JUNIPERO SERRA, A MAN OF HIS TIMES

By Paul M. Lewis

The controversy over whether Junípero Serra ought to be made a saint is not particularly new. But it has gained traction of late because of Pope Francis’s declared intention to perform the canonization ceremony while visiting the United States this coming September. In a recent speech delivered in Rome, the pontiff is quoted as noting that Serra “ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California,” and that Father Serra defended “indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers.”

Questions of papal assertion aside, the basic issue really seems to be: Was Serra a saint, or was he a perpetrator of genocide, as he has more than once been accused of? To an extent, the answer depends on whether you believe he ought to be judged by 21st century standards, or solely by those of the 18th century. Most Christians of the time—Catholics in particular—believed it was their duty to spread the gospel and to convert heathens to the “true faith.” Any other belief system was seen not only as inferior to Christianity, but as false, evil, and outright diabolical. Pagans in particular—indigenous peoples—were especially in need of salvation. Those who died while still believing in the tenets of their religions were assured of going to hell for all eternity. Only baptized Catholics had any hope of getting into heaven. In addition, indigenous peoples were seen as children in need of a firm hand to guide them to Christian adulthood, a state in which they would then leave behind their old ways and recognize the superiority of European mores and culture.

In those years, it was a given that missionary work led to the greater good—spiritual, intellectual, cultural, even physical, emotional, and psychological—of those who were evangelized. It was seen as a way of raising people up from ignorance and allowing them to perceive the light.

That this light came at a huge price to indigenous peoples bothered the evangelizers not at all. So little value was placed on their religions, their languages, their whole cultures that Europeans never even considered that something irreplaceable was being lost. And if Indian lives had to be sacrificed in the process, well, those who died merely “went to heaven more quickly,” as the French Jesuit, Honoré Laval, who created a “settlement of God” among the Gambier islanders in the South Pacific a century and a half after Serra came to California, so arrogantly put it.

The question really ought to be, why should Serra not be judged in 21st century terms? After all, he is being held up today for special praise, as someone who should be emulated by those of us living in 2015, and in particular (or so the pope asserted) by Latinos. Why otherwise canonize him at all? And here’s an analogy to consider: Just as lawyers can cross-examine witnesses in a trial on a particular topic, if that topic has previously been brought up by the opposing side, so it seems fair to say that the style and content of missionary work done in the past can now legitimately be examined, since it has been raised by our contemporaries wishing to canonize Father Serra. If he is to be considered a role model for people today, it is also perfectly relevant to know how exactly he conducted himself in his life, so as to understand what about that life people should emulate. Seen from this point of view, however, Junípero Serra’s life appears to be less worthy of imitation.

Many modern Indians hold him up as a prime example of oppression (if not of genocide), and as someone who disrespected and denigrated their ancestral cultures. He’s seen as a perpetrator of acts of overwhelming arrogance, puffed-up pride, and conceit. Many even believe that most Amerindians would not have readily converted to Christianity, if it were not forced upon them by a hostile aggressor who came at them with far greater military and technological prowess. The image of peaceful Indians living in the shadow of the majestic California mission buildings, happily tilling the fields, or sitting and listening to benevolent brown-robed friars preaching to them about the Christ child is not just a fantasy, it amounts to a deliberate reimagining of history. There is little doubt that Indian labor was not offered freely, but extorted from them by force. It may be true, as some historians (and popes) claim, that Serra did protect Indian peoples from even worse treatment at the hands of colonial overlords. But the fact remains that the Catholic Church condoned and encouraged the expansion of European power in the New World (new to whom?), and that missionaries like Serra benefited from the military protection of these occupiers, who imposed their own will upon subjected native peoples.

The invasion of the Americas by Europeans was devastating and utterly catastrophic to the cultures, the religions, indeed, to the very lives of those people already living on this continent. Never mind that they had been here for a minimum of ten thousand years, that they had built very successful societies of their own, and that they were quite happy without the “guiding hand” of European paternalism. All this meant nothing to the invaders. Neither is anyone saying that the Indians of the time were perfect. They warred against each other, and sometimes they killed one another, just as every other human population did in any other part of the world. Some anthropologists even believe that ancestral Amerindians may have been responsible for the killing off of whole species of animals, such as mastodons, saber toothed tigers, and short-faced bears. In other words, they were full-fledged human beings, with all of the wonders and all of the flaws each of us has.

What they were not, however, were children in need of guidance, heathens who had to be saved, or sub-humans who had to be shown how to become civilized people. The pope has the right to do as he wishes. He can make as many saints as he likes, and people can celebrate them if they want to. But Junípero Serra was a man of his times, and those times have changed—I am glad to say, for the better. He is now dead and buried, along with the values of the era he so well represented. We are no longer in need of sainted role models from bygone days when one race, one religion, forced its way, lording it over another. If Francis wants to give us a saint to model our lives on, why not instead find one who resonates better with the needs and the understanding of the time we live in? Someone, at very least, who can be seen as respecting, honoring, and celebrating the good, the positive, and the human in all of us?

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