Last week’s post examined papal apologies from Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis. Today’s post focuses on Pope Francis’ apology to Mexico for the atrocities during the Spanish colonial reign, an apology which drew criticism from Spain. The Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519 and conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521. From then, Mexico became a Spanish colony till independence in 1821. Mexico was called New Spain throughout the period.
The year 2021 was the bicentenary anniversary of Mexican independence from Spain. In a letter dated 2 October 2020 and addressed to Pope Francis, the Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, appealed for a public apology from the Catholic Church for the atrocities committed against the indigenous population after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521.
In his letter dated 16 September 2021 to mark the bicentenary of the independence of Mexico and addressed to the president of the Episcopal Conference of Mexico, Pope Francis wrote:
“In order to strengthen our roots, it is necessary to reread the past, taking into account both the lights and shadows that have forged the country’s history. This look back necessarily includes a process of purifying memory, that is, to recognise the very painful errors committed in the past…For this reason, on various occasions, both my predecessors and I have asked forgiveness for personal and social sins, for all the actions or omissions that did not contribute to evangelisation…In that same perspective, neither can we ignore the actions that, in more recent times, were committed against the Christian religious sentiment of a great part of the Mexican people, causing profound suffering…But we do not evoke the pains of the past to stay there, but to learn from them and to continue taking steps to heal the wounds, to cultivate an open and respectful dialogue that respects differences, and to build a much-desired fraternity, prioritising the common good over particular interests, tensions, and conflicts.”
The Mexican president had also made a similar request for an apology to the Spanish King in March 2019, but the Spanish government refused the petition outrightly.
After Pope Francis’ apology, a Spanish far-right politician, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, criticised the move. In her words,
“I’m surprised that a Catholic who speaks Spanish should talk that way about a legacy such as ours, which actually took Spanish – and through the [religious] missions – Catholicism, and therefore civilisation and freedom, to the American continent. It’s just surprising. There’s not much more I can say.”
In the wake of the controversy, the Spanish Episcopal Conference was perplexed by the situation. In the words of the Secretary General of the Conference, Bishop Luis Argüello,
“We have witnessed comments that we think have been made [in response to] a headline, without reading the document. It is not a long document. It is one page. It is addressed to the Church of Mexico, because it celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence. Outside that context the document is not understood.”
In another development following some of the papal apologies, it is important to note that the Native Americans challenge the legacy of an 18th Century Spanish Priest of the Franciscan Order, Junipero Serra, who set up missions across the then New Spain, present-day California in the United States and Mexico. Pope Francis canonised him on 23 September 2015 during his visit to the United States. Critics accuse him of the forceful conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism and subsequent abuse of converts. The Vatican denies these accusations and insists that Saint Junipero defended the rights of Native Americans from colonial abuses.
In the wake of the murder of George Flyod, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the canonisation of St Junipero, protesters in the United States have defaced and vandalised several statues and monuments of Saint Junipero. The government has also removed some. The government and some academic institutions have officially renamed roads or academic centres commemorating or celebrating Saint Junipero to respect the sensibilities of Native Americans.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
 S. Jones & A. Giuffrida, “Madrid leader takes issue with pope’s apology for ‘painful errors’ in Mexico”, The Guardian, 29 September 2021, available at URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/29/madrid-leader-takes-issue-with-popes-apology-for-painful-errors-in-mexico