A Bittersweet Canonization: Junipero Serra and His Mixed Legacy

Kids growing up in California spend their 4th grade history classes learning about the history of their state—from its inception as a Spanish colony to the Bear Flag Revolt to becoming the modern-day 8th largest economy in the world. A major part of the curriculum is devoted to the Spanish Mission system—a system of 21 religious and military outposts that stretch from San Diego up to Sonoma (just north of San Francisco) started by the “Columbus of California,” Blessed Junipero Serra. Pope Francis has recently announced that the Franciscan Father Serra will be canonized in September 2015 during the Holy Father’s trip to Washington DC.

In announcing his decision, Pope Francis described Father Serra as a man with saintly virtues, who exemplified piety and perseverance in his determination to evangelize the Native Americans who inhabited California. The PBS series The West describes Father Serra’s devotion in the following way: “His Herculean efforts subjected him to near-starvation, afflictions of scurvy, and hundreds of miles of walking and horse riding through dangerous terrain. Moreover, he was notorious for his mortifications of the flesh: wearing heavy shirts with sharp wires pointed inward, whipping himself to the point of bleeding, and using a candle to scar the flesh of his chest. His sacrifices bore fruit for the missionaries; by his death in 1784, the nine missions he had founded had a nominally converted Indian population of nearly 5,000.”

Pope Francis proclaimed Serra to be “the evangelizer of the West in the United States.” Reactions from California have been sharply divided between those who support the Pope’s decision to canonize Father Serra and those who see the canonization as a serious error.

Gregory Orfalea, a biographer of Serra, called the Franciscan missionary an example that Pope Francis wants to put forward for others to follow—he was a former academic who left his lofty ivory tower for the dangerous life of missionary work. Orfalea also claims that Serra modeled his behavior on the gospel of love: Serra was never motivated to go to the “new world” for wealth or glory; rather, he went for God.

Steven Hackel, Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside and a biographer of Serra, thinks of Serra as one of the “founding fathers” of the United States due to his contributions to the State of California. He explains, “Every region had its missionaries who were founding fathers of another sort.”

While Serra has his enthusiastic defenders, there are those that have strongly voiced opposition to Pope Francis’ decision. “Serra was no saint to us,” bluntly stated Ron Andrade, director of Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission. Andrade notes that from the start of the Mission system, which Serra started, to the end of the Mexican rule of California, over 90% of the Native population was lost.

How involved Serra was in the widespread mistreatment and loss of life of Native Americans and the destruction of their cultures and customs is hotly debated. Ruben Mendoza, coordinator of California mission archaeology at California State University, Monterey Bay, argues that Serra fought against Spanish authorities who pushed for the enslavement of Native Americans and defended them against mass killings. However, ample evidence points to his complicity in a deeply unjust system.

By law, all baptized Native Americans were segregated from the unbaptized and put under the absolute authority of the Franciscans in the missions. Missionaries used the military to “recruit” Native Americans at gunpoint for conversion. They were whipped, chained, and imprisoned for showing any disobedience towards the missionaries. Father Serra justified the beatings of the Native Americans, writing “that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of [the Americas]; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.”

If these “converts” fled the compound, they were hunted down. A Native American who converted and ended up in the mission could expect to live only another ten or so years. As one Franciscan noted, the Indians “live well free but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken, and die.”

Despite the harsh criticisms, Thomas Rausch, Professor of Theology at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles, warns against judging Father Serra with our 21st century values—we have to view him as an 18th century missionary whose work was spreading the Gospel. Nevertheless, it is difficult to overlook the role the mission system (and Father Junipero Serra) played in the destructive European treatment of native peoples. Should he, and by extension the system he created, be celebrated with sainthood? Pope Francis thinks so; as for me (a native Californian and a Catholic), the best way to describe this decision is “bittersweet.”