Junípero Serra, a Saint?

Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin is the pastor emeritus of Mission San Juan Capistrano

One Tuesday, September 22nd, Pope Francis canonized Blessed Junípero Serra as part of his first pastoral visit to our country. Fr. Serra was the founder of the California Mission system of 21 missions established during the 18th century. Serra founded nine of those missions himself. As the former pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano, the seventh mission that Serra founded on November 1, 1776, this moment was the culmination of years of hopeful prayers by many that the great ‘Evangelist of California’ would one day be formally declared a saint of the Catholic Church.

Yet, I would be less than candid if I did not acknowledge the fact that Serra’s canonization was not greeted by all with unalloyed enthusiasm and joy. Elements of the Native American community were greatly disappointed at this decision on the part of the Pope and the Catholic Church to honor Serra with the title of ‘Saint.’ They contend that as part of the colonization enterprise of the Spanish conquistadores, Fr. Serra and the mission system forced an alien faith upon their ancestors, decimated a flourishing indigenous culture, brought disease and death and finally relegated many of the neophytes or newly converted to near slavery condition within the missions where corporal punishment was used when the rules were broken.

While I am not a trained historian but rather an avid student of history, I have over the years endeavored to understand both sides of the arguments both in favor and against canonization. While I would like to say that I am being objective, I am well aware that all of our perceptions can be colored by our own individual histories. I am not a Native American and so the deeply felt perspectives and narratives that strongly object to Serra’s canonization are not my experience. In the end, however, that critique must stand or fall based on the facts of his life and legacy. And, quite frankly, those facts are indeed disputed by reputable historians both in favor and against the sanctity of this historical figure and man of the church.

With that in mind, I offer these personal perspectives on Serra’s life, legacy and holiness.

The Church is canonizing the man, not the colonization enterprise of which he was a part. It is indisputable that the Spanish conquest of the new world failed to respect the inherent dignity of the indigenous people of this land and was the catalyst for cultural genocide. For this reason, the Holy Father asked forgiveness in his most recent visit to Bolivia where there may have been complicity on the part of the Church.

To judge the missionary techniques and methods of Serra, a man of the 18th century by 21st century standards is unfair. There was indeed corporal punishment used with the neophytes who were kept in the safe confines of the mission. This was rooted in a paternalistic attitude exemplified by the Mission fathers who literally referred to these neophytes as ‘my child’ or ‘our children.’ This sequestration was done to protect the Indians from the Spanish soldiers who invariably abused and took advantage of the Indians. Relative to the use of corporal punishment, I have to confess that I was at the receiving end of some (on very rare occasions) in the grammar school I attended.

Historically, Serra was an advocate for leniency on behalf of the Indians in a famous incident that involved an Indian uprising around San Diego Mission with both Spanish soldiers and padres being killed in the uprising. Serra pleaded with officials that those responsible not be given capital punishment, otherwise how would they ever come to understand the God of unfailing mercy and forgiveness.

Sadly, disease was introduced by those involved with the conquest of these lands. Yet, my read of the historical evidence points to the preponderance of deaths occurring after the Serra period.

The systematic victimization of the Indian nations reached its zenith, not during the time of Serra but decades after becoming particularly brutal during the early years of California statehood.

In the recent historical research and new translation of hundreds of Serra’s letters done by the historians Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz in their recent book, Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, it is clear that Serra’s sole motivation in life, the passion to which he left family and fame and the comforts of home, was simply to be a disciple of Christ and to share His good news to the people he was called to both serve and love. He did this, not perfectly, but certainly heroically until his last breath.

Canonization in the Catholic Church is not a formal declaration that one has lived a perfect life. If that were the case, no one would be canonized. Rather, it is the simple recognition that one has striven throughout the whole course of their life to live heroically and demonstrably the foundational Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.

Serra could have remained in his home in Majorca with all the comforts and security that a life in academia would have brought. Yet, in 1749, he left behind family and position forever to share the passion of his heart with the people of the new world. That passion, quite simply, was a love that is beyond all understanding that would be found in the life and teaching of Jesus. In a world and culture so bereft of heroes, fascinated by the narcissist, where convenience so often trumps conviction, Serra, in his own quiet way, stands as a sign of contradiction and shows what true holiness looks like.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Engagement Editor Julie Gallego at jgallego@voiceofoc.org.