Thursday, September 24, 2015

Suffer the children

Yesterday would have ticked off my mom.

She eventually left the Catholic Church, upset with its history of treatment toward native cultures, especially toward native Americans. Or so I gathered: It was yet one more family matter I learned indirectly.

Wednesday's canonization of Fr. Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system, would have outraged her. Pope Francis elevated Serra to sainthood on his trip to the United States.

I share her anger, failing in my misplaced righteousness to comprehend this gesture, built on a pyre of reed-thin apologies.

I have heard from Catholic authorities that Serra deserves sainthood for the greater good of bringing the Gospel to the Chumash and Cahuilla and Ohlone and other native California cultures. Never mind supplanting hundreds of years of these cultures own beliefs and rituals. Never mind that the missions who gathered/captured native people under the authority of the Church forbade them to practice their own cultures. Some cultures even today carry the names given by the mission system — identified as mission bands, as Gabrieleños, Luiseños, Diegueños, as Serranos.

Never mind that native people were decimated under mission "care," from mistreatment and displacement and disease.

I have heard from Church authorities that Serra protected the gathered/captured from the brutal might of Spanish soldiers who helped carry out the grand plan of missions up the coast of California. Never mind that the Church was the law of this grand plan, and Serra allowed beatings and abuse of his neophytes (gathered/captured) in demanding obeisance to Church authority. Never mind that they were forced to stay and work at the missions.

I have heard it was a different time, that should be judged within context. I have heard that soldiers were whipped for their transgressions too, no different than for the native people forced to live at the mission.

My knowledge of saints is limited, but I can't think of any whose life comprised allowing others to be beaten and abused into submission. My personal sainthood meter would not include that as criteria.

A new explanation for Serra's sainthood surfaced this week — that it's an acknowledgement to Latinos of their culture's long history in what is the United States, an acknowledgement of Latino growth in the U.S. Catholic Church.

If that's so — if it's a political parlay — I feel sorry for Latinos given this burnt offering, this legacy of conquest as validation; and for native Americans, sloughed aside, not mattering now as they didn't matter then, screwed once more.

I read this week that as a result of Fr. Serra's canonization, Catholic schoolchildren in California will study a more nuanced story of the Mission Indians — that was the term used — and their hardships.

Too small consolation.

I grew up a couple of miles from Mission La Purísima, now a pastoral state park. Fr. Serra had died before this mission was founded, and Purísima was run by Fr. Fermin Lasuén, serving for a few years as the system's mission control. It's a beautiful, peaceful mission, stately sunbaked adobe buildings and cool gardens with stone fountains shaded by olive trees.

To be there is to forget that it was a prison enforced by the Word of God. The Chumash reed and bamboo homes are off to one end of the mission grounds, a token few; they must be rebuilt every once in a while.

In our home are a couple of pieces of furniture that one might describe as Mission Style. That's the legacy of the missions: We have adopted architectural touches as our own, reflecting a romanticized time that never really was.

My mom had an affinity for native cultures that, despite her eloquence, she never really articulated to us. She loved looking at Indian basketry in museums, a love lost on her children until we became her age. She liked having grown up in Washburn, North Dakota, near where Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery wintered at the Mandan village on the Missouri River 210 years ago.

Their traces are almost gone now, pushed aside, put in a museum, compartmentalized, as has befallen native cultures across this country. Everything I do, everywhere I go — almost all that we are as Americans — came about by the pushing aside, the wiping out of people before me, by my father's father's fathers, and mother's mother's mothers, to get their land and impose our own cultures, by whip and pox and foreign authority.

In California, the missions still stand as monuments, some as parks, some as active churches, refurbished and generously placarded. We regard their bucolic grandeur, and think how that lantern would make a great sconce over the garage.

To the victor, as always, has gone the spoils.

Pope Francis made it official and holy.

What would Jesus do, indeed.

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