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Statue of Junípero Serra and Juaneño in the St. Francis of Assisi plaza in Havana. Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket/Getty Images

An unsuitable saint

The recent canonization of an 18th-century Spanish colonizer has incensed Indigenous North Americans. What was Pope Francis thinking?

By Donald Grayston


Last September, at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States, Pope Francis canonized 18th-century Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, declaring him a saint.

Four days later, vandals desecrated Serra’s grave at the Franciscan mission in Carmel, Calif. Paint was scattered everywhere, statues toppled, and angry slogans written on walls and sidewalks, one of them “Saint of Genocide.”

“For many Native Americans . . . his canonization makes an old wound bleed again,” writes CNN journalist Michael Martinez. Back in 1988, when Pope John Paul II beatified Serra, the step just prior to canonization, the National Congress of American Indians protested. Serra, they claimed, was no saint but a tool of cruel Spanish colonial policy, a destroyer of Indigenous culture and a religious fanatic. It seemed to the protesters at the time that their concerns had been heard, because plans for Serra’s canonization were shelved. So it was an unhappy shock for them to learn, in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States last September, that he planned to canonize Serra during that visit. “We’re stunned and we’re in disbelief,” Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in California, told CNN on canonization day.

Let it be said: I’m a Francis fan. Like millions of other non-Roman Catholics, I admire the current Pope for his concern for climate change and the abolition of nuclear weapons, and for the many gestures of compassion and inclusion that have marked his pontificate. But Serra’s canonization cuts across my admiration. It was one of the only stumbles in an otherwise wildly successful trip to the United States. How could Francis make such a misstep? Was the canonization a sign that he prioritizes evangelism over compassion, as some have suggested? Or was he just badly advised by his U.S. preparation team?

Who, then, was Serra, and what is his story? He was born in 1713 on the Spanish island of Majorca. At age 17, he became a Franciscan friar and was ordained seven years later. Intellectually brilliant, he became a professor of theology and philosophy. But attracted since childhood by stories of the exploits of Catholic missionaries, he asked his order to send him to Mexico, then a dependency of the Spanish crown.

Arriving in Mexico in 1749, he worked there for almost two decades before being sent to California, where he established a famous chain of missions between San Diego and San Francisco. For this, he is recognized as the founder of Catholicism in California. He is likewise considered one of the founders of the United States and credited with bringing European civilization to the West Coast, including the introduction of agricultural methods that later gave rise to enormous food production in California. Also to his credit are many instances where he protected Native Americans from the brutality of the Spanish colonial soldiers. After 35 years of intense missionary activity, he died in 1784 and is buried at Carmel — where his grave was desecrated.

As for his character, it’s not one that is attractive to the contemporary mind. Under his friar’s habit, Serra wore a coat interwoven with broken pieces of wire. In his cell, he kept a chain of sharp iron links with which he whipped himself at bedtime. Sometimes, while preaching on hell and damnation, he would whip himself in the pulpit with a chain or smash a large stone against his chest.

Through disease, brutal treatment and starvation, the missions were responsible for the deaths of 62,000 Indigenous Californians between 1769 and 1833.

His belief in the mortification of the flesh as a path to sanctity may explain, in part, his cruel treatment of his Indigenous converts. If the Native Americans ran away from the missions and were caught, the Spanish soldiers tied them to posts in the mission plaza and whipped them. (The whipping posts are still there.) Converts were even whipped when they asked for more food or wept over the deaths of loved ones. According to Elias Castillo, author of A Cross of Thorns, through disease, brutal treatment and starvation, the missions were responsible for the deaths of 62,000 Indigenous Californians between 1769 and 1833, when the new Mexican government put an end to the Franciscan settlements.

The friars regarded Native Americans as children and themselves as parents, entitled to discipline their charges. This viewpoint is made uncomfortably visible at a Franciscan church in Havana, where there is a statue of Serra with a naked Indigenous child, an image that to the contemporary eye evokes the sexual abuse scandals of recent times, although there is no suggestion that Serra was guilty of this. Brutal as it was, the Franciscans’ treatment of their charges was not very different from that of many other settler-colonial administrations — including the cruelty inflicted on children at Canada’s Indian residential schools. Serra’s defenders, many of them Hispanic Catholics, say that to judge his behaviour by our standards is to commit the error of “presentism,” unfairly expecting him to have the same perspectives on human rights that we do. Most Christians in that era thought that unless a person was baptized, he or she went to hell. So the desire to evangelize and baptize was intense.

Even if one accepts the “presentism” argument, why did Pope Francis decide Serra was worthy of sainthood? It’s not as if the Pope is unaware of the cruelties of colonial times. When he visited Bolivia last July, he apologized for the church’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and asked “that the church kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.”

More likely it’s that he saw the canonization as a way of honouring the wishes of the largely Catholic Latino population of the United States, who in 2012 formed 17 percent of the population, 14 million of them in California alone. Much, too, was made of the fact that the canonization, conducted almost entirely in Spanish, was the first to take place on U.S. soil. The canonization of a missionary with a high conversion rate also fits with the Pope’s emphasis on a new wave of evangelization to counter the flood of those leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Libby Comeaux, a sister of the Loretto Community, told the Christian Century magazine that although Pope Francis has inspired many progressive Catholics, he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to evangelization. The case for Serra’s canonization was largely based, she suggested, on prioritizing evangelization over human kindness and compassion.

After the Second Vatican Council, a number of questionable names — some mythical (such as St. George, of dragon fame), others unappealing to the modern mind — were quietly dropped from the calendar of saints. But it’s unlikely Serra will be de-canonized.

There is, however, something that the Pope could do to compensate, to some extent, for the flak he has received from Native Americans over Serra’s canonization. He could repudiate the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery, which divided the New World between the Portuguese and the Spanish, on the grounds that their Indigenous inhabitants, not being Christian, had no rights of possession. Indigenous groups are asking Francis to cancel the doctrine, and all it would take is his signature on a piece of paper. The United Church of Canada repudiated it in 2012, joining several other mainline Protestant denominations. So far, Francis has not indicated any intention of doing the same. 

In the meantime, Native American groups are vowing to keep up their campaign against the new saint. “We will never accept Junípero Serra’s canonization,” Valentin Lopez told NBC. “We will continue the fight to have the canonization rescinded. One day, the Catholic Church will realize it made a mistake.”

Donald Grayston is a retired university professor and Anglican priest in Vancouver.




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