Francis in America: New York, Abuse Survivors in Philly and the Serra Sainthood

By Jason Berry PHILADELPHIA, WASHINGTON and NEW YORK -- Maintaining a tireless pace, Pope Francis kept on point Saturday as he arrived in Philadelphia and celebrated a midday Mass while large, fervent crowds waited outside, entertained by Latin American music and white-clad dancers, before a papal address in the evening at historic Independence Hall.

2015-09-26-1443299467-8861704-GettyImages490114206.jpg Students wait for for Pope Francis prior to his departure from New York at John F. Kennedy International Airport on September 26, 2015 in New York City. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images) Anticipation of a different kind was building among people who struggle in the role of church outcasts: victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The Associated Press reported that Francis was expected to "talk privately with abuse victims this weekend." The Philadelphia archdiocese has been hit hard with prosecutions, grand jury investigations and civil cases involving more than three dozen alleged clergy perpetrators, and one monsignor who spent time in prison for complicity.

The flood of benevolent media coverage for Francis would seem a form of respite to the beleaguered archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, who has closed parishes in dealing with deficits from scandal-driven legal bills.

But for David Clohessy, director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), the prospects of Francis meeting with survivors held scant hope.

"The seven or eight previous meetings between popes [Benedict and Francis] have given short-term comfort for a handful of survivors and long-term feelings of betrayal," Clohessy told GroundTruth before any confirmation of a meeting.

"It will reinforce the convenient narrative that abuse cover-ups are over and only healing is needed," he said. Wall-to-wall coverage on cable networks has been unprecedented, with uninterrupted broadcasts of Francis's Masses in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Yet in the smaller stops on the schedule, Francis has gently and relentlessly driven home his core messages to a national viewing audience. On Thursday, directly after his midmorning address to Congress, Pope Francis went to St. Patrick's Church in Washington, DC to share a meal with 200 homeless people.

In another gesture of the symbolic language that has shaped his first trip to the United States, the 78-year-old pope who cast himself as an immigrant son of the Americas to the political establishment spoke for his noontime guests, as if entreating the Congress he had just left:

"We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing," Francis said. "There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us." Francis flew to New York late Thursday afternoon and headed to St. Patrick's Cathedral in midtown for a ceremony of evening vespers with priests and members of religious orders. As dusk drained into dark, homeless men on W. 27th Street just off Fifth Avenue bedded down under blankets on cardboard in the city of cities. Cab service ran slow with many Muslim taxi drivers honoring a holy day. Across the globe in Mecca, pilgrims swelled the Saudi Arabian streets so jammed that a crowd stampede caused 700 deaths. With the deft touch that has marked his words and gestures, Francis began the evening prayer ritual by saying: "I have two thoughts today for my Muslim brothers and sisters. First, my good wishes as you celebrate today the day of sacrifice. I wish my greetings could have been warmer. Second, my closeness, on account of the tragedy which your people experienced today in Mecca." Friday morning he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, a more familiar arena than Congress, given the role that popes have played in this venue over the years. In 1965 Paul VI, the first pope to address the UN, did so as Americans were showing stark divisions over the US war in Vietnam. "No more war!" cried the pope. Since World War II, the pope has stood as a moral statesman on the global stage, espousing peace among nations, a role that would push John XXIII to decry the nuclear arms race and John Paul II to champion human rights, particularly in the Soviet empire. Francis has taken to the role of moral statesman hand-to-glove and as he showed in the UN speech, expanded the purview of peace by linking it to the fate of the earth and justice for the world's poorest people. In that, he has gone beyond previous popes, who held similar views, through his insistence in the recent ecology encyclical, "Everything is connected." At the UN, in pressing the case for an environmental ethos, Francis borrowed from his June encyclical on the environment. "Any harm done to the environment," said the pope, speaking comfortably in his native Spanish, "is harm done to humanity." "A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and the disadvantaged," he said.

He introduced a term, "right of the environment," likely to rile the lobby pushing to discredit climate change science. The pope, however, was advancing a line of thought that Catholic educators have begun to embrace as the encyclical becomes a teaching source. At the UN, Francis was refining the moral argument. "We human beings are part of the environment," he said. "We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. The UN speech, like the ecology letter, had a near-term goal of seeking to build support for an international agreement at the UN climate summit in Paris later this fall, COP 21. The pope stepped up his case for the world's most impoverished people as the frontline victims in the destruction of forests by industry and man-made causes of climate change. He ran down a litany of issues, from sexual slavery to the fate of migrants fleeing war-ravaged or economically broken countries, bundled into a plea for justice and restraint. "This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of creation," said the pope. Francis has been shadowed by his translator, the dark-haired Monsignor Mark Miles, a native of Malta whose "wingman" presence bestirred the Today show on NBC -- which like the other networks has no full-time religion reporter -- to give Miles a halo of high media, declaring him "a celebrity." As the news cycle churned with actual commentary about the pope's events, a more hostile environment greeted Jesuit Father Thomas Reese on Fox Business's Cavuto Coast to Coast.

