“Saints Are Only Human”: Leaving the Church, But Heeding this Pope’s Lessons

Last week I took an urgent phone call from my brother who was seething about the pope’s visit with Kim Davis. A gay man who refuses to vacate his Roman Catholic pew, Robby’s Facebook post on the topic read: “The Pope went to see Kim Davis to ask for forgiveness for his part in the history of bigotry that formed her messed up beliefs that got her ass thrown in jail.”

I get where he is coming from. But to me, the most important thing about the papal visit was not the agenda he upheld, but the stance he held up.

At the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on September 23, those of us in attendance were reminded, via loudspeaker, that the Roman Catholic Church has made and continues to make mistakes. “Saints are only human,” a voice proclaimed during a pre-Mass program that acknowledged the objections of Native Americans to the canonization of Junipero Serra, the first Hispanic saint. “All the church’s saints are sinners,” the voice said. “That is the point.”

In a scene from Dante’s Purgatorio, massive crowds inched through security checkpoints beneath a blazing sun. Gates opened at ten in the morning and closed at 2pm—but mass would not start until after 4pm. Children in Catholic school uniforms held their parents’ hands. A host of chatty young nuns tucked iPhones into the pockets of their steely gray habits. Absolutely no protest signs were allowed, yet church groups with people who spoke Spanish sported bright T-shirts with slogans about immigration reform.

On line I heard that parishes with large numbers of undocumented immigrants had received many tickets. No outside food or water, statues, gifts or selfie sticks were permitted. Despite 10,000 folding chairs, most of us would have no choice but to stand.

Once in my appointed place behind the last row of seats, I found myself in a community of fellow pilgrims, lottery winners from local parishes, nearby colleges, and, like me, Catholic University alumnae. Admitted by chance, several told me they felt summoned by faith. Together we watched a figure we imagined was Papa Francesco censing the altar, and I thought, “Holy smokes. I could be the only Protestant here.”

I left the church decades ago when I felt unwelcome as an unmarried single mother. Catholic University had offered little support. Now a seminarian seeking ordination as a Reformed Christian minister, this was the first time I had returned in more than 30 years.

Speaking only in Spanish, the pope’s homily touched upon the damage native people suffered through the system of missions that Junipero Serra help found. “The Church, the holy People of God, treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters,” reads the English transcript. Yet the pope upheld Serra’s courage to move forward. “The holy and faithful People of God are not afraid of losing their way; they are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into élites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure is the cause of so much apathy.” It was not an apology. On the other hand, Francis did not sweep violence under the rug. We must get over it, he seemed to say, because ignoring the damage we cause hurts everyone.

A flock of white-cassocked priests bearing wafers were released in our midst. An assistant who carried a yellow-and-white umbrella accompanied each. The missalette sternly warned against taking communion across denominational borders. I instant-messaged someone in my denomination to find out the status of communion between Reformed churches like mine and the Catholic church. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” he kindly replied. “Wish I were there.”

I turned to a Georgetown University undergrad named Rebecca standing next to me. Out of thousands of students who entered a lottery, she had received one of 80 tickets. As the only entrant she knew who was a practicing Catholic, she felt a divine hand played a role in her presence.  “You study anthropology and history,” I said. “How do you feel about canonizing Junipero Serra?”

“For me, this is all so amazing,” Rebecca confessed. “I grew up in California. And I am a descendant of the Mescalero Apache tribe. I’ve visited many missions. I love the one in Carmel. In school all children study mission history. Everyone does a history project to build a model of a mission. I cannot believe Junipero Serra is being sainted by Pope Francis and I am a witness.”

I was stunned. As much as anyone present, Rebecca had a right to be angry with the holy father. Instead she was full of reverence. It occurred to me that perhaps the real power of the people’s pope is not to change the world with any particular agenda with its winners and losers. Instead this papal visit offered people like me who felt hurt by the church a chance to lay down our anger and forgive. Not for the sake of those who perpetrate injustice and violence—Father Serra, for all the good he did and evil he allowed, is long dead. Rebecca helped me remember the grace of forgiveness for the living people who suffer harm.

So in the afterglow or aftermath of Francis’ historic visit, the most important take-away may be the old sinner in the white cap who captured so many eyes and hearts here in the US—who reminded us that like him, the church itself is only human.


  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    I doubt that I will ever understand those who cling to the Church despite its odious teachings, and do so only by picking and choosing which doctrines to accept. In my opinion, there’s no baby in the bath water. Best to chuck the whole thing.

  • awerling@gmail.com' andrew123456789 says:

    Beautiful piece, thank you for this.

  • dk123@yahoo.com' DK says:

    I’m not sure Rebecca is the best example of one who has grappled with the sins of Junipero Serra and come to a place of forgiveness nonetheless. Instead, she is likely more a testimony to the way the history of the missions are framed in California – the mission history students in California study in no way addresses the displacement, forced conversion, loss of home and family, often slave-like conditions and other aspects of colonization imposed on native peoples. It ignores all the uncomfortable parts and instead unquestioningly celebrates the way the missions “made” California what it is. I say this as a professor of religious studies at a California State university, whose students are absolutely shocked to discover in my classes that the history of the missions is not the unqualified triumph of civilization they are taught as elementary students (and I say it as a former Georgetown University undergrad myself, where there is also not much taught to re-examine that view of history). Rather than a beacon of forgiveness, sadly I think Rebecca serves more as an example of the ways that those in power craft narratives of history to suit their needs and the erasure of the narratives that question such power. True, saints are human and their sins may even help Catholics better relate to them, but not all humans sin the same, and the sins of Junipero Serra affected not only his life, but disastrously affected the lives of so many thousands more, that it is hard to sweep it under the table with a simple recognition that all humans make mistakes. Yet that is exactly how the real histories of mission colonization are treated – swept under the table in the name of 4th grade build-a-mission projects that require no real reflection and thus cannot incite any real forgiveness.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    If we did start teaching about our sins in creating America, we would need more years of elementary school. I doubt this particular sin would make the top 100.

  • joemitchelljohn@yahoo.com' MartinJohn says:

    Oh, there’s definitely a baby in the bath water. The problem is that the whole thing is rigged so that the bath water can’t be spilled, drained, flushed….

  • lizestes@mac.com' Liz Estes says:

    DK, thank you so very much for your detailed comments. It is shocking but as you say, it sounds like the undergrad Georgetown program hasn’t changed enough since you were there. And they are Jesuits! I tried to focus this piece on my own singular life and personal sense of forgiveness–a powerful experience I am still trying to understand. Francis’ sinning church message is nearly opposite John Paul II’s stance, back when I was a grad student in the philosophy school there, and Card. Ratzinger closed down the School of Theology because its seminarians protested the ousting of Fr. Curran from Catholic theologians. It is such a strange mix with ongoing persecution of LGBTQ people, indigenous people, women clergy. That public school education in California continues to perpetuate this oppression as you describe is something I only began to comprehend when I met Rebecca. Thank you for putting on the table here. I would love links for further reading. Also I wonder if there are advocacy groups in California working to change the way mission history is taught?

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