Serra protected native women, “saving” them from Spanish troops by locking them up at night. On the other hand, it is documented that Junipero Serra condoned, and even imposed, brutality to native people. Native Americans were enslaved, whipped, and flogged. They were forced into labor, and they were severely abused. Their culture was suppressed. And though Junipero Serra was perceived to want Native Americans to be treated fairly, he also adhered to the belief that Native American people were inferior to Europeans.
From his compassionate base, and in this trip through the Americas, Pope Francis has acknowledged sins against the indigenous populations when he travelled to Bolivia earlier this year. Why, then, would he canonize a man who committed far too many sins against the Native American people in California? Does the Pope accept the notion that Catholicism must go hand-in-hand with colonialization? Does he accept the oppression that came with the “saving of souls?”
Native American activists and others who believe in freedom are absolutely right to raise questions about the mixed messages this supposedly progressive Pope is putting out there. Can a “saint” enthusiastically participate in the decimation of a culture and still be deified? Some will say that Junipero Serra should be viewed in context, but that is tantamount to saying that it is okay to revere the leaders of the slave-loving (and black-inferiority embracing) Confederacy. While this Latin American-born Pope may find some regional fealty with Junipero Serra, why would a man who eschews oppression choose to lift up an oppressor?
Let me inject my personal history here. I was raised Catholic, was baptized, received Communion, and attended weekly masses until I was in my early teens. Then my political education revealed that Catholics were the colonizers of Africa, Latin America, Mexico and California. Understanding the role the church played in the oppression of black people, I told my mom that I would never go to church again (not). I attended Boston College, a Jesuit college, but never missed an opportunity to talk about Catholic oppression and colonialism. Today, I mostly attend mass when I am at home in San Francisco and hanging with my mom. Only because my brain is warped do I look at chalices and wonder how many people had to be sold to produce the jewel-studded chalices, or how many offerings had to be diverted to the victims of sexual predators.
Tens of thousands of Catholics and others will come together to celebrate Pope Francis, as they must. If these Catholics embraced the expressed spirit of Pope Francis, though, they’d rail against the canonization of Junipero Serra, a savage oppressor. Even as I appreciate the context of the eighteenth century work of Junipero Serra, I am not sure this work should be lauded.