Pope Francis is coming to the United States in September 2015. One of his purposes is to attend the World Meeting of Families to be held in Philadelphia. He will also address the United Nations. So far so good.
He will also be canonizing (declaring sainthood on) Blessed Junipero Serra the Spanish Franciscan friar who founded the first 9 of 21 Spanish missions in California between 1769 and 1782. Franciscans saw the natives as children of God who deserved the opportunity for salvation, and would make good Christians. Converted natives were segregated from those who had not yet embraced Christianity, lest there be a relapse. Discipline was strict, and the converts were not allowed to come and go at will. Serra resisted efforts by Governor Felipe de Neveto to bring enlightenment policies to missionary work allegedly because this might have subverted the economic and religious goals of the Franciscans.
In 2011 we visited the Mission of San Luis Rey de Franca in Oceanside, CA. It was a beautiful facility with no evidence of any historical wrongdoing on display that I remember. It is the largest of all California missions and today operates as a retreat house.
In this NY Times article, native historians and authors have blamed Blessed Father Serra for the suppression of their culture and the premature deaths at the missions of thousands of their ancestors. Apart from all the good it did do, according to some, the California genocidal mission system legitimized the routine beating and whipping of disobedient natives in the name of God.
Sound familiar? Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission has just asked the Pope for an apology for similar tactics that were employed in the government mandated and church run Residential Schools in Canada for 130 years. Approximately 60% or more of these schools were run by Roman Catholic entities such as the Jesuits and Oblates (who have already issued their public apology.)
So if you were the public relations chief at the Vatican or the Papal Nuncio of Canada or the U.S., how do you help Pope Francis prepare?
In the moment, I truly believe that Pope Francis will find the right words to appease all parties. He is from Argentina and very sensitive to this kind of new world ministry dilemma. However it will be interesting to see how he handles the situation and how it is portrayed out in the press. Both religious conservatives who tend to rationalize it all away and liberals who say that missionary work was all wrong, will be watching closely. Not to mention many First Nations peoples across North America who want an apology rather than a canonization. Where do you stand?