PHOENIX, SEPT. 14 -- Pope John Paul II urged Indian leaders to forget his church's past "mistakes and wrongs" and look to its current efforts for Indians' rights. But a spokeswoman for Indian Roman Catholics told him there was still much to be done in his church, and in America.
Addressing a three-day conference of about 1,600 Indian leaders from around the United States, the pope described the initial encounter between Europeans and American natives as a "painful reality" for the natives' descendants.
"The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your life and your traditional societies must be acknowledged," he said, while specifically praising Friar Junipero Serra, the early Franciscan missionary who embodies, for Indians, all the ancient abuses of the church.
"Unfortunately, not all the members of the church lived up to their Christian responsibilities," he said. "But let us not dwell excessively on mistakes and wrongs, even as we commit ourselves to overcoming their present effects."
It was not the strong response sought by Alfretta M. Antone, of the Pima-Maricopa tribe's Salt River Reservation, in her welcoming remarks. She had asked the pope to intercede on behalf of the Indians' threatened lands and culture. She also urged that the church open its doors to more Indian clerics and the greater use of Indian languages and culture in its sacramental life.
"Today, little remains of the gifts and richness which our Creator shared with us, the original peoples of these lands," Antone said. "We ask you to intervene with all people of good will to preserve our homelands for our families, our children and the generations to follow us."
The unfortunate past to which the pope referred involved the zealotry of many Roman Catholic priests who accompanied the Spanish conquistadors colonizing the West in the 17th and 18th centuries, proselytizing among the Indians they encountered and, often, killing those who would not convert.
"The church still has much to answer for to us," said Sacheen Little Feather, an Apache delegate to the Indian conference here. "It is a matter of the church's cultural genocide against the Indians that must still be addressed by the missions."
To the Indians, the chief representative of that dark era of Spanish-Catholic colonization is Serra, a Spaniard who helped found the Catholic missions of California. Catholic history records him as a staunch defender of the Indians, whom he worked zealously to convert. Indian history remembers him for the deaths of Indians who resisted his efforts.
Pope John Paul II had been expected to honor Friar Serra's missionary labors in the 18th century by beatifying him, a church step toward proclaiming him a saint. But the protests of native Americans forced the pope to reconsider.
Nonetheless, in his address today, the pope praised Serra, a church martyr known as the "Apostle of the Californias" for his evangelizing mission.
Jeannette Henry Costo of the Eastern Cherokee Tribe and spokeswoman for the Indian Conference said: "I'm sorry. I'm terribly sorry he said that. I think it's disgusting. We have presented evidence here that Serra committed atrocities at his California missions against Indian peoples. The pope talked about perpetuating our language, but praised a man who tried to destroy it."
The conference here was named for Kateri Tekakwitha, a young 17th-century Mohawk woman who was beatified in 1980. Native Americans had hoped the pope might canonize her during this visit, but the Vatican has said the review is not complete.
Tekakwitha was baptized in 1676, and her vow to remain a virgin inspired so much contempt among her tribe that she fled, preaching among other tribes. She died of smallpox at the age of 24, and legend has it that her scars vanished the moment she died.
The pope's visit to Phoenix marked the midpoint of his 10-day U.S. tour, which will include Los Angeles, Monterey, Calif., San Francisco and Detroit before he travels to Canada. In this city that has grown tenfold in the last 40 years to 900,000 residents, the pope advanced one of his favorite themes: the need to balance progress and development with what he called "a transcendent humanism."
His view of the United States, revealed at every stop on his second American visit, is that residents tend to be self-centered and materialistic. Phoenix's "amazing growth," he said in a speech at Saint Mary's Basilica, brings with it obligations.
Before reaching Phoenix, the pontiff spoke to the Catholics of New Mexico from on high -- about 30,000 feet high. Through an unusual hookup, he addressed them in a radio broadcast as he flew over the state, making special mention of the Indians by saying that New Mexico's "ancient Indian dwellings . . . speak eloquently of the richness of your unique heritage."
But this day also had a decidedly Hispanic flavor. The pope's alarm clock at 5 a.m. in San Antonio was a mariachi band playing outside his window. Before noon in Phoenix, he had heard most of the classic Mexican songs, including the popular new version of "La Bamba," and some beautiful chants. And the crowds along his parade route, from the St. Joseph's Hospital where he visited gravely ill children to St. Mary's Basilica where he spoke to the city, were largely Hispanic.
In the early evening, between student cheers of "John Paul II, we love you," the pope celebrated communion with more than 70,000 people in the Sun Devils Stadium at Arizona State University.
It was the most colorful of events so far, played out under a gorgeous desert sunset amid multicolored banners, bird-of-paradise flowers and young Hispanic dancers.
It was also a ceremony of contrasts. Humorist Erma Bombeck provided a light start with a jibe at the ASU football team: "During football season, this stadium is known as Our Lady of Perpetual Anxiety." Later, John Paul II preached an intensely theological homily on the crucifixion.
Near the end of the mass, the pontiff anointed 25 injured or dying Arizonans with oil, a tradition dating to the early Christian Church. Making a distinction between what he was doing and the faith healing practiced by some Protestant evangelists, John Paul II explained that "this holy anointing does not prevent physical death, nor does it promise a miraculous healing of the body. But it does bring special grace and consolation."
Staff writer Laura Sessions Stepp contributed to this report from Tempe, Ariz.