A Halo for Serra is no Feather in Pope's Hat

by Ken Briggs

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Pope Francis' "who am I to judge?" mantra apparently cuts in many directions. Now he has given a pass to Junipero Serra's bid for sainthood, under what we can only imagine has been mounting pressure from Serra's long frustrated supporters, by waving off some dark history in favor of surface traits. It doesn't speak well for conscientious discernment but does fit the style of the mantra and, I dare say, underlines the basic message that will emerge from his papacy. It has its own merits but perhaps opens the barn door for the horses to run free.

The enduring message I believe will be to speak loudly about grace, mercy and hypocrisy, then turn most everything over in the name of the badly neglected court of conscience, however that's understood as a reason for the church not to take direct action one way or another within extreme limits. And as a key component of Vatican II vitality that had been largely shunted aside by subsequent popes, it deserves revival.

Pope Francis has breathed new life into it under his own definition. He'll continue to do his part in pointing out what he sees as the essentials--a venerable package of love and justice--and leave the rest to various elements of the church to do as they will within certain boundaries. His vocation is to preach the Gospel and hope for the best without getting terribly mixed up in implementing any particular aspect of it. Leadership by inspiration if not by activism. There has been too much arm twisting by the church, he seems to believe, and he will espouse the best of Jesus teachings for Catholics to figure out. He wouldn't judge gays because, presumably, God already has, we can use the "internal forum" to decide for ourselves what it is, so he doesn't have to. Who is he to judge because he's not the judge, goes the apparent reasoning.

So it seems with Junipero Serra whose cause was stalled when an uproar by historians and other protesters preceded John Paul II's visit to California in 1987. Bad things had been done to Native Americans who were targets of the church's establishment of missions on the west coast. Conversions, it seems, weren't always the cake walk to the altar of a Billy Graham crusade. There are grim accounts here documented by competent investigators.

But Francis has either excused or looked past these actions in favor of extolling Serra's acceptance of his vocation to plant the church's flag among the native people and the good intentions he stated on paper. He was a "founder" of the nation, though he did it in the course of destroying an older one, and his motives were pure. "All of his writings," the pope avows, "reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways." No disreepect intended, but I've read similar sentiments from southern planters before the Civil War and immaculately crafted tributes to Jews by Germans who would soon persecute them.

It would be unfortunate to say the least if the pope's "live and let live" benevolent side also became an excuse for keeping silent in deference to the wishes and interpretations of those deemed too big or confrontational to oppose, all in the name of good conscience. Institutional inertia notches another victory. Junipero Serra is on the road to sainthood; don't expect throngs of spontaneous adorers to crowd the way. The reluctance has something to do with that old saw that says faith without action is a bust.


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