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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Still Not Feelin' the Love: An Open Letter to Pope Francis

Dear Pope Francis:

So the Vatican has launched its canonization PR machine for your big visit to the U.S. later this month, and of all the offensive, insensitive, I-can't-hear-you-la-la-la-la-fingers-in-the-ear slogans, they chose this:

Now, Pope Francis, I admit that I cannot bear the word 'mission' even in a normal, non-missionization context.  As a professor, I work hard to use other words in conversation, like "Our FOCUS here is to get students writing," or "My real INTENT with this assignment is to ..." - substituting just about anything so that I don't have to say, "My mission today is to teach you First Years how to write a decent essay."

Heck, if I could, I'd re-write Mission Impossible so that the infamous taped warning reads, "Your task, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it..." - simply because the word MISSION makes the postcolonial fillings in my Indian teeth cringe like a nice big chomp of tin foil.

But this little line drawing with the back of your slightly chunky, grandfatherly figure raising one benevolent hand in graceful blessing and the words LOVE and MISSION together in peaceful blue sans serif font is much, much worse than tin foil shudders.

And that cute word play on "mission" (get it?) makes me go just a touch crazy.

Okay.  I'm pausing for a few deep breaths here, fighting the urge to shout at you like this:  THE WORDS LOVE AND MISSION TOGETHER IN PEACEFUL BLUE SANS SERIF FONT AND THAT CUTE WORD PLAY MAKES ME GO A LOT CRAZY.

But there, I did it, and I feel a teeny bit better.  Just a teeny bit, though.  Trust me, Francis, shouting is only a temporary outlet.

This PR image makes me want to pull my hair out because I am on the other side of the mirror.  As a California Indian whose Ancestors were the subjects of missionization, I can tell you that the Spanish missions were not about love.



As the population graph above shows, the missions - for California Indians - were about death.

Death from the murder, disease, starvation, European-spread syphilis and rape directly brought about by the missions founded by Catholic missionaries.

Deaths that were brought about by one thing:  greed.  Rapacious, self-serving, unmitigated greed - the acquisitive desires of Spanish royalty, military and yes, Catholic priests.



Francis, I know this might be hard for you to hear.  Clearly, a petition asking you to cancel the canonization has gone unheeded, as have multiple news stories, interviews with California Indian peoples, and letters such as this.  But with the Catholic Church's immense power (financial as well as world-wide scope) comes great responsibility.  Does that sound familiar?  Perhaps you know it better as "To those who much is given much is required" (Jesus Christ; Luke 12:48).

Francis, you've been busy proclaiming a 'mercy year' for Catholic women who have had abortions so that they can confess, be forgiven, and rejoin the Church; you've encouraged your priests to welcome divorced Catholics back.  You've recently spoken mercifully of LGBTQ individuals, saying, "A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being."  This past June, you even announced "a specific process by which the Vatican can deal with bishops who are negligent in handling cases of abuse in their territories," speaking to the decades-long sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests that has been covered up by the Church itself.

Of course, all of these actions on your part have yet to play out fully, given the centuries of punishment dealt by the Church to women who had abortions, divorced people, LGBTQ Catholics, and victims of abuse by priests.  And many of these announcements by you are phrased as spiritual expressions rather than outright changes in Catholic dogma; "we enter into the mystery of the human being" is one of those phrases that doesn't, really, pin you down to any actual change. 

Still, Francis, you seem to have no fear of voicing a kinder, gentler Church for the 21st century, despite more conservative pressures from within the Vatican. 

Yet you can't quite seem to bring yourself to apply this kind of clarity and perspective to Serra's canonization. 

People are not born saints, and in fact the Church has (or had) an elaborate process in place to scrutinize the lives of people nominated for sainthood.  However, as the linked Catholic website above notes, Popes are free to waive some of those steps, including the number of years before being canonized, or even - in the case of Serra - one of the two required miracles. 




Unfortunately, the waiving of Serra's second miracle means that his canonization can be pushed through with an incomplete investigation.  I've speculated before (see earlier link to previous post) that you might be looking to use the Serra canonization as a way to celebrate the Church, rather than constantly apologizing for its failures.  Forgive me, Francis, but your organization would benefit from some good PR these days.

Hence, "Love is Our Mission"?

Let me tell you why that phrase and your campaign to canonize Junipero Serra doesn't work for the very people Juniper Serra was tasked with 'saving.'  Let me tell you why many California Indians (and our allies) are protesting this celebration.  Let me help you see our perspective.

You see, we know that everyone wanted (not needed) something from California's indigenous peoples: if not gold, if not some weird tally of Spanish God-points for 'saving' Native souls from Hell, then slave labor to defend land claimed by Spain from other invaders like Russia, France, and the United States of America.

We know that that land, those souls, those lives, were taken, not given freely.

We know that makes missionization a crime.

Yes, I'll say it.  Missionization is a crime against humanity by humanity.  No human being should have to defend him or herself against someone else's religious aggression.  Not in 1770, when Junipero Serra showed up in the homelands of my Ancestors near what is now the greater Monterey Bay area, and not in 2015, on Indian reservations in the U.S. or in impoverished Indigenous communities South America.  Religion is a deeply personal, often culturally-based belief system that means nothing if it is not freely accepted or chosen.  Sure, human beings have the right to offer their religious beliefs to others for consideration.  But human beings also have the right to decline participation in any religion, as well.


To be missionized - i.e., forcibly 'converted' - at gunpoint, by physical beatings, rape, murder of one's families or community members, by psychological coercion, lies, trickery - is a moral, ethical, spiritual crime.

Any religious figure who uses force to benefit a religious organization is not a religious figure.



