When Pope Francis unexpectedly announced last month that he would canonize the Rev. Junipero Serra during Francis’ visit to the U.S. in September, he thrilled the many fans of the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who spread the Catholic faith across what is now California.
But the pontiff who has decried the “ideological colonization” of the developing world by the secular West is now facing criticism from those who say Serra — called “the Columbus of California” — abused Native Americans and pressured them to convert, aiding in the devastation of the indigenous culture on behalf of the Spanish crown.
“Serra was no saint to us,” Ron Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, told the Los Angeles Times.
Some of Serra’s sharpest critics note the imperial conquest enslaved Native Americans, brutalized them and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon traditional language, diet, dress and other customs and rites.
Add in the Old World diseases, and original indigenous population of perhaps 300,000 was decimated by as much as 90 percent. Of the 80,000 Native Americans baptized by the end of the mission era in the 1830s, according to the Los Angeles Times, some 60,000 had died, including 25,000 children less than 10 years old.
“If he is elevated to sainthood,” Nicole Lim, the executive director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa, told The New York Times, “then he should be held responsible for the brutal and deadly treatment of native people.”
Serra’s defenders argue that it’s not fair to judge this 18th-century missionary by 21st-century standards. They argue that he was a moderating influence on his fellow Spaniards, and frequently pleaded for more merciful treatment for the Native Americans under their control.
“He lived in a very difficult time, and he did the best he could under very difficult circumstances,” the Rev. Edward Benioff, who oversees evangelism for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the local NBC affiliate.
For Francis, who once again dispensed with the usual protocols of Vatican saint-making and stunned even Serra’s official advocates with the canonization announcement, the main reason for honoring the Spaniard seems to be that he underscores what Francis says should be the church’s missionary focus.
But Serra was a missionary of a different era. Born on the Spanish island of Majorca in 1713, he joined the Franciscans at 16 and quickly gained a reputation for his preaching and theological expertise.
He arrived in Mexico City in 1750 to fulfill his dream of being a missionary, and in 1769 he established his first mission at San Diego as head of a group of Franciscans tasked with evangelizing California, then part of New Spain.
He would go on to help found another eight missions up the coast through the San Francisco Bay Area, a network that would eventually grow to 21 missions all together.
While Serra’s priests segregated the converted Indians from their brethren, punished them for lapses (although Serra was benevolent when the natives burned the San Diego mission) and made a profit off their agricultural labor, he also tried to protect them from the Spanish governors. His writings also lamented the commonplace beatings of Indians.
Despite ill health, Serra worked tirelessly to make the mission system self-sufficient. He eventually succumbed to his ailments and died in 1784, at the age of 70, near Monterey.
How far this controversy will resonate during Francis’ U.S. visit is unclear.
The pope remains enormously popular among American Catholics and the wider public. And Francis said that as much as he would have liked to go to California to canonize Serra, he will have to keep his itinerary to the East Coast cities of Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.
That means he will canonize Serra at a Mass in the nation’s capital, far from the West Coast epicenter of the controversy, and near the U.S. Capitol building, where a statue of Serra is one of two California monuments to state heroes.
Francis called Serra “a great evangelizer” and as he has done several other times, the pope cleared the way for declaring Serra a saint by waiving the usual requirement of a second confirmed miracle.
Between now and the pope’s arrival in September, the arguments surrounding Serra’s legacy are also likely to get a wide airing, and maybe a greater consensus.
Serra “was uncompromising,” Steven Hackel, a history professor at University of California, Riverside and author of a biography of Serra, told Catholic News Service. But Hackel said that working through the controversies “will be a good thing.”
“It can lead to reconciliation and mutual understanding,” he said.