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Pope Francis juggles interests in Junípero Serra sainthood

Pope Francis conducts Mass outside the Basilica of

Pope Francis conducts Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, in Washington. Credit: AP/ David Goldman

Popes, like presidents, have constituencies with competing interests. The canonization mass for Junípero Serra Wednesday seems like a case in point.

Yes, popes are the all-powerful heads of a global institution that outsiders see as monolithic, marching in lockstep. The Catholic church's emphasis on the immutability of its teaching adds to the perception. But there are different ethnicities and interests with the church, and the pope has to be conscious of the needs and the differing pieties of each group -- to be a good pastor to his entire flock, even when different groups of sheep wander off in different directions on nondoctrinal matters of liturgy and practice. Vatican permission for celebration of the traditional Latin Mass in addition to Mass in the vernacular is one example of that kind of accommodation.

Pope Francis, for all his authentic humility and decency, is well aware of this. A good example was his simultaneous canonization in 2014 of two very different popes:

One was the roly-poly, thought-to-be-a-placeholder John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli), who fooled everyone by convening what became the Second Vatican Council. That council, completed after his death, led to significant change in church liturgy and attitudes toward the world.

The other was John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), the brilliant, charismatic, world-historical, Poland-liberating Polish pope, with all the talents of an actor and some of the instincts of a tyrant.
Both were lovable, but in different ways. And their primary appeal was to different constituencies of the church. John Paul staunchly supported conservative movements such as Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ. John XXIII, "Good Pope John," is not as beloved by many conservative Catholics, who look on Vatican II as going too far. Reform-minded Catholics remember him more fondly.

True, Pope Francis certainly didn't say, in so many words: "OK, one canonization for you guys, and one for you guys. Now, can we all get along?" But that was the basic idea.

This time, he's canonizing only one saint, but Serra might as well be two different men, considering the sharply divergent views of him by two groups of people. The nation's indigenous people see him as a symbol of the missions that helped build California, but which treated the Indians who lived in them cruelly at times. The Hispanic people of the Southwest see him as a figure to be revered, a man important to their piety.

The rhetoric about Serra can be pretty heated. Earlier in the month, Richard Kreitner wrote in The Nation: "Should Pope Francis get a free pass to canonize a man directly responsible for the brutalization and ultimately the near-extinction of an entire people simply because it is, in some warped public-relations sense, a tribute to Hispanic Americans, a growing constituency in the Catholic Church?"

Supporters of the Serra sainthood cause argue that he protected indigenous peoples from the worst cruelties of the colonizers -- as Francis did in his homily at the canonization Mass. In Commonweal, the lay Catholic magazine, Gregory Orfalea wrote: "Contrary to some contemporary claims, the testimonies gathered sixty-six years ago in making the case for Serra's sainthood give unmistakable, consistent, and concrete evidence of Indian reverence toward the Franciscan."

Yet even Orfalea asked why Francis speeded up what Orfalea called "a stalled sainthood case" to become the first pope to canonize someone on American soil. He suggested one reason: "Francis finds in Serra a powerful kindred soul, an echo of his own love of the simple, the humble, and service to the poor."

Only Francis can know his motivations, but is it unreasonable to assume that one of them might be the needs of Hispanic Catholics, a key constituency in today's church? It's also safe to assume that America's indigenous peoples will not soon remember this event fondly. As recently as Tuesday, a group of Indian advocates spoke out against the canonization, accusing Serra of intending to destroy the native culture.

It's not that the pope is unaware of the harm that missions caused. In Bolivia in July, Francis said this: "Some may rightly say, 'When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church.' I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God .... I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America." And his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, did support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But there's unfinished business.

In the weeks before the visit, the National Catholic Reporter published stories about the "doctrine of discovery." Boiled down to its ugly essence, this was the attitude that the indigenous peoples had better simply get out of the way and make room for the Europeans who "discovered" a vast continent where a lot of people had lived for centuries, but had not yet gotten around to becoming Christians. As the NCR stories pointed out, papal "bulls," documents dating to the 15th century, were the earliest roots of this attitude. In this country, an 1823 Supreme Court decision, Johnson v. M'Intosh, essentially affirmed a doctrine of discovery and made native peoples second-class citizens when it came to the ownership of land. It's still valid legal precedent.

Though other religious groups have formally renounced the discovery doctrine, the Vatican has not. The argument is that it doesn't have to, because subsequent papal documents have more or less repealed the earlier bulls.

The discovery doctrine, the objections of Native Americans, and the spiritual needs of Hispanic Catholics were the backdrop for the canonization at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Francis listened quietly to a brief description of Serra's life and his canonization case. Then he stood for the long litany of saints, and sat to officially proclaim Serra one of them. In future canonizations of  American saints, the name of Serra will doubtless be part of that litany.

In his homily, Pope Francis returned to his familiar themes: the joy of the Gospel, the need for Christians not to be wrapped up in themselves, but to go forth, as others in the past, with a bold missionary spirit.

"Today, we remember one of those witnesses who testified to the joy of the Gospel in these lands, Father Junípero Serra," the pope said. "He was the embodiment of 'a church which goes forth,' a church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God. Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life."

More than that, the pope said, Serra stood up for the native people who received the Gospel from him. "Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it," Francis said. "Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people."

That, of course, is the problem. For many, the hurt lingers. I don't believe for a minute that Francis is insensitive to that hurt. He has said what he feels he needs to say about the treatment of the indigenous peoples, and he doubtless hopes that the hurting will heal over time, and Native Americans will be able to hear the name Serra without sorrow. We can all hope so, too. But it will take some time. For now, the deed is done. The church calls him a saint. As the old saying goes, "Roma locuta; causa finita." Rome has spoken, case closed.

In this case, that finality itself can be painful for some among us.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday's editorial board.