Friday, September 25, 2015

You're Excusing Slavery!

That is the accusation made because I hadn't taken a side in the canonization of Junipero Serra during this visit to the United States by Pope Francis.   I haven't written about it for the best of reasons, I don't know much of anything about it.  I have no real knowledge of the reasons for the choice to canonize him or the devils' advocate case against that.   Nor, do I suspect, do most of the people who are blathering about this online.  I think, for most of them, what they are saying on it reflects their pre-existing preferences and biases about either the Catholic church or religion, in general, not anything to do with the person, Junipero Serra.   I prefer to say nothing about something I know nothing about but, if it were my decision, I probably would choose not to canonize him.   If he is, in fact, a saint, it would certainly not hurt him to not enter into the canon of saints,  part of being a saint is perfect happiness.

I think there are probably two, distinct camps of opponents, those who have a real stake in this and real knowledge about Serra, certainly the natives of California and their real, direct supporters and allies, and the larger group of anti-Catholic haters who would grasp any opportunity they could find or invent to bash anyone associated with the Catholic Church.   I will only address that second group, the first groups' case deserves to be discussed in more detail than I am competent to do.

It's pretty amazing how the passionate denunciation of the Catholic church in the matter of the oppression of the native population of California during the period of the mission system you'd think they were the only white people there.  That lets the Spanish government, the colonial administrators, the military and white occupiers pretty much off the hook.  That alone tells you that the anti-Catholic anti-Serra campaign isn't interested in the complete picture.  Contrary to what I suspect is in line with their beliefs, one of the most informative sources of information and opinion, against and for the canonization, has been The National Catholic Reporter's many articles about the controversy.   This one, Junipero Serra: Saint or Not, from last May, an interview with the historian of California, Robert Senkewicz, was especially revealing and honest.   It's likely to tell you more than the online bather and blither will.

I would, again, make a distinction between those who oppose the canonization of Serra on the basis of what they have read from the direct, historical records available and those who haven't.

The issues involved in this kind of canonization are complex, with different, sometimes opposite motives possible on either side.   In deciding whether or not you're going to take a side, it's certainly not a bad thing to withhold judgement until you've got some reason to have the position you decide on, at least if it's the truth and not ideological propaganda you're interested in.

Another article, also from the NRC, proposes Fr. Luis Olivares as a better choice for canonization, I will post the case as presented in the article.

I would like to propose such a candidate albeit a little known one. This is Claretian Fr. Luis Olivares, someone who gave his life for the protection of Latin American political and economic refugees in Los Angeles. I am currently writing a biography of Fr. Luis, and in researching and writing his story, I have found an individual who in his life exhibited saint-like qualities. Born in San Antonio on February 13, 1934, Fr. Luis very early felt he had a vocation to the priesthood and followed that feeling to the Claretian seminary in the Los Angeles area. After many years of training, he was ordained in 1960 and quickly rose to become a top official in his order. For several years, Olivares served as the treasurer of the western province of the Claretians. In this capacity, he was in part in charge of investing Claretian funds in the stock market and as a result he was wined and dined by Wall Street executives. He came to love this attention that included flying to New York City where he was picked up by a corporate limousine, stayed in fancy hotels, taken to Broadway shows, and dined in exclusive restaurants.

However, like St. Paul, Fr. Luis underwent a conversion. In 1975, he met for the first time César Chávez, and by Olivares’ own admission this was his conversion from being part of a religious bureaucracy to a community priest serving the poor and oppressed. Meeting the humble and saint-like Chávez, who, in turn, had devoted his own life to organizing the Mexican and Filipino farm workers in California, the lowest of the lowliest, impressed Olivares and convinced him that this should be his mission in life and as a priest. He commenced to work with Chávez in doing what he could to minister to the farm workers. He visited them and comforted them. He joined picket lines in the boycotts of the United Farm Workers led by Chávez and Dolores Huerta against the powerful California growers to force them to treat their workers humanely.

