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The Many Sins of Pope Francis's Saints

It evokes little controversy to say that history was made on Pope Francis's first visit to the United States. In addition to becoming the first Pope to address Congress, Pope Francis also took the occasion to mark the first canonization of a saint on U.S. soil, lately St. Junipero Serra, a fellow Franciscan of the Pope's very order. A man after the Pope’s own heart.

I'm relatively certain that the Vatican perceived such an overture to be a good public relations opportunity. During his speech to Congress, the Pope addressed such sundry themes as climate change and illegal immigration, urging members of Congress not to turn their back on their ‘neighbors’ even as they stream across the U.S./Mexico border unabated. Having endorsed the cause of Hispanic immigration into the U.S., the Pope preceded this by canonizing the first Hispanic saint just this past Wednesday.

Which would all be fine, but for the fact that the man he canonized was one of the most prodigious oppressors of American Indians during the colonial age. I believe it was the political philosopher, Rick Perry who said it best: “Oops."

To be sure, the mission system in California was among the most brutal of the era. By the time the Spanish colonial effort in California was over, the population of American Indians in that eventual state would be reduced by 2/3s. All of which suggests that Serra’s tactics in the California mission system were much less about the conversion to religion, and much more about the imposition of religion under the efficiency of the Spanish sword.

For their part, American Indians have fallen in lock-step opposition to Serra’s canonization by Pope Francis. Even so, it’s unclear whether their efforts even reached the Vicar of Christ. The lone reference that Pope Francis made to American Indians in his remarks was a fleeting mention at best:

Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us.

In other words, true the years were turbulent. True the forced displacement of American Indians, and the ensuing theft of their lands was tragic and unethical. But we cannot make appraisals of St. Serra's actions given the benefit of hindsight.

Naturally, for a scholar in the field of American Indian studies, such pronouncements are astonishing, and perhaps only marginally Christian given that Hebrews 13.8 proclaims, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” This implies that the Pope’s claims are a bit off, assuming that Jesus might be morally opposed to theft and genocide.

And so, despite the overtures, despite the moral hypocrisy, and despite the religio-national commitment to realpolitik, in the end, like so many centuries before, the affairs of the Church and Nations carry on, even while the Indigenous populations they’ve all purported to conquer ignore them.

Perhaps this mutual commitment to oblivion is the best détente that tribes can hope for. It seemed to work for Ira Hayes...

But he was just a Pima Indian

No water, no crops, no chance

At home nobody cared what Ira'd done

And when did the Indians dance

Call him drunken Ira Hayes

He won't answer anymore

Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian

Nor the Marine that went to war

Dr. Torivio A. Fodder (Taos Pueblo, Comanche, Kiowa, Cherokee) is the Associate Director of the High Plains American Indian Research Institute (HPAIRI) at the Univeristy of Wyoming, and a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the UW American Indian Studies Program.