On September 23, 2015, Native American representatives comprised of descendants from each of the nine original missions founded by St. Junípero Serra, met with Pope Francis in Washington, D.C. Taking place after the canonization Mass honoring Serra, the meeting was organized to help promote continued healing and reconciliation with the Native American communities. Inside a corridor in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the representatives and a guest were each able to meet with the Pope briefly, exchange a few words and present him with a gift.
The meeting was requested by the California Bishops. They invited a representative that had ancestral ties to the mission and the Franciscan Province of Santa Barbara covered the expenses for the representatives.
Andrew Galvan, a representative from Mission Dolores in San Francisco and member of the Ohlone Tribe, was ecstatic to be part of the canonization Mass and to meet with the Holy Father. “It was our birthright to be there. California mission Indians needed to be there,” Galvan said.
Although the visit with Pope Francis wasn’t long, Galvan said, “The meeting was important even if it was private or brief so the Pope can meet with descendants of where the cross was planted at the missions in California.”
A representative from Mission San Antonio de Padua, who wanted to keep her identity private, said she can’t put into words the way she felt when she met Pope Francis, but that his pure energy and message of love shone through. “His touch was like a thousand hugs embracing me,” she said.
Because many in her community, particularly the younger members, fester in their anger over the treatment of their ancestors at the mission, the representative brought her twenty-year-old daughter on the trip to meet Pope Francis. She feels it is important that the younger generation learn to heal, and meeting with the Pope was a beginning. “We can’t change the past, but we can change the future,” she said.
She and her daughter presented the Holy Father with a book about their ancestors, detailing their lives and experiences at the mission. A prayer feather and a personal letter to Pope Francis were also included in the gifts. While giving the Pope these items, she felt her ancestors were with her and that she was doing the right thing by meeting with him. “I hope I never lose the feeling I had when I met the Pope,” she said. The goal of the meeting with the Pope, for her, was to bring closure and healing. “I felt it was an honor for me and my ancestors to be remembered,” she said.
The decision to meet with Pope Francis after the canonization of Serra was not an easy one for some Native American representatives. The representative from Mission San Antonio de Padua said few people knew she was going to the canonization Mass and to meet with the Holy Father. “It was a difficult decision because of all the opposition, but I’m a Catholic,” she said. “You can’t hold the Pope responsible for things that happened to our ancestors.”
Father Jim Nieblas, the representative from Mission San Juan Capistrano, is a Salesian priest who also works at St. John Bosco High school in Bellflower. He knew the influences that the Salesian order had on Pope Francis. He gave him a scarf from the school and also musical instruments and a book about his tribe, the Juaneño.
Father Jim described a special moment between himself and Pope Francis. “Both of us were taught our faith by our grandmothers, when I told him that in Spanish- he grabbed my hand as a sign or gesture that he understood.”
Redstar Redstar the representative from Mission San Buenaventura sensed, “an air of hope and direction (from the meeting). One cannot meet a man like the Holy Father, without having your life influenced. Whatever the ugliness, we as Native Americans may have suffered, we have a responsibility to end it and heal as Children of God.”