Wanting to also help in the urban Mexican American barrios, Olivares requested a transfer to a poor East Los Angeles parish, Our Lady of Solitude or La Soledad. There he joined and helped lead the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) that, beginning in the late 1970s, successfully organized and empowered Mexican Americans in East L.A. to confront both governmental and corporate power though the use of people power to improve their lives. Olivares, for example, led the struggle against the big insurance companies that were redlining the eastside and charging exorbitant auto insurance rates, clearly a discriminatory and racist practice. Fr. Luis became the lead organizer and spokesperson on this issue, and UNO forced the companies to rescind their rates and provide lower ones for Mexican Americans. But the auto insurance issue was only one of many others that Fr. Luis contributed to, along with other devoted UNO members, to improve living and economic conditions in the eastside, whether getting traffic lights on unsafe and congested street crossings, to better services by large grocery chain stores, to improving the public schools in the barrios. Fr. Luis did this because he knew or came to know that this is what it meant to be a Catholic priest and that his mission was to prioritize the poor and oppressed. Olivares became a liberationist, not only by reading liberation theology that called for the church to have a preferential option for the poor, but also, like César Chávez, living it.

In 1980, having become a community priest, Olivares accepted another transfer, this time to the historic La Placita Church (Our Lady Queen of the Angeles Church) in downtown Los Angeles, a place that represented the original early Catholic church established by the Spaniards in Los Angeles. La Placita was the heart of Mexican American Catholicism in the city. It was not so much a parish as a symbol of the peoples’ faith in a church that spoke to them in Spanish and that accepted their particular devotions such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Olivares hoped to expand his work with UNO out of La Placita. However, something happened that would further transform Fr. Luis’ ministry. Civil war in Central America, in particular in El Salvador, led to thousands of Salvadoran refugees, and to a lesser extent refugees from Guatemala, entering the United States and especially to L.A. seeking political refuge. Many had family members who had been tortured or killed by the Salvadoran military and death squads. Some had themselves experienced torture. In the 1980s about a million Central American refugees crossed borders (including the U.S.-Mexico border) to reach the United States where they hoped they would be given political safe haven based on U.S. and international law. Unfortunately, the Reagan administration turned them away and declared that the Central American were not legitimate political refugees, but just more “illegal aliens” like those entering from Mexico seeking jobs and supposedly taking jobs from “real Americans.” By both U.S. law and international law, these were political refugees and yet the Reagan administration in order not to embarrass its Cold War anti-Communist client states in El Salvador and Guatemala refused to accept the refugees.

Fortunately, many other Americans came to the assistance of the refugees through what came to be known as the sanctuary movement. In Los Angeles, the heart and soul of the movement was Fr. Luis Olivares. In 1985 he declared La Placita a sanctuary church and established a program administered by Jesuit Fr. Michael Kennedy that fed and clothed the refugees as well as housed them. Some were even allowed to sleep inside the church and the church hall. Olivares and Kennedy and their staff also assisted in finding jobs for the refugees and schools for their children. Since many of the refugees arrived with emotional traumas as well as physical injuries, La Placita arranged for medical assistance. La Placita, due to its small size, could in no way support the thousands of Central American refugees who arrived in L.A., but Olivares did what he could to help as many as possible. But more than actual assistance to some of the refugees, Olivares and La Placita stood as a symbol that some Americans cared for the refugees and, that guided by their sense of morality, were prepared to protect them from immigration authorities so that they would not be deported back to El Salvador, for example, where they might be tortured and possibly killed. Fr. Luis’ love for the refugees would not allow him to be party to this offense against humanity. It didn’t matter to him if in sheltering and caring for the refugees, he was breaking the law for, as he often said, there was a higher law that he adhered to — God’s law — and he would first and foremost be guided by this.

Not restricting this love to the refugees, Fr. Luis two years later in 1987 did what no other sanctuary movement in the country did — he expanded sanctuary to include undocumented Mexican immigrants and further defied the Reagan administration and immigration officials who focused on deporting such immigrants. It’s true that in 1986, the U.S. Congress passed a new immigration law that in part contained an amnesty provision that allowed undocumented immigrants who had been in this country up to 1982 to legalize their statues. It also provided employer monetary sanctions for those who hired the undocumented. Olivares supported amnesty but also recognized that still thousands of the undocumented who had arrived after 1982 would be subject to deportation and, secondly, that some employers would refuse to hire not only undocumented Mexican immigrants but any person of Mexican origin in order to avoid any possible sanctions. Olivares confronted this new law and said that in order to protect the undocumented, he would offer them sanctuary at La Placita and that he as pastor would hire the undocumented and called on others to do likewise. Once again, Olivares appealed to God’s law in defying “Caesar’s law.” This expansion of sanctuary led to confrontations not only with immigration officials, but with the church hierarchy. Archbishop Roger Mahony (now Cardinal) attempted to pressure Olivares to back down and not defy immigration law. Olivares refused and continued his ministry.

