A Pope for All People?

For many of us, Pope Francis -- the first Latin American pontiff -- is a breath of fresh air. He is lucid regarding the three main things that threaten our existence: militarism, wealth inequality and climate change. Not a few non-Roman Catholics have celebrated his ascent to the global dais with relief, and even joy.

He has acknowledged that "triumphalism impedes the Church," and that "triumphalism is not Christian," but on September 23, 2015, Pope Francis will canonize Father Junipero Serra in Washington, D.C. Serra is the founder of California's first nine California Missions. While I am a fan of the Holy Father, I grieve with my Native American brothers and sisters over the Vatican's apparent tone-deafness regarding Serra. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz observes that, "Very few visitors notice... that in the middle of the plaza of each mission is a whipping post. The history symbolized by that artifact is not dead and buried with the generations of Indigenous bodies buried under the California crust. The scars and trauma have been passed on from generation to generation."

The Holy Father concedes that the Church has a spotty history. In Bolivia last week, he said, "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."

Dr. Jonathan Cordero, Assistant Professor of Sociology at California Lutheran University, told me, "In the end, the canonization of Junipero Serra rubs salt in an old wound -- it reinforces a Eurocentric version of Spanish-Indian relations and it justifies the wanton legacy of Spanish colonization and its detrimental impact on missionized California Indians past and present."

For generations the California Missions have been field trip destinations for schoolchildren. It's not so easy anymore to suppress the truth as it once was. As a child in California public schools I was presented with a romanticized Junipero Serra and led to believe that the Indian population needed and welcomed European settlers. There was no mention of the frequent uprisings against priests.

Each year in early August, Santa Barbara hosts "Old Spanish Days," popularly known as "Fiesta," at various sites around town with the Santa Barbara Mission as centerpiece. For people visiting Santa Barbara during Old Spanish Days, the city's history is framed through a parade, Latin music, opera, Spanish and Mexican foods, and dance. The Mission was founded two years after Serra's death and is the state's tenth of twenty-one. It has no whipping pole or other glaring evidence of wrongdoing but in 1824 the Chumash actually captured the Santa Barbara Mission until Mexican troops and priests negotiated surrender.

I have a friend who acknowledges that she has both Spanish and Chumash blood. For several years now she has performed dances during Fiesta. She was able, until now, to embrace both sides of her heritage. She has discovered that the Santa Barbara Mission will pay tribute to Serra this year, and she is now dysphoric.

Pope Francis will not come to California this year. Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas know Serra's legacy, but Californians know it best, and many would like to know what the devil is going on. I truly want this Pope to have moral authority. He called world leaders cowards for accommodating modern capitalism, referring to it as the "new colonialism." I pray the pope will be courageous in September.