Pope John Paul II, who passed away April 2, was a man of peace who gave of
himself with boundless energy and engaged the politics of the world with
decision and consistency. His upholding of the most conservative of church
doctrines, from sexuality and birth control to continued limited
participation by women in church leadership, were accompanied by his
untiring efforts on behalf of freedom and social justice issues worldwide.
At this time of mourning for the beloved pontiff, it is worth considering
that he reached out across the world and extended his considerable love to
indigenous people. In particular, the Native people of the Americas, from
Canada to Guatemala, received the much-traveled pope with enthusiasm and a
reciprocal affection normally reserved for their community elders and
spiritual guides. Often, John Paul II spoke on behalf of human and cultural
rights of American Indians, urging a more truly "catholic," or inclusive,
interpretation of the Gospels.
In 1984, he visited Native Catholics who gathered to greet him at Fort
Simpson in Canada's remote Northwest Territories. The grueling trip
provided a welcome healing for those far-North communities. In 1987, during
a visit to Southern states in the United States, he denounced racism
against blacks and fully sympathized with American Indians' historical
During a visit to Phoenix, John Paul II was greeted by 10,000 Indian
people, many in traditional regalia. A spokeswoman for the Native gathering
told him they sought to "follow Jesus Christ in [the] languages and
cultures which God has given us." The pope urged Phoenix's Native Catholics
to "keep alive your cultures, your languages, the values and customs which
have served you well in the past and which provide a solid foundation for
At other times, he spoke strongly on behalf of Indian self-governance, the
protection of Indian lands and the right to economic wellbeing - themes he
would deliver passionately over 20 years and that he did not hesitate to
envelop in the call to Indian people's human rights. The theme of inclusion
of Native traditions within the Catholic Mass, promulgated so vigorously by
the pope, requires critique, of course, as does everything associated with
the churches that have penetrated Indian life and culture. The primary
response from many Native spiritual leaders who conduct their own ancient,
traditional ceremonies based on their indigenous cultures is to ask: Why
doesn't Christianity simply recognize our own tribal spiritual systems as
equal religions of the world?
Nevertheless, the consistent attention to Native people as the most
downtrodden and strongly devout of his flock provided a welcome relief from
the inattention and ignominy that too often leads to violent repression and
other human rights abuses.
The pope canonized Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Indian born prior to the
conquest, to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in 1531, according to
popular Mexican tradition. The Virgin is said to have left an olive-skinned
imprint of herself on Diego's cape. The early myth-history of the Virgin of
Guadalupe spearheaded the conversion of millions of Indians in
Meso-America. The tradition is alive among the Tohono O'odham in Arizona
and other Southwestern Native nations.
Pope John Paul II also beatified Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk
convert who has drawn thousands of devoted Indians throughout the Americas.
In Phoenix and at other times, he apologized for the church's past
treatment of Indians. Consistently, he defended Indian customs and exhorted
Latin American governments to treat Indian communities honorably.
Of course, the 500-year dynamic between Indian cultures and the Catholic
Church is complex and full of dark corners housing shameful deeds, from the
issuing of papal bulls justifying the early thefts of Indian land and the
unleashing of a bloody religious inquisition that tortured and executed
thousands of Indian captives to the too-long ignored incidents of pederasty
among priests. But these are ongoing issues, beyond the life of one man.
The dynamic has had its glorious moments, as when thousands of local
priests and catechists joined the chorus denouncing the massacres and
assassinations of Indians and social activists by governments from Mexico
to Peru. Largely rejected by the pope as too radical a "liberation
theology," the church as defender of the humble indigenous people has in
various ways and at various times represented a movement based on
courageous love for fellow human beings, often resulting in loss of life
for priests and nuns and even an archbishop (as he offered Mass, El
Salvador's Oscar Romero was shot to death by Salvadoran soldiers following
While discouraging direct church leadership in confrontation (at least in
Latin America) and no doubt of limited engagement in many areas of Catholic
life presided by church doctrine, the late pope nevertheless expressed his
love of justice in a way that we can appreciate.
The life and leadership of Pope John Paul II makes an undeniable
contribution to the expression of love and respect among the races and
people of the world. We honor the vision, the integrity and selfless energy
in the life of this generous and humble human being.