Despite these pressures, Fr. Luis for the rest of the 1980s continued his work with the poor and oppressed especially in the form of the Central American refugees and Mexican undocumented immigrants. He could not serve them all, but he still reached many and again served as a shining beacon of love and care. In 1989, no doubt due to the pressures from the Los Angeles archdiocese, the Claretian order announced that Olivares would be transferred to Fort Worth, Texas. Fr. Luis did not want to leave La Placita, but knew that he had no other choice. However, he did not end up leaving, because in 1990, he was diagnosed with HIV that, according to church officials, he had contracted on one of his visits to El Salvador to take aid to those in refugee camps and in the countryside. Olivares himself noted that he became ill on one of his visits from his diabetes and had to be given an injection in a rural clinic. According to Olivares and others, the needle was infected with the virus. Fr. Luis lasted two more years, years of much pain and physical suffering, but he never complained, and he remained as involved as possible with continuing to call for support for refugees and undocumented immigrants. He died on March 20, 1993, at age 59. At his funeral at San Gabriel Mission hundreds attended, including many of those whom he had ministered to as well as those who had worked with him; a weak César Chávez who would, himself, die in a few weeks, was among them. The refugees and immigrants present both before and after Mass saluted their beloved priest by calling out “Presente!” meaning that Fr. Luis was present with them and would always be.

Fr. Luis’ family believe that he is a saint, and they pray to him. Many of his fellow clergy also believe that he was saint-like. I agree. But what about miracles? We know that such criteria for sainthood can be somewhat arbitrary in canonization. However, let me say that, in my opinion, ministering to the poor and oppressed such as Fr. Luis did for the refugees and undocumented and saving the refugees from possible torture and death they would have faced if returned to El Salvador is a form of miracle. Fr. Luis helped to transform people’s lives and, in a sense, gave them a new life and hope. Isn’t this a form of miracle?

But it would be far more controversial if someone whose advocacy of the least among us in living memory, in opposition to the rich and powerful, some of whom are still alive and exercising power and some whose children and associates are around than an 18th century friar.  I can imagine the FOX gaggle would be going nuts over it and it might even get a Pope doing it uninvited to address the Congress.  But the scriptural case is unambiguous, in one of the most meaningful of all Gospel passages Jesus said that those who did what Fr. Luis did for the least among us were the ones who were getting into heaven.   If Junipero Serra belongs in that group, I don't know.  I'm quite sure Fr. Luis is.   I have no doubt that St. César Chávez is, as well.

Update:  I should point out that Dolores Huerta, to the best of my knowledge, lacks one essential feature to be a saint, she is still with us.  


  1. I don't get the outrage over the canonization simply because I don't have a dog in the fight.

    It may be I would think Serra unfit for sainthood, but it isn't up to me, and I'm not a Catholic, and even if I were, I don't think I'd be required to pray to Serra if I didn't want to. There are a lot of saints in the canon with stories that would upset us today. What is that to me?

    Which is not to say the people you reference don't have a legitimate historical complaint; but, as you say, that's not my area of expertise, and why should I be verklumpft about it? It's just another source of petty outrage that does me no credit to hold, and serves no purpose in expressing.

    Life's too short, and I've lived among too many people happy to think outrage proves they are alive. No, it doesn't; and it's really kinda sad people continue to live as if that were so.

    I'm more interested that Francis called Dorothy Day a "servant of God." That was not an idle designation, and even though it proves the Catholic church is vast and contains multitudes, I still consider it a reason to rejoice.

    1. It's especially funny among people who don't seem to quite get that Catholics aren't "making people saints" but trying to figure out if they are saints. But, then, even a lot of Catholics aren't too clear on that point, which is hardly a hard one. Don't get me started on angels.

      I think it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that Dorothy Day will, someday, be canonized. It will be a lot more interesting if her co-founder of Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin, is ever in danger of being canonized, his "Easy Essays" contain lots of dynamite, especially the things he said about Eric Gill who no one suspected was such a demented, criminal, nut case at the time. I don't expect Eric Gill will ever be canonized.

      I figure that anything that pushes the effort to do to the least among us a lot better than we do is good, saint or no saint.