Host Neil Cavuto pressed Reese, a sociologist and respected author of books on the Vatican, on Francis's hostility toward capitalism. "Prophets confront the afflicted and afflict the comfortable -- that's their job," said Reese. "They speak truth to power. With millions and millions of people in power, he wants to be a voice." Raising the issue of poverty, and linking it to ecological destruction, Francis has become a challenge to a core of conservative Catholics who number about 25 percent of the church population in America, according to recent survey data taken before the pope's visit. But the "Mission of Love" -- as Francis's trip to America is formally called -- has also sown discord with critics of his decision on the sainthood of Junípera Serra, the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who founded many of the California missions. The canonization Mass at the National Basilica in Washington on Wednesday was a ritual of breathtaking solemnity: white-robed choirs sang beneath the blue gilded dome to orchestral passages of the liturgy.

With Pope Francis at the altar, Fox News ran the entire liturgy of nearly two hours without interruption. But the process of canonization, how the Vatican built the dossier of information that Pope Francis would embrace, is a point of bitter dispute for Mark Day, a California film documentarian and former Franciscan priest allied with Native Americans opposed to the Serra sainthood.

"When the Indians tried to make their points with Ken Laverone, the Franciscan vice postulator for Serra's [sainthood] cause, he shouted them down in meetings," Day told GroundTruth in a series of emails. "Worse things happened after Serra's death is one of a long laundry list of rationalizations the Franciscans, the bishops and the Vatican have advanced to justify Serra's canonization. You have to dig a bit more... but the evidence against Serra is there," Day said. "Our humanity has never been recognized," Stephen Newcomb, a founder of the Indigenous Law Institute, told National Catholic Reporter in a Sept. 11 article critical of the pope's decision, called "How Tarnished is Serra's Halo?" "Serra came here, he believed our people had no soul, and so that that is why it was okay for him to do those whippings and the brutality," said Newcomb, of Shawnee and Lenape descent, to the Reporter. "We carry this history with us through generations."

That Spanish missionaries engaged in floggings of Indians for disruptive or hostile behavior is not lost on Gregory Orfalea, a California native and the author of a 2014 Serra biography, "Journey to the Sun." Self-flagellation for atonement of sins was also practiced by Franciscans, Jesuits and other religious orders into the 20th century. That does not justify its use against Native Americans in the California context.

"Some Indians -- and it is important to say 'some' because the protest against Serra has been blown out of proportion by the media -- feel Serra must be blamed for some cruelties that occurred in the California mission," Orfalea told GroundTruth.

But history is messy. Natchez Indians in what is now Mississippi put infants to death in sacrificial ceremonies for the funeral of high chiefs, a practice that horrified early French explorers and Jesuit missionaries. Orfalea paints a nuanced portrait of Serra, who pleaded to a Spanish magistrate against the death penalty for Indians who had murdered a fellow missionary. After studying the documents used in the sainthood process, Orfalea concluded that Serra deserved canonization, before Francis's decision.

"In fact, these particular voices, though we must respect their intent, often do not have the facts on their side," Orfalea said. "They speak from an understandable pain. But the missions were not built to destroy indigenous people; they were built to attract them."

Orfalea treats the floggings in some depth in the book and offered a historical context.

"He did it for things he felt both Indian and Spaniard could lose their souls over (assault, rape, concubinage, desertion)," he said. "Serra felt responsible for the future of the Indian's soul insofar as they trusted him, coming into the mission as they did -- and I emphasize this for it is often completely missed by the critics -- voluntarily. Yet, once in by choice, they could not leave without permission. Permission was often granted, for visits to their villages that could entail weeks or months. It was most assuredly not slavery, nor genocide, nor for the most part cruel. There were cruelties; the floggings were wrong. But the missions were not made to be cruel." Of the 21 missions in California, Orfalea said, "Each had its own life, unique practices and social world. There were orchestras of Indian musicians, 30 members or more, and great choirs of Indian voices which moved visitors even early in the 19th century." Pope Francis the evangelizer undoubtedly identifies with Serra, who in 1775 pleaded against the death penalty to Spanish military rulers, as Francis did in his speech to Congress this week.

"Serra spoke truth to power," said Orfalea. "He told conquistadors not to spoil 'the good, sweet water' of a Kumeyaay watering hole near San Diego -- that is, he told the military leaders not to let the mules and horses drink from a pond clearly marked out for Indian villages. Does that sound like someone guilty of genocide? What it sounds like is Francis in Laudato Si." Jason Berry is a religion correspondent for GroundTruth and the author of Render unto Rome: the Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, among other books.