Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Power of "Sorry"

At a recent Mass to commemorate the 190th anniversary of a California mission built by native converts, the Miwok Indians, Sacramento's bishop-emeritus apologized for the church's mistreatment of the early community.

Apparently, the gesture had quite an impact:
You could have heard a pin drop when Bishop Francis A. Quinn, during a Mass at the Church of St. Raphael in San Rafael, apologized to the Miwok Indians for cruelties the church committed against them two centuries ago.

Indians who were present seemed stunned.

The retired bishop, in green brocade robes, lofty miter and carrying a shepherd's crook, lent heart and historical gravitas to the Mass, part of the 190th birthday celebration of Mission San Rafael Arcangel the other day.

Coast Miwok Indians once occupied the lands from the Golden Gate to north of Bodega Bay. When Spanish padres launched the San Rafael mission in 1817, the Indians built it, maintained it and helped it survive, according to anthropologist Betty Goerke, who has studied the Indians for 30 years.

But they paid dearly for their participation. Bishop Quinn conceded that the church authorities "took the Indian out of the Indian," destroying traditional spiritual practices and "imposing a European Catholicism upon the natives."

He conceded that mission soldiers and priests had sexual relations with Indian women and inflicted cruel punishments - caning, whipping, imprisonment - on those who disobeyed mission laws. He acknowledged that the Indians had a civilization of their own - one that valued all of nature - long before the Spanish imposed an alien, European-type life upon them.

"I was teary-eyed" at his words, Goerke said. "There have been other anniversary events at other missions, one where a priest hinted that they were sorry, but this surpassed them all."

Greg Sarris, who heads the Miwok tribal council, formally called the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, said the apology was historic. "I have not heard of this happening anywhere else in this country," he said.

He was not only astounded at the apology - "it was huge" - but also by the bishop's appreciation of the culture.

After the Mass, Sarris spoke at a gathering in the St. Raphael's school gym.

"With the permission of my people," he said, gazing at Bishop Quinn, "I accept your apology."

Most of those in attendance probably were unaware that many of the remaining 1,000 Coast Miwoks still feel the pain of their early subjugation.

"Many, many of us are Catholics," Sarris said. "Some who are Catholics don't think much about the past. Others who are Catholics are still angry. And many of us left the church because of colonization, for which the church was the main instrument."...

"It was magical to have priests and Miwoks together again, in a peaceful setting, celebrating and honoring one another."

Says Sarris: "It gave me great hope that we could move forward hand in hand and make a home for all of us in this land."
After his 1993 retirement from the church's helm in the California capital, Quinn literally hit the road, living in a mobile home and serving as a mission priest for American Indian communities in Arizona.

In a 2005 interview to mark his 25th anniversary as a bishop, he offered some impressions on his ministry there, and the state of the wider church:
Q: You have been retired for more than 10 years now. Your primary ministry during that time has been with the Yaquis (Native Americans) in Arizona. What are the main aspects of your ministry and your impressions? In what ways has this ministry affected your life?

A: I’m serving as an associate pastor. There’s a freshness about it, even though I’m 83 years old, because I was never an associate pastor except for three months at St. Monica Parish in the Richmond District of San Francisco.

Now as an associate pastor, I don’t have to worry about finances or personnel. I can just do purely essential priestly work — Masses for the Indians, all the sacraments, funerals, days of recollection — all the things the associate pastor does. I enjoy it very much. The Yaquis have about seven churches, but all under one parish. Most of them are just lean-to churches, as they are very poor. I rotate around those seven churches and I work with two Trinitarian priests.

Once in a while I go out to the Papago Indian reservation — about two hours’ drive west of Tucson. Their real name is Tohono O’odham, which means “desert people” in the Papago language. They have a reservation that is 90 miles by 90 miles, and they have about 45 communities, most of which have a church. They are very small communities, so I help them out on occasion too. It’s a full life. I also say Mass daily for some sisters who live near where I have my R.V....

The Yaquis have rituals — deer dancing and other things — that are laced with Latin prayers; they are Roman Catholic to the core — about 85 percent Catholic among the population. And we’ve learned such things as rope dancing at the offertory, a Yaqui doing smoke blessings in the four directions instead of the penitential rite. Circles are big to them. They go to confession by writing their sins on slips of paper, which the priest reads silently. Then he gives them individual absolution. It’s amazing that, out of a church of 200 people, about 150 will go to confession. I’ve told priests who are not on an Indian reservation that they might consider doing this....