Yes, I do have high standards - thanks for pointing that out.  Yes, I do realize that the Franciscan priests who missionized California lived in a different time period where missionizing was a European norm.  But no, I do not believe in honoring anyone who participated in that kind of colonization simply because they worked really really hard at forcibly beating religion into Indigenous people.  Or simply because "everyone else was doing it, too."  You know what?  Even if that argument (voiced by every teenager since time began) were valid, the truth is that everyone else was NOT doing it.  Not even all priests were doing it.

To quote myself in an earlier post,

Serra, many of his his supporters have argued, was simply "a man of his times." In other words, colonization happens, and we should not blame those caught up in it. But that has a flip side to it:  if Serra was, in fact, “a man of his times” in 1769 when he founded the first California mission in San Diego, he should have known better: Bartolome de las Casas knew better in 1552 when he published "A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies," and spent his entire life working for the freedom of Indians and return of their lands (a wealthy man, a priest, and former Indian slave-holder); a document Serra and all priests in training would have read and debated. Padre Antonio Horra knew better in 1799 when he protested soldiers' rapes and beatings of Indian converts at his California mission.  The Church officials in California and Mexico sent poor Padre Horra home saying he had gone insane from the stress of missionization and his inability to deal with the hardships of The New World.
As it turns out, Padre Horra asked to be sent home because he knew that his Franciscan brethren had it in for him and he feared for his life after blowing the whistle on their Spanish Inquisition conversion techniques.


History of California. 1884-90  By Hubert Howe Bancroft

[Many other Europeans of the time also left behind records stating the over-the-top cruelty of California missionaries and, as Cutcha Risling Baldy points out, Spanish records contain thousands of accounts showing that Native people thought it was wrong, too - by fleeing, fighting back, setting fire to missions, even killing priests in an effort to defend themselves.  Those accounts, of course, are written by the missionaries themselves about bad, bad Indians who wouldn't listen unless flogged, imprisoned, starved, or otherwise 'persuaded' to accept their enslavement.]

Oh, and speaking of the Spanish Inquisition, Francis, surely you know that Padre Junipero Serra actually was an agent for the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico?  The LA Times reports on this fact:
Even by 18th century standards, Serra's religious fanaticism was over the top. With beliefs grounded in doctrines inherited from the Middle Ages, he took pleasure in extreme self-mortification and worked as a loyal comisario, or field agent, for the Inquisition, tracking down witches, heretics and practitioners of “cryptojudaism” in Mexico City. According to UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel's biography of Serra, he was “a calculating and unrelenting interrogator of those he thought had committed crimes against the Church.”
Just what does "calculating and unrelenting interrogator" mean?

As Steven Hackel writes in his biography of Serra, "Only two full records of [Serra's] actions as a comisario have come to light, but it is unlikely that these reflect his full involvement with the Holly Office in New Spain, given the secrecy that always surrounded the Inquisition" (124).

(Hmmm, interesting.  If there are more records rattling around in the Vatican's archives, Francis, would you consider sharing?)




In one of the two cases Hackel was able to find, he reports that Serra's investigation gathered enough incriminating evidence against a "mulata" or "loba natural" (part Indian and part African) woman named Maria Pasquala to have her sent to Mexico City.  There, she spent five and a half months imprisoned in a filthy, dark dungeon while the judges of the Inquisition 'examined' her further.  The day after she was finally judged guilty of witchcraft, guards 'found' Maria outside her cell, beaten nearly to death (it was called "a grave accident" in Spanish records).  She lingered a few hours, then died, and was buried in an unmarked grave.  Hackel concludes,


"Maria Pasquala's fate was tragic, and Serra as an agent of the Inquisition played a major role in it.  ... Serra knew that Maria Pasquala would most likely be punished severely when he sent her to Mexico City.  But he saw her as a witch and could not have done otherwise.  Nothing in the historical record suggests that Serra knew of her death.  Yet he would not have been surprised to learn that one who had gone so far astray had suffered such a gruesome end" (136, emphasis added).

In other words, when Serra ordered Maria Pasquala sent to Mexico City, he knew that she would be found guilty based on his inquisition testimony, and furthermore, that while the punishment for this was a severe flogging and banishment, Serra knew that her murder by guards with the implicit permission of Church authorities was also just as likely.  

That's 'our Blessed Serra'?  Well, Francis, maybe he's yours, but he's not ours.

That's your Blessed Serra, the man who - four years later - would be given complete control over the lives of thousands of California Indians.

That's your "Mission of Love."

Let me quote Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes, 


Institutional saint-terrorists believe that their religious conviction justifies them in mind-washing, enslaving, torturing, and murdering anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe. 
So long as religions use such believers to enforce their control over minds and extend their worldly dominion, the saint-terrorist will exist and will be canonized. 
Self-sacrificial saints differ from saint-terrorists in choosing to mindwash, enslave, torture, or kill themselves instead of others.

What she is saying, Francis, is that Serra had a choice.  He had a choice between serving to better the lives and needs of California's Indigenous population in the wake of 'discovery' by Europeans, and serving the political and economic desires of the Vatican and the Crown.  Other Europeans of his time chose to protest mistreatment of Indians, and made efforts to protect them.  Serra's choices reveal him to be an ambitious, greedy man whose longing for glory was, in fact, a vice.  There is much more evidence that Serra does not deserve to be honored by anyone, but I can only guess that you have ignored that too, since you have yet to respond to any of these points.

Prove me wrong, Francis.

Canonization of Junipero Serra means:


A) religious violence, aka terrorism, is okay, and

B) the rape of California's people and land - which we are testifying to - was not rape, so we must be deluded, or liars, or both! and

C) violence today is okay tomorrow, because by tomorrow it will all be in the past and that excuses everything.

For all these reasons and more, here is my response to that poster at the head of this post. Here is a glimpse into the Indigenous California side of the strange mirror we call history.



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