Protecting the Pope? Fear Makes for Distorted Vision

Updated November 15. 2012

In good faith and with a permit from the Vatican in hand, the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers set up a prayer altar in St. Peter’s Square last week. Along with sacred symbols from the traditions of each of the grandmothers were two crosses, since some of the grandmothers are Catholic.

From my point of view, St. Peter’s was blessed with the presence of these elders. I cannot imagine a more hopeful model than that engendered by such a prayer gathering: perhaps it might even inspire others to work for social and environmental justice, as the grandmothers themselves do tirelessly.

I have stood by Grandmother Aggie, eighty six year old chair of this group, as she prayed. I know her humility-and her strength, both of which are grounded in her love for all the Creator’s work on this earth, of which humans are only one part. I can imagine the other grandmothers with their heads bent in reverence. As one who was raised Catholic, I want to thank them for bringing their devotion to the spiritual center of the Church.

But this was not the response of the Vatican police. As soon as the grandmothers began setting up, the police scurried out, claiming the women were conducting “anti-Catholic” demonstrations, and ordering them away. This leads me to wonder what kind of Catholicism they themselves held if it runs contrary to the work of these women for global justice.

I don’t think the police thought much about it. They were obviously acting out of impulse and fear. I imagine they assumed they were protecting something, but who or what that something was remains unclear. It was not the pope, who took an unplanned vacation after the grandmothers sent him notice they would be appearing at his scheduled public audience for that day to request he rescind the papal bull that “gave” indigenous lands and peoples to Christians in the fifteenth century–and was subsequently used as a license for genocide and slavery.

“He didn’t do it”, Grandmother Aggie is fond of saying. Therefore, she reasons, it wouldn’t hurt him to rescind this action–and it would do a lot of good.

Certainly, the pope might well entertain a plea to separate the Church from this shameful history. He might express the same kind of courage as did the Archdiocese of Seattle, which recently issued a public apology to the indigenous peoples of the Northwest for the harm missionary activity had brought to them and their lands.

Last week, however, the police continued to insist the grandmothers leave. But the grandmothers continued to stand their ground. Finally the police brought a law official to arbitrate: the latter listened to the grandmother’s songs and pronounced them non-threatening. This official not only okayed their permit, but invited the grandmothers into St. Peter’s Basilica to pray–and to rest, which Grandma Aggie, who is wheelchair bound, must certainly have needed at that point.

What is it about a particular kind of fervor (I would rather not call it “religious”) that caused the Vatican police to act with such hostility toward these gentle women who represent the best of the world’s spiritual traditions? Why did they not receive the grandmothers with open arms and gratitude for making their long journey from the ends of the earth–and honoring the Catholic Church with a dialogue about its integrity?

I myself believe that if the heart of God is large enough to include us all, that is a challenge for us humans to enlarge our own hearts in response. Fear, exclusion, and injustice does not protect anyone’s faith.

Here is a story about the experience of the Grandmothers at the Vatican published in Indian Country Today.

I can only imagine how differently Pope John Paul II might have received the Grandmothers in 1990- the year he wrote his encyclical “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation” which emphasized the necessity of a “new solidarity” among all earth’s peoples  and contained these words on ecology:

“An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others, and for the earth..
The fruits of the earth are for the benefit of all. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness– both individual and collective– are contrary to the order of creation, which is characterized by mutual interdependence.
Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress. Each State should actively endeavour within its own territory to prevent destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere, by carefully monitoring, among other things, the impact of new technological or scientific advances. The State also has the responsibility of ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes. The right to a safe environment is ever more insistently presented today as a right that must be included in an updated Charter of Human Rights.
Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power. Even cities can have a beauty all their own, one that ought to motivate people to care for their surroundings. Good urban planning is an important part of environmental protection, and respect for the the natural contours of the land is an indispensable prerequisite for sound development.”