Opinion | A Saint’s Sins

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When Pope Francis canonized Father Serra in 2015, Mr. Medina said, he traveled to Washington D.C. with the blessing of his elders to read a Bible verse in the ceremony — but not to praise what Father Serra had done. “I wanted there to be an Ohlone person there,” he explained, “and to remind people by reading a Biblical verse in our language he failed in taking away our culture and our people.”

As for the statues, Mr. Medina went on, “it’s good to see the public saying: What he did was wrong. And the fact that people are acknowledging that wrong, for me, personally, that’s something that gives me hope.” Still, “in our community, there’s space for people who have different views,” he said.

Eva Walters, a founder and executive director of the City of the Angels Kateri Circle, an organization of Native American Catholics, expressed similarly complicated feelings. She was unhappy with Father Serra’s canonization, and does not doubt that what went on in his missions was atrocious. “We know our people, our ancestors, went through that,” she told me. “We know the horrors that happened. We know that.”

And yet Ms. Walters, who comes from the Quechan people of Southern California, was angered by the attacks on Father Serra’s statues. “We were very unhappy about the statues being desecrated, even though we weren’t happy about him being canonized,” she said. “It was not the American Indian Catholics who did that.”

I asked her how she had made such peace with Father Serra’s legacy. “Being Catholic,” she said, “we tend to forgive and pray over these awful things that have happened. We don’t condemn anyone.”

Father Serra would have been among the first to admit he had sinned, having had, according to Dr. Hackel, a routine of frequent self-flagellation. And yet he is still a saint. If conservatives can find some place for the moral complexity of a man like Father Serra, then I hope they can do the same for the racial justice movement that has been associated in some cases with attacks on his image. Catholics should know better than to let imperfections harden their hearts.

Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.

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