WASHINGTON — Plans drawn up by the nation's Catholic bishops to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus are causing distress among black, Native American and Hispanic church leaders who say the occasion should be, if anything, a time of repentance.
The bishops recently unveiled a plan to observe the the fifth centennial of the coming of Christianity to the New World, beginning with Columbus' voyage in 1492. The bishops also released a draft of a pastoral letter declaring the anniversary as a time to renew the work of evangelization.
But some bishops are warning the celebration will alienate those for whom the arrival of the sword and the cross meant the innauguration of a history of repression and colonial domination.
"It's not something to celebrate. It's something to remember as other sad events in history are remembered," Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., said in an interview.
The dispute remained just below the surface at the bishops' recent fall meeting, as some bishops argued in private about the observance. "It's too delicate a situation. I can't talk about it," said Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup, N.M., a Native American and member of the committee planning the observance. He has argued against making it into a celebration.
These and other bishops said any observance of the anniversary must face up to the negative aspects of the arrival of European Christianity.
"While some evangelization did take place, the overall picture was that of conquerors who came to dominate and even to undo whole cultures and nations of people," said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph A. Francis of Newark, N.J., a leading black church spokesman. "There is no reason to celebrate this epoch in history."
Francis said he agreed with those who believe that the fifth centennial "is a time to repent. But it is also a time to commit ourselves to a better future."
Celebration, however, is what the hierarchy apparently has in mind. The draft of the pastoral letter is titled, "Sounding the Jubilee Horn: Celebrating Five-Hundred Years of the Good News of Jesus in the New World."
For the most part, the tone of the document is festive. "The year 1992 marks the half-millennium of the voyage of a bold, adventurous seaman through whom, by divine providence, the continents of Europe and America met," it says. "After 1,500 years the Good News reached a people who had never heard of Jesus Christ."
The document adds that along with the Spanish explorers and settlers came missionaries who, beginning with the first mission in Hispaniola, taught the Indian tribes new methods of agriculture, as well as how to read and write.
At the same time, the 4,300-word draft has four paragraphs on what it terms the "shadows," acknowledging the "inhuman treatment of the native peoples that occurred at the hands of European Christians ... the usurpation of native peoples' land, their virtual enslavement and at times outright extermination."
Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami, chairman of the anniversary committee, said the bishops "recognize the failings" of those who settled this hemisphere. He said the church will celebrate not the original settlers but the inauguration of the Gospel in the New World.
"We're trying to depart somewhat from getting into that issue of whether or not the original explorers mistreated the people," he said.
But opponents said any celebration of the anniversary may send out the wrong message.
"If it's presented as a celebration, it will definitely alienate some of the people we are trying to bring into the church, especially the Native Americans," said Bishop Ramirez, a member of the committee that oversees Catholic missions in this country.