When Pope Francis canonizes 18th century missionary Junípero Serra as a saint Wednesday in Washington, he will give Hispanic-Americans a saint of their own – and put a halo on one of the most controversial figures in California’s Native American history.
The pontiff arrived in Washington on Tuesday afternoon and was greeted at the airport at Joint Base Andrews, Md., by a beaming President Barack Obama and the first family.
In addition to meetings Wednesday with Obama and an unprecedented address Thursday to a joint session of Congress, the pope’s Mass on Wednesday finalizing the sainthood of Serra is a major part of his message to America.
The Vatican is holding Serra up as a founding father of the United States, a protective figure who defended the native tribes from the cruelty of Spanish colonizers.
The Franciscan friar, born in Mallorca, Spain, founded nine missions in what is now California to convert indigenous tribes to Christianity before his death in 1784. But with the Spanish came disease, which decimated the tribes as Native Americans in the missions were forced to give up their ancestral land and culture.
Now their descendants say that declaring the founder of the mission system a saint is an outrage and an insult to their history.
“It is incomprehensible for us to think that you would canonize a person who is ultimately responsible for the death of approximately 100,000 California Indians and the complete extermination of many native tribes, cultures and languages,” Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band, wrote in a letter to Pope Francis asking him to halt the canonization.
Serra’s defenders say he was not responsible for the brutality of the Spanish colonizers.
“Unfortunately you can’t unravel evangelization from colonization in the 18th century, but Serra was doing what he knew how to do and not acting out of malice,” the Rev. Kenneth Laverone, a Sacramento priest who helped lead the cause of Serra’s canonization, said in an interview.
This notion that Serra was a great protector is largely overblown – the biggest threat to Indians in California was not a dangerous soldier but Spanish colonization itself.
Steven Hackel, Serra biographer
California historians point out that Serra’s writings reveal that he saw Indian culture as primitive and the native people in the missions as his spiritual children who could be punished by their spiritual father.
“Even by the standards of the day Serra was more of a religious fanatic, and these missions were basically forced labor camps,” said Tony Platt, a scholar affiliated with the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The canonization is an insult to native people and an insult to all of us in California, because Serra stands symbolically for the worst moments in the origins of this state,” he said.
Beginning with Pope John Paul II’s apology in 1992 for the “pain and suffering” caused by the Roman Catholic Church in the Americas, the Vatican has made an effort in recent years to acknowledge injustices committed against native peoples during the missionary era.
Pope Francis apologized for the injustices committed by the church “in the name of God” against native people in the Americas on his visit to Bolivia in July.
I humbly ask forgiveness not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.
Pope Francis, July 9, 2015
Given these recent moves, some question why the Vatican still insisted on moving forward with Serra’s controversial canonization.
“The passage of time has not made the reality of dominations and genocide of indigenous Californians go away, nor has it made the mastermind of the brutal mission system a saint,” argued Toypurina Carac, spokesman for the Kizh Gabrieleno nation in the Los Angeles area, in an online petition urging the pope to halt Serra’s canonization.
Some see it as a calculated move on the part of the Vatican to engage Hispanic-Americans while also making a larger point about the U.S. immigration debate.
“The real political message behind what the pope is trying to do in canonizing Serra is change the tenor of the immigration debate in this country by recognizing that the founding fathers were not all Protestant Anglo-Americans in 13 colonies,” said Steven Hackel, a Serra biographer who teaches history at the University of California, Riverside.
“The pope and the church believe that if more Americans understood the history of Spanish Catholicism in this country, they would not so easily jump to the conclusion that Mexicans coming across the border are trespassers and a threat to the nation, but rather a continuum in which people from Mexico have come here for centuries,” he said.
Serra founded the first nine of 21 Spanish missions in what is now California, from San Diego to San Francisco.
U.S. Catholic leaders have been using similar language, pointing out that Serra’s canonization gives Hispanic-Americans a figure who will validate their historic roots in the country.
“The canonization holds a rich symbolism and spiritual significance – it is even more powerful and more personal for those of us who are Hispanic and Mexican,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said at a Vatican conference in May.
“He can also in some ways be described as a Mexican immigrant, having lived and worked more than a dozen years in Mexico before coming to California,” he said of Serra.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Ricardo Lara halted a measure he had introduced to remove Serra’s statue from the U.S. Capitol, where it has stood since 1931, out of respect for the pope’s visit. His bill proposed replacing it with a statue of astronaut Sally Ride.
Although Serra will join the ranks of Catholic saints on Wednesday, the controversy is far from over. But both sides agree that the canonization’s spotlight on the issue is leading to some overdue changes.
Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto announced a plan this month to change the way that the American Indian experience at the missions during Serra’s era is taught in Catholic schools.
“The silver lining, even if you don’t agree with the canonization, is that for the first time in many years we are entering into a dialogue with Native Americans to bring some reconciliation,” Laverone said.