Pope to Canonize Franciscan Missionary Junipero Serra Despite Controversy

Native Americans decry the decision to honor a missionary they accuse of brutality

To Pope Francis, the 18th-century priest Junipero Serra was one of the United States’ founding fathers, a missionary who brought the Gospel to the New World.

To Valentin Lopez, the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians, Serra was the architect of a brutal mission system that enslaved and terrorized Lopez’s ancestors in California.

Now, even as the fierce controversy over Serra continues unabated, one of Francis’ first acts during his visit to the United States will be to name the Franciscan friar from Spain a saint.

“We’re disappointed but we’re not surprised,” said Lopez, who plans to cut his hair as a sign of mourning. “The church has ignored indigenous people for over 500 years.”

Serra will be canonized at a Mass to be celebrated on Wednesday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Vice President Biden is expected to attend.

Francis has praised Serra’s willingness to leave his native Spain for hardships in the New World, asking in a homily in May, “I wonder if today we are able to respond with the same generosity and courage to the call of God.”

The pope said that Serra defended Native Americans against abuses by colonizers and that his writings showed respect for indigenous people and their ways.

Teresa Berger, a professor of Catholic theology at Yale University’s Divinity School said that a number of factors could have drawn Francis’ attention to Serra, among them Francis’ knowledge of the missionary work in the Americas and his devotion to St. Francis.

“There are some things that one can praise in Junipero Serra,” she said. “And those are the things that I think Pope Francis has in his mind. And there are also things that are deeply troubling. And that of course is what particularly Native American communities have in mind because they still suffer the consequences of that.”

Francis has been accused of hypocrisy for planning to canonize Serra after apologizing in June during a tour of South America for the “grave sins of colonialism,” a charge leveled by some Native Americans.

Berger disagreed.

“No, they are just seeing different parts of a complicated legacy,” she said.

Harvard Divinity School Professor Francis X. Clooney said that any choice for sainthood would likely be criticized.

“Rarely, in modern times, do you find historical figures about whom there would not be some controversy,” he said. “Even recently with Pope John Paul II — many people were delighted that he was made a saint, but many people had problems with his papacy and questions about it and wished he hadn’t been made a saint.”

Lopez and other Native American leaders said that ceremony would signal that the Roman Catholic Church still treated Native Americans as pagans and savages. Little has changed since official papal documents or bulls of the 15th century considered indigenous people to be pagans, savages and heathens, he said.

In defending the beating of Native Americans, Serra wrote in 1780: "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."

Lopez wrote this month in a letter to Francis that Indians were never told that once baptized they were be confined involuntarily at the missions and forced to labor for clergy and soldiers. They were captured violently, enslaved, tortured and raped; their unhealthy diet and squalid living quarters resulted in the deaths of an estimated 150,000 California Indians at the missions.

“How the Catholic Church and you, Holy Father, can consider Serra’s actions to be holy, sacred or saintly is incomprehensible to our Tribe,” he wrote.

The first saint to be canonized in the United States, Miguel Jose Serra was born in 1713 on the island of Majorca off the coast of Spain. He was influenced at an early age by St. Francis, and when he decided to enter the priesthood choose the name Junipero after one of St. Francis' companions.

Serra set sail from Majorca in 1749 and after almost two months at sea, he and other missionaries arrived in Puerto Rico. He traveled on to Veracruz, Mexico, walked 250 miles to Mexico City and eventually made his way to San Diego.

He founded nine missions in California before dying in Carmel in 1784. He is buried under the sanctuary floor of the mission church, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo.

In California, many streets, highways, trails, schools and monuments bear his name. His statue is one of two representing California in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall along with one of former president and California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Its presence has come under debate as well. Some Californians want to replace him with astronaut Sally Ride, a proposal postponed until after the pope's visit.

Clooney said that the process to sainthood was typically a long one with multiple stages. A religious figure is usually identified by a local church, and when support grows, messages begin to be relayed to the Vatican.

“You don’t go from nothing to being a saint,” Clooney said. “What it’s supposed to be is that the pope and his advisors in Rome are recognizing a groundswell of the local church.”

Because the path to sainthood is complicated, Clooney said that the decision to canonize Serra probably preceded Francis’s papacy.

“The pope didn’t decide ‘Oh I have a trip coming up to the United States – who can we canonize while I’m there?’” said Clooney. “He probably was not the instigator of this in the first place, but allowed the process to be completed.”

But Berger said she thought it was Francis’ decision to move forward with the canonization during this trip. Serra was made “blessed” — the stage before sainthood — in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, and could have remained at that stage indefinitely.

The Vatican has recognized only one miracle performed by Serra, another controversial decision: A nun in St. Louis was cured of lupus after praying to him.

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