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World

Native Americans Protest Canonization Of Junipero Serra

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Next week, the first Latin-American pope will give the United States its first Hispanic saint. The canonization of Junipero Serra has drawn strong protest from many Native Americans. They accuse in the 18th century Franciscan missionary of having brutally imposed conversion to Catholicism. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports the Vatican dismisses the charges and says the canonization will help restore the important role of Catholicism in the founding history of the U.S.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In July, during his visit to Latin America, Pope Francis delivered a powerful apology for the Catholic Church treatment of indigenous peoples during colonialism.

POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) I say this to you with regret. Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. I humbly ask forgiveness not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.

POGGIOLI: Francis then praised the priests and bishops who defended native peoples against the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish-born Junipero Serra marched north from Mexico to California with the conquistadors and is seen by Pope Francis as a great evangelizer who brought Catholicism to Native Americans.

But many Native Americans charge that Serra was part of the Spanish colonial system that savagely exploited native peoples and brought diseases that decimated their populations. John Allen, veteran Vatican analyst for The Boston Globe, believes it's very likely that during the canonization mass, Pope Francis will again apologize for the excesses committed in spreading the gospel. However...

JOHN ALLEN: It is utterly unreasonable to expect a Latin American to apologize for lifting up one of the Hispanic founding fathers of the dominant nation in the Western Hemisphere.

POGGIOLI: In the United States, the first settlements by Spanish missionaries were created half a century before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. Guzman Carriquiry, an Uruguayan who is secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, is one of the Vatican's most vocal promoters of Junipero Serra. A close confidant of Pope Francis, Carriquiry laments that the role of Catholicism in American history has been overshadowed by what he calls an Anglocentric historical narrative.

GUZMAN CARRIQUIRY: (Through interpreter) The story of the Pilgrims as founding fathers is a beautiful story, but it is partial, an ideological story that ignores that much earlier, there was a Catholic Hispanic missionary presence throughout almost the entire American territory.

POGGIOLI: Carriquiry blames the historical imbalance on what he calls an anti-Catholic sentiment among American Protestants who he says imposed the epic of the pioneers on the frontier as the civilizing myth that made America.

CARRIQUIRY: (Through interpreter) The Saint Junipero Serra will help overcome the contrast between what is Hispanic and what is Anglo-Saxon in the United States, what is Catholic and what is Protestant, what is Latin America and what is the United States.

POGGIOLI: Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, would have preferred that the canonization be postponed until it satisfied the concerns of Native Americans. But he points out that sainthood does not imply perfection.

THOMAS REESE: Junipero Serra was a good man in the sense that he loved the Native Americans. He tried to do, you know, according to his own understanding, what was good for them. On the other hand, he was part of this Spanish colonial system. So it's - you know, it's a mixed picture.

POGGIOLI: Father Reese hopes the pope acknowledges this, that he is not canonizing the Spanish colonial system or whitewashing the thousands and thousands of Native Americans who died from imported diseases. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.