You Don't Have to be a Saint to be a Saint

by Ken Briggs

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I'm here to harp. It's odd that harping is generally thought to be irritating. Just yesterday I listened to a beautiful harp sonata by Paul Hindemith; it's the angels' instrument of choice, isn't it?

So I'll harp again on the upcoming canonization of Junipero Serra by Pope Francis only hours after he lands in Washington. One way to read that hustle is that it's a blot on his visit that he's putting behind him as soon as possible, during drive time in the afternoon, sandwiched less conspicuously in a jammed schedule.

Serra may indeed been a "creature of his time" who deserves a break for edging so slightly away from the worst of the Spanish imperial domination of native people in California, but he did the bad stuff too. Imprisonment, forced labor, coerced conversions, and so on. 

Therefore the questions:

How is the purpose and mission of the Catholic church furthered by his glorification? That is, will American Catholicism be better or worse for this purported exemplar of what it means to be Christian?

How can Francis establish credibility for standing up for poor people and crying out against the imperial forces that oppress them by elevating a priestly version of the same designs? Doesn't that undercut Francis' hallmark message? Does this action belie his sincerity? Is it hypocrisy? Or does the fact that it took place under church auspices allow it a dispensation (are there "saints" who have owned slaves?)

Perhaps squeezing Serra in almost incidentally will be sufficiently overwhelmed by the sensational arrival and scurrying about to the White House and beyond to be relatively lost in the shuffle. There's been virtually no significant protest by the descendants of Serra's subjects or from Catholics in general. Perhaps most are beyond caring, put off by the politics of the whole thing. The slim possibility is that it will spark distaste that could attach itself to Francis for the duration as an untoward attempt to appease certain elements of the church or as a contradiction of what he has so ardently and convincingly preached.

The Vatican's intransigence on this one is a remnant of a rule-by-fiat mentality from the old days. We say he's a saint so he's a saint. Campaign managers have overruled other considerations. That's that.

Fiats do damage both ways. In the case of American nuns, Rome's attack on their integrity I suspect did all the damage that was desired. The nuns were branded and it wasn't necessary to prove the case or "win" certain strategies. Belittling their reputation was enough in itself. Likewise, Serra. It matters not that his record has been closely examined and found embarrassing. He is a saint anyway because we say so. Would that similar resolve be put behind actions that back up that elusive "preferential option" for the poor and powerless.




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