Q: You’ve said before that the spiritual life is a lifelong journey for everyone. Can you elaborate on this?

A: I’m now finding this so true as I get into my 80s. If I could only shortcut the spiritual journey of others, especially the young, to say, “Please do this and your life will be so much happier and you won’t have regrets.” But I think we all have to learn it from experience. It is a journey...a hierarchy of spiritual values that often comes with age.

The breviary I used to find more of a burden — it’s called the Divine Office and “officium” means burden — and now I get something out of it reading it. I’ll say to myself, “I think this is beautiful.” Even at night when I pick up Robert Ludlum or John Grisham and try to read, if I still have some breviary to say, I think this is good. I’m still enjoying it. That’s how you grow spiritually and to know the meaning of prayer. The Mass means more to me now. I don’t know why it takes so long truly to appreciate what the Mass is. In many ways you realize that things like advancement and position are not important. What is important is keeping your friendships, your prayer life, and simplicity of life.

Q: Have you realized this more because you no longer have the responsibilities you had as bishop?

A: I think that’s probably true. I think I am just as busy, but there’s a pace of life now that allows you to think of these things. And you know you are coming more to the end of your life and you reflect more on what’s important. It is a spiritual journey — journey is a good word for it — because you are learning all the time.

There are times when we may wonder about the institutional church and question it, but all the alternatives don’t quite measure up, and one comes to realize that more.

Q: In an article you wrote for America magazine in April 2003, you said the institutional church today has some real challenges. For instance, many young people do not practice their faith or connect with the church in any way.

A: Many young people see the institutional church as irrelevant, and mostly around sex. It seems that all the problems within the church have something to do with gender or sex — whether it’s extramarital sex, homosexuality, divorce, the ordination of women and so on. Young people feel the pressures of the culture with the Internet and MTV and movies.

I don’t think we should be enemies of the culture and we shouldn’t be enemies of secularism or science — they are all part of God’s way of having created life. We can work with them to find where there is truth. Science needs religion as a moral guide, and we need science to find the physical facts.

With the young, we have a long way to go. If the young see Jesus Christ in us — as the saying goes, “If we build Jesus Christ, they will come.” Some youth may have turned off the institution, but it’s rare to find young people who don’t respect Jesus Christ. He seems to have remained a hero through it all, as do other people, like worldly celebrities, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln.

Q: Perhaps the institutional church needs to look at new ways to talk about Catholic beliefs about sexuality and other issues.

A: We have to go where their minds are. Often we’re preaching, but not to the reality of their lives. And it’s hard for us who are older to do that with the young, but we should do it to all people: with young adults, with the middle-aged, the elderly. Where are their needs? What are they worrying about? What are their lives tied up with? We’re talking about alienation in the family, problems in the workplace, getting enough to make ends meet.

We really have to reach them where they are — we can’t stay in the theoretical world. I don’t think many young people are against the institutional church, they just dismiss it. They aren’t angry at the church — it’s just not part of their world. We have to listen, listen and listen more. We may listen, but we may not really hear what people are saying....

Q: Many who work for the church believe the church’s credibility has been greatly damaged with the public because of the clergy sex abuse scandal. What are your thoughts?

A: I think we have lost credibility. I wish this weren’t the case. I think we have projected the image of the church as only being clergy, hierarchy and religious. And the official leadership can be weak; we are all human.

If the people see the church as Jesus Christ — his person and his teaching — the people won’t lose credibility in that. They can lose credibility in those who are in leadership roles handling the crisis, but that shouldn’t make them depart from Jesus Christ. The credibility will come back, I believe, if it is for the right reasons.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone becoming a bishop today?

A: First of all I would say, be transparent. Let the people see what you are and who you are. You certainly don’t want to be a bishop because of position or prestige, even though that’s a natural thing, but you’ll be very unhappy if you do, because position and prestige do not go a long way.

If you’re going to be a bishop, try to be a bishop for the right reasons — that is, to spread Christ’s word and really live it. Be good, have courage, be wise, be honest.

“Good, guts, wise and true.” I’ve carried these four four-letter words in my wallet for more than 30 years. They are in my wallet. They are not in my character. I suspect they are the pillars on which a bishop (or any person) can live an effective, moral life. It’s easy enough to say the four words, but to do them is another thing.
After pressure from his family, Quinn returned to Sacramento shortly after his 86th birthday in September.

Parting gift to his Arizona flock: his RV.