In the US and Canada, today is the feast of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), In Perú and other parts of South America, and among the Franciscans, today is the feast of Saint Francisco Solano ((1549–1610).
Kateri, Lily of the Mohawks, was the daughter of a Mohawk pagan chief and an Algonquin Christian, who after becoming a Catholic left her village in what is now Auriesville, NY, and went to live in a Catholic village near Montreal, Canada. There she lived out her short life. She had hoped to found a convent, but was not permitted. Having made a public vow of chastity, she died young. She is a sign of the openness of the native peoples to Christ and the Church – but she also suffered from the misunderstanding of her native peoples who could not comprehend her refusal to marry and from the Church that was not open to her desire to further religious life among the native peoples.
Fray Francisco, after several years of positions of authority in his Franciscan order in his native Spain, went to South America and spent about twenty years among the peoples of Perú and Tucuman (in parts of Argentina and Paraguay). There he approached the native peoples with respect, often announcing his arrival playing his violin. He was transferred to Lima where he found disfavor among his superiors for his strong words against corruption and injustice.
These two very different saints remind me of the importance of a Church that is missionary but which respects the peoples and their cultures and recognizes the dignity of all people.
In the history of the Church there are many examples of a colonialism at the heart of some missionary activity which resulted in massacres of native peoples and destruction of native cultures. There is also the witness of people like the Dominican bishop Fray Bartolomé de las Casas who spoke out strongly against colonialism and slavery and other efforts to undermine the dignity of the native peoples.
And so today it is beneficial to meditate on the words of Pope Francis in 2015, speaking in Bolivia at the World Meeting of Popular Movements:
I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. My predecessors acknowledged this, CELAM has said it, and I too wish to say it. Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church “kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters”. I would also say, and here I wish to be quite clear, as was Saint John Paul II: 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.
I also ask everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike, to think of those many bishops, priests and laity who preached and continue to preach the Good News of Jesus with courage and meekness, respectfully and pacifically; who left behind them impressive works of human promotion and of love, often standing alongside the native peoples or accompanying their popular movements even to the point of martyrdom. The Church, her sons and daughters, are part of the identity of the peoples of Latin America. An identity which here, as in other countries, some powers are committed to erasing, at times because our faith is revolutionary, because our faith challenges the tyranny of mammon.