SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA – Pope Francis apologized Thursday for the sins and “offenses” committed by the Catholic Church against indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas
History’s first Latin American pope “humbly” begged forgiveness during an encounter in Bolivia with indigenous groups and other activists and in the presence of Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president, Evo Morales.
Francis noted that Latin American church leaders in the past had acknowledged that “grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” St. John Paul II, for his part, apologized to the continent’s indigenous for the “pain and suffering” caused during the 500 years of the church’s presence on the continent during a 1992 visit to the Dominican Republic.
But Francis went farther, and said he was doing so with “regret.”
“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,” he said to applause from the crowd.
Then deviating from his prepared script, he added: “I also want for us to remember the thousands and thousands of priests who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross. There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I (now) ask for forgiveness. But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also an abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples.”
Francis’ apology was met with wild applause from the indigenous and other grass-roots groups gathered for a world summit of popular movements whose fight against injustice and social inequality has been championed by the pope.
“We accept the apologies that are more than we could have hoped for from a man like Pope Francis,” said one indigenous leader, Adolfo Chávez.
The apology was significant given the controversy that has erupted in the United States over Francis’ planned canonization of the 18th century Spanish priest Junipero Serra, who set up missions across California. Native Americans contend Serra brutally converted indigenous people to Christianity, wiping out villages in the process, and have opposed his canonization.
Francis’ apology was also significant given the controversy that blew up the last time a pope visited the continent. Benedict XVI drew heated criticism when, during a 2007 visit to Brazil, he defended the church’s campaign centuries ago to Christianize indigenous peoples. He said the Indians of Latin America had been “silently longing” to become Christians when Spanish and Portuguese conquerors violently took over their lands.
“In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture,” Benedict told the continent’s bishops.
Amid an outcry from indigenous groups, Benedict subsequently acknowledged that “shadows accompanied the work of evangelizing” the continent and said European colonizers inflicted “sufferings and injustices” on indigenous populations.
Church officials have long insisted Catholic missionaries protected indigenous peoples from the abuses of military colonizers and were often punished by European colonial powers as a result. Francis’ own Jesuit order developed missions across the continent, educating the indigenous and turning their communities into organized Christian-Indian societies. The Jesuits were expelled in the 17th century.
Mexican Bishop Raul Vera, who attended the summit where Francis made the apology, said the church was essentially a passive participant in allowing natives to become enslaved under the Spanish “encomienda” system, by which the Spanish king granted land in conquered territories to those who settled there. Indians were allowed to live on the haciendas as long as they worked them.
“It’s evident that the church did not defend against it with all its efforts. It allowed it to be imposed,” Vera told The Associated Press earlier Thursday.
He noted that John Paul had previously asked forgiveness of the world’s indigenous. But he said Francis’ apology was particularly poignant given the setting.
Campesino leader Amandina Quispe, of Anta, Peru, who attended the grass-roots summit, said the church still holds lands it should give back to Andean natives. The former seat of the Inca empire, conquered by Spaniards in the 16th century, is an example.
“The church stole our land and tore down our temples in Cuzco and then it built its own churches — and now it charges admission to visit them,” she said.
Francis’ apology was not the first. After his 1992 apology, John Paul II issued a sweeping but vague apology for the Catholic Church’s sins of the past during the church’s 2000 Jubilee. A year later, he apologized specifically for missionary abuses against aborigines in Oceania. He did so in the first ever papal email.
In 2000, during the Vatican’s Holy Year, the Catholic Church apologized to Brazil’s Indians and blacks during a ceremony in Brazil for the “sins and errors” committed by its clergy and faithful over the past 500 years. A Vatican cardinal representing John Paul participated in the ceremony, which saw the head of Brazil’s bishops conference ask God for forgiveness for the sins committed against brothers, especially the Indians.
Earlier Thursday, Francis denounced the “throwaway” culture of today’s society that discards anyone who is unproductive as he celebrated his first public Mass in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country.
“It is a mentality in which everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable,” he said. “This way of thinking has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are unproductive.”
The government declared a national holiday so workers and students could attend the Mass, which featured prayers in Guarani and Aimara, two of Bolivia’s indigenous languages, and an altar carved from wood by artisans of the Chiquitano people.
In a blending of the native and new, the famously unpretentious pope changed into his vestments for the Mass in a nearby Burger King.
The day, however, threatened to be overshadowed by the Bolivian president’s controversial gift to Francis upon his arrival: a crucifix carved into a hammer and sickle.
Both the Vatican and the Bolivian government insisted Morales wasn’t making a heretical or political statement with the gift. They said the cross, dubbed the “Communist crucifix,” was originally designed by a Jesuit activist, the Rev. Luis Espinal, who was assassinated in 1980 by suspected paramilitaries during the months that preceded a violent military coup in Bolivia. On Wednesday, Francis, a fellow Jesuit, prayed at the site where Espinal’s body was dumped.
“You can dispute the significance and use of the symbol now, but the origin is from Espinal and the sense of it was about an open dialogue, not about a specific ideology,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The Bolivian government said the gift wasn’t a political maneuver, but rather a profound symbol that Morales thought the “pope of the poor” would appreciate.
“It was really from great affection, a work designed by the very hands of Luis Espinal,” Communications Minister Marianela Paco told Patria Nueva radio.