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Indianizing the pope: Reflections on the continuing encounter

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In spite of the surviving ambiguity of the Catholic church's attitude toward Indian spirituality, in spite of the ugliness on all sides of the original incident, a profound connection occurred during the service of beatification of the Oaxacan Indian martyrs Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles on Aug. 1. Pope John Paul II bonded visibly with his congregation in a way that should seal his name as the most Indian of all the popes.

The bonding went far beyond the symbolism of the service, artfully designed to embrace indigenous culture within the bounds of Catholic dogma. The importance of the symbolism was not to be underrated, however. It helped to repudiate centuries of hostility to Native language and ritual.

The service began with a reading in Nahuatl. Native women bearing a large censor and green branches brushed the Pope with its smoke. The papers gave the ritual an indigenous Mexican name, but any North American Indian would recognize it immediately as a smudging. In between the prayers and gospel readings, young men in incredibly tall fan-shaped headdresses performed the Dance of the Feather, a pre-contact ceremony of Oaxaca province. Representatives of the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples of the region gave readings in their languages. A portrait of the two Zapotec martyrs emphasized their Indian features. It occupied a place of honor in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, right next to the Europeanized portrait of Juan Diego who the day before had been canonized as America's first Indian saint.

The message was clear and remarkable. With the blessing of Pope John Paul II, the church was following the path of the Rev. Paul Steinmetz, the famed Jesuit priest at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, who incorporated many elements of Lakota religion into his services. The indigenous road could also lead to Eternal Truth.

The beatification service didn't go all the way, however. A church commentator pointedly observed that it was not a mass but a "liturgy of the word," which allowed more openness. The commentator on the Catholic cable channel EWTN even apologized to those in the audience who might have been offended by the incorporation of the Feather Dance. The context of the beatified martyrs set the limits. Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles were murdered by followers of the indigenous religion, enraged that the two had exposed them to the Spanish authorities. Although the church now respected indigenous culture and language, it still firmly rejected native "idolatry."

But as the service in the Basilica drew to a close, it took a turn that left theology behind. Mexico and the Pope are already famous for their fervent mutual attachment. In that Aug. 1 service, it reached a pitch that could only be expressed in popular song. "I go, but I do not go," John Paul told his audience, quoting a current lyric. "I go but I will not be absent. Even if I go, in my heart I stay." In what has to be one of the memorable moments of his papacy, the congregation responded by spontaneously breaking into the "Ay, ay, ay, ay" of the "Cielito Lindo", Mexico's most widely known serenade.

The outpouring of emotion responded not to the carefully calibrated message of the service but to the living symbolism of the Pope himself. It was the last day of what well might be his last trip to the Americas. Every step he took gave painful evidence of the physical cost and the effort of will exacted by his 12-day pilgrimage. Once the most athletic of popes, John Paul was now bent and afflicted even beyond his 83 years. His facial expression was immobilized, leaving only his eyes to express his spirit. Months before the trip, the Vatican had warned that he might have to curtail his itinerary. That he carried it out in full, even that he insisted on walking down the steps from the airplane, rather than taking a lift, showed an extraordinary level of self-sacrifice.

Catholic commentators have even begun to develop a theological construct, "the suffering Pope." In his personal pain, John Paul II is taking on the travail of the church, and humanity. The orthodoxy of this idea might be debatable. Some theologians might argue that only Jesus was required to undergo redemptive suffering. But it is a concept that Indian peoples understand to the core.

Sundancers often contrast their own willingness to undergo physical suffering to the European Christians, who let Jesus do it for them. The refrain of the Sun Dance, and of other rituals of flesh sacrifice, is that it will rescue family and community from harm. Lehan lechel oyate kin nipi kte, le chemun welo. "So that the People might live, I do this thing." Some scholars even suggest a Christian influence in this deepened expression of the Lakota Sun Dance. A warrior in the 19th-century would have prayed, or given thanks, for his own survival, they say; the emphasis on saving the People can be traced to the influence of Nicholas Black Elk and his peers, who were interacting with Catholic missions. This is debatable of course, just as many Catholics would resist the idea that the Church could take lessons from indigenous spirituality.

However, now it is the pope who is living out this doctrine of physical self-sacrifice. It might seem strange that the first Polish pope should also be the first pontiff to commune with the indigenous spirit at such a deep level. But this has been a papacy of many strange and, sometimes, hopeful developments. And this is a pope who has shown the deepest of connections with all humanity.