Pope Francis, is best known for his compassion for the oppressed, one who believes that discriminating in God’s name is inhuman, and an advocate for victims of war. May 6, the Vatican formerly approved a plan to announce the sainthood of Junipero Serra, who was a Franciscan missionary in the 18th Century. Serra converted Native Americans to Christianity by the thousands in California before he died in 1784.
Serra is esteemed by many Catholics for his devotion. Pope Francis has a plan to make his sainthood official, in an elegant outdoor ceremony, during his papal visit to the United States, in the fall. Pope Francis has expressed an extreme admiration for Serra. He sang his praises in a recent seminary address for his courage and generosity, while he brought in a new time of evangelism in the territories, from Florida to California. Pope Francis believes in that type of enthusiasm.
However, there are those that will argue the impact of Serra’s enthusiasm as positive. There are people who believe Serra caused the exploitation, oppression, deception, enslavement and genocide of Indigenous Californians, which resulted in North America’s largest ethnic cleansing.
Serra is credited with the baptism of 90,000 Native Americans in his lifetime, however, it is his teaching tactics that are in question. George Tinker, a professor at Iliff School of Theology, teaches American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions. Tinker has also written, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Genocide, which describes the ‘almost slave-labor conditions,’ Native Americans were dominated by under the leadership of Serra.
Serra’s lieutenant, as cited in Tinker’s book, claimed that the Franciscan priest would not allow converts the privilege of leaving the Christian compounds, or missions that he watched over. Then Serra would subject his converts to arduous labor on Spanish farms. If anyone attempted to escape, there would be harsh consequences. The army would bring the escapee back to the mission, where the person would then be punished. The missionary was run like a boot camp.
Serra kept unmarried women and girls in close quarters until he found appropriate spouses for them. Native Americans were not given many free choices. In many cases, converting to Christianity was a last ditch effort to stay alive.
In 1988, when the preliminary steps for Serra’s sainthood began, many people rose up and demanded that the Catholic church recognize the role Serra played in the abuse of indigenous people. The Diocese of Monterey promulgated a 90-page report that rejected any accusation that Serra mistreated Native Americans. In the report, one contributor, said there is no evidence that Serra ever enacted any type of punishment. However, it was acknowledged that the document, put together by a public relations specialist, chose not to interview any Native Americans, and Franciscan historians have stated that Serra was upholding the custom of whipping, which was acceptable at that time.
Serra was a member of the Inquisition and at his time, missionaries worldwide were told to treat converts like they were misguided offspring. According to Robert M. Senkewicz, professor and co-author of Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, believes that Serra was more compassionate than other missionaries, and was trying to protect Native Americans from continued exploitation from the Spanish military. In California, political leaders desired Native American laborers as personal servants.
Serra was a large part of the Spanish conquest and colonization of California. He had a humble family and grew up on Mallorca, a Spanish-owned island in the Mediterranean. He went to a Franciscan school where his academic ability got him noticed by his teachers. When he was 15, he went to a prominent Franciscan school in Palma. The following year, Serra became a novice in the Franciscan order, and then he was ordained as a priest. When he was 24, he became a professor of theology. Six years into teaching, he took a professorship at Lullian University.
In 1749, Serra got permission to travel with other Franciscans who devoted themselves to a mission near Mexico City. Serra was a man of great willpower and physical stamina it would be these things that would make him legendary. He worked at the Mexican missionary for 15 years.
In 1767, the Emperor of Spain banished Jesuits from the Spanish colonies. This led the government to ask the Franciscan Order to replace the missionaries in Southern California. Serra was made the head of these missions. The following year, the Spanish governor found missions in Northern California. Then Serra was made the head of the Franciscans in Northern California, for the remainder of his days.
By this time, Serra was over 50 years-old, asthmatic, extremely thin, and had seriously injured one of his legs, yet he was able to lead the founding of the San Diego Mission in 1769. He then aided a crusade to find San Francisco Bay and personally founded eight more missions, which would include his headquarters at the mission in San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel. His efforts, although, Herculean, brought him to near-starvation, scurvy and hundreds of miles of horseback riding and walking through treacherous terrain.
Serra was well known for his self-degradation, such as wearing shirts that were heavy and had sharp wires that were aimed at his torso, he would whip himself until he would bleed, and he would use a candle to scar his chest. His sacrifices were fruitful. By the time of Serra’s death, in 1784, he had founded nine missions,and had converted nearly 5,000 members of the Native American population.
Serra and the Spanish army did not agree on the proper authority of the Franciscans in Northern California, which he did believe should incorporate military commanders. In 1773, he was able to persuade authorities in Mexico City to increase their financial, and military support for all of Serra’s missions, and expand Franciscan authority over the army, as well as, baptized mission Native Americans.
Serra held this kind of political power, because the missions he built served economic and political purposes, as well as, religious means. Economically, the missions produced the colony’s grain and cattle. By 1780, they were producing a surplus that was sufficient to trade for luxury items with Mexico.
There were often power struggles between the military and religious authority. The missions and the Franciscan leaders became part of a largely destructive colonization process. The Spanish, through sickness, decreased the population from 300,000 Native Americans in 1769 to approximately 200,000 in 1821. The missions had a high population density and a strenuous work regime which, also caused high death rates among Native Americans. By law, all of the baptized Native Americans, gave themselves completely over to Franciscan authority, this meant they could be shackled, whipped, imprisoned for disobedience and hunted if they fled the mission. All acceptable treatments for disobedience.
Before a person is canonized, he is vetted, after he has been approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which is a Vatican group, that requires at least two miracles be attributed to the person before he can be recommended for sainthood. However, the Congregation has not credited a second miracle to Serra. It seems the Congregation has endorsed Serra’s canonization, because Pope Francis has already scheduled the ceremony for September.
There seems to be a list of people Pope Francis has deemed saints through the Pope Francis’ own will. Twice, the person being canonized did not have the number of miracles necessary for sainthood, which includes the canonization of Pope John XXIII.
However, in September, Pope Francis will canonize, Junipero Serra, who is believed to have discriminated in God’s name and enslaved Native Americans by the thousands. This man used missionary tactics that were effective in compelling his Christian converts.
By Jeanette Smith