Strange as it might seem to say, my brother’s hospice stay helped crystalize my thoughts about Father Junípero Serra’s canonization ceremony. Though I was personally conflicted, I was glad for the opportunity to witness this historic event firsthand. But it was during Roger’s illness, and his eventual passing, that I eventually found the words I needed for this follow-up blog entry. To wade into troubled waters, unafraid.
My moment of clarity came at Roger’s bedside when, plastic water pitcher in hand, I harkened back to an author’s chat with Anne Lamott. She spoke to us about a good many things, including Grace, which she described as “a glass of cool water from the flow of the Beloved.” I nodded, then as now. We tap into Grace when we ferry endless cups of water to the parched and suffering. We catch glimpses of Grace in a spoonful of ice chips, skimmed across the fevered lips of a cherished other. Crystal clear, Light-reflecting water. And the tears that flow, theirs and ours? Rivulets of Grace, flowing to and from the Source.
I thought about how, in fast-tracking Father Serra’s path to sainthood, Pope Francis must’ve known that decision would ignite the burning embers of controversy. Opinions were–are–sharply divided. While acknowledging Serra’s mixed legacy, some believe he should be judged in the context of the era in which he lived and worked. Such is the case with my new friends, pictured below. However–and without judging the source of his missionary zeal–historians agree that Serra (along with his fellow Franciscan friars) committed crimes against humanity. In elevating this colonial padre to sainthood, would the pontiff also call him (and the Church) to account for his actions?
It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The pope might view this historic occasion as an opportunity to personally address tribal leaders who circulated petitions to oppose the canonization. In his homily, he could respond directly their myriad letters of protest, as-yet-unanswered by the Vatican. In a Catholic mass, live-streamed around the world, he could weigh the practices of conversion against the larger issues of human rights. How better to heal any open wounds, than to administer a measure of Grace?
It would be surprising move, perhaps; but then again, this pontiff has a penchant for the unexpected. He expresses tolerant and compassionate views. He pushes the boundaries on social issues, more so than some of his predecessors. In my heart of hearts, that’s what I hoped for. Naïve or no, it was the prayer on my lips when the ceremony opened with the traditional ringing of the bells.
But as my Nana used to say, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” Meaning: That’s not the way things unfolded. In his homily—broadcast from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—Pope Francis characterized Father Junípero Serra as a kind-hearted padre who protected Native Americans from colonizers—a trailblazer who relished the opportunity to spread the Gospel throughout California, while also preserving local customs and cultures.
In this uncharacteristically passive excerpt, Pope Francis attributed the known atrocities to a nameless enemy:
Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.
Pope Francis spoke at length about the importance of missionary work, related the joys it brings and spreads, and described Father Junípero Serra as a humble servant who fulfilled Jesus’ commandment to His disciples:
Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone. Go out and in my name embrace life as it is, and not as you think it should be. Go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living. Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father. Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation. Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life. Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.
He then declared that, in meeting that commandment with an open heart and willing hands, Father Serra proved himself worthy of sainthood.
In pivoting to this final note, the Pontiff completely sidestepped the more difficult truths of Serra’s legacy:
Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, a saying he lived his life by: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! … Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!
Here, a liminal moment in which Pope Francis might have delivered Grace to those who’d “hungered and thirsted after righteousness” for more than 200 years. But he walked right past that wellspring, and assumed his traditional place at the altar where a trio of ornate chalices rested.