Pope Francis and two men who would be saints
Pope Francis is now known to be hoping to have two church leaders declared saints. One is a bold, inspired choice. The other, unfortunately, is puzzling, even disappointing — especially for a pontiff known for advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples.
The pope was on the plane on the way to Manila this week when he announced that he plans to canonize Junipero Serra when he visits the U.S. in September.
Junipero Serra, who died in 1784, was a Spanish priest known to have been major figure in the Spanish colonization of California.
The name, if not the person himself, is familiar to many Filipinos in California, particularly the Bay Area. A major freeway that cuts through the Pinoy-dominated Daly City, near San Francisco, was named after him. Heading further south, one could even see on a hill a giant statue of a smiling Serra pointing to the horizon.
He is said to have personally started nine missions in California. According to a PBS website, “His Herculean efforts subjected him to near-starvation, afflictions of scurvy, and hundreds of miles of walking and horse riding through dangerous terrain.”
But Junipero Serra is a controversial figure. Critics of the bid to canonize him point to his role in the oppression and exploitation of Native Americans in California.
When Sierra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, some Native Americans in southern California protested. “There are quite a few California Indians who think he shouldn’t be a saint,” Vera Rocha, chairwoman of the organized Southern California Indians, Gabrielano Band, told the Los Angeles Times back then.
And it certainly didn’t help that, in defending the push to make Junipero Serra a saint, a major California Catholic leader involved in the campaign echoed the European colonizers’ racist, derogatory view of Native Americans.
“They were on a par with what we studied in school as the Stone Age,” Msgr. Francis J. Weber told the Los Angeles Times. “Now if you think that’s a good era to be in, then you can see where you would end up in this ongoing controversy of did we destroy their civilization. In my opinion, they didn’t have any civilization to destroy.”
On the plane to Manila, Pope Francis called Serra “the evangelizer of the west of the United States.”
But he certainly does not come across as a church leader who would affirm the superiority of any civilization over the other the way Weber did.
In fact at Malacanang, he expressed the hope that the ongoing peace process in Mindanao “will result in just solutions in accord with the nation’s founding principles and respectful of the inalienable rights of all, including the indigenous peoples and religious minorities.”
The other religious leader Pope Francis is known to have endorsed for the sainthood is also controversial — this time for serving as a voice of the oppressed.
Oscar Romero was the gutsy, beloved archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated by that country’s right-wing forces in 1980.
I remember his death having such a strong impact in the Philippines where activist priests and nuns also broke with the church hierarchy by speaking out against the abuses of the Marcos regime and his military.
What made Romero’s murder even more shocking was that he was killed while saying mass in San Salvador after he publicly called on Salvadoran soldiers not to kill and harm their fellow Salvadorans, to respect their human rights.
But despite his act of heroism, many in the Catholic hierarchy dismissed calls to declare him a martyr, clearly for political reasons, mainly because Romero also became a symbol of the Latin American left.
Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was quoted as saying in 2007 that, while he saw Romer as a “great witness of the faith,” the push to declare him a martyr was problematic
“The problem,” Pope Benedict was quoted as saying by the Catholic News Agency, “was that a political party wrongly wished to use him as their badge, as an emblematic figure. How can we shed light on his person in the right way and protect it from these attempts to exploit it?”
This view has changed under Pope Francis.
Last week, a major hurdle was removed in the process of declaring him a saint after an influential Vatican commission finally acknowledged what many of us have known for 35 years: that Romero was a martyr and a hero.
It’s not surprising that this is view is shared by the Pope who in Manila spoke of “a society of authentic justice, solidarity and peace,” and “the moral imperative of ensuring … respect for human dignity.”
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