Junipero Serra: saint or not?

A statue of Blessed Junipero Serra is seen in 2012 outside Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Pope Francis will canonize the friar in September in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Bob Mullen)
A statue of Blessed Junipero Serra is seen in 2012 outside Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Pope Francis will canonize the friar in September in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Bob Mullen)

by Thomas Reese

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The upcoming canonization of Junípero Serra is causing controversy as his supporters view him as the Franciscan who brought Christianity to California Indians, while his opponents see him as a co-conspirator with the oppression of the Indians by the Spanish empire. Pope Francis will canonize him at a Sept. 23 Mass in Washington, D.C.

Who was Serra? What should we think of him?

For answers, I went to Robert Senkewicz, professor of history at Santa Clara University and an expert on early California history. He is the author of a number of books on early California, including the just-published Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, which he wrote with his wife Rose Marie Beebe.

NCR: Who was Junípero Serra?

Robert Senkewicz: Junípero Serra was an 18th-century Franciscan who was a very successful philosophy teacher on the island of Mallorca. In the middle of his life, he volunteered to go to the missions of the New World, where Franciscans had been working since the early 1500s. Serra arrived in Mexico City on Jan. 1, 1750.

He spent eight years working in an area of Mexico about 100 miles north of Mexico City called the Sierra Gorda among the Pame Indians who had been evangelized a little bit earlier.

Then he spent another eight years working in various administrative positions at the missionary headquarters in Mexico City. During this time, he was also a member of the mission band that would go around and try to increase religious fervor in various Catholic parishes where they were invited by the local bishop.

When the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain in 1767, he was sent to be the head missionary taking over the former Jesuit missions in Baja California. The very next year, the Spanish government decided to move the frontier northward from Baja California to Upper California, or Alta California.

Serra enthusiastically volunteered for that and he accompanied the expedition that went from Baja California to Alta California. He spent the remaining 15 years of his life as the president of the Alta California Missions. Under his presidency, nine missions were founded.

What was the purpose of the missions?

They inevitably had a double purpose. Under the Spanish system, the missionaries were paid by the government, so missionaries were both church and state functionaries.

From the point of view of the church, the purpose of the missions was to spread the Gospel to those who had not been baptized.

From the point of view of the state, the missions were institutions aimed at assimilating the native peoples, making them citizens of the empire. That meant, among other things, learning European-style agriculture, becoming a Catholic, and living in a congregated pueblo-type arrangement, just like people in Spain.

A great deal of the tension in the mission system stemmed from this double purpose, for these two aims did not always coexist easily with each other.

What about the religious aim? How did he try to convert the Indians?

Serra’s preferred missionary strategy was to try to create a community in which native peoples would gradually come to understand the truth of the Gospel.

In our book, Rose Marie and I argue that some Lenten sermons Serra gave to a group of Poor Clares in 1744 in Majorca outlined that strategy. In those sermons, he used as his refrain a line from Psalm 33, "Taste and see that the Lord is good."

He says that God is like a culinary sweet, a piece of candy. If you've never tasted it, you don't know what you're missing. But once you taste it, you acquire an increasing desire for it.

That's how he thought the conversion process was going to work. The native peoples would gradually be exposed to a Christian community and they would gradually come to see that their deepest desires were being fulfilled as members of this community.

Why did the Indians actually go to the missions?

Native people entered the missions in California for a variety of reasons. No doubt some were genuinely interested in Catholicism. Others presented their sick children for baptism in hopes that the priest might be able to cure them.

Some came because there was food at the missions. That was important because what was going on in California was that the Spanish military and missionaries brought large numbers of horses, mules, burros, sheep and goats with them. These animals inevitably and quickly destroyed the plants, acorn and berries that had sustained a traditional way of life for centuries. They also drove away the game the native peoples had traditionally hunted.

The presence of the Spanish colonial enterprise very quickly rendered it almost impossible for the traditional native ways of life to be maintained. So, some people came into the mission system because their traditional ways of life and sustenance was being destroyed by the  colonial invaders.

Did Serra realize this?

Probably not.

How did this religious aim of the missions square with the other aim, the imperial aim?

Serra knew he was part of the Spanish empire, and he believed in the empire. But he and other missionaries thought that an important part of their role was to protect native peoples from the worst tendencies of the empire.

In a manner of evaluating colonialism that goes all the way back to 16th-century Dominicans Antonio de Montesinos and Bartóleme de las Casas, missionaries generally thought that they were protecting native peoples from potential exploitation by soldiers, ranchers, miners and settlers.

So, they generally tried to keep the native people separated from these other groups. In doing so they cut some corners. Generally speaking, they did not do a thorough job of explaining to the native peoples that baptism was, from their point of view, a lifetime commitment and that entering the mission system was a one-way street -- you were able to go in, but you would not be permitted to leave.

Would you say then that the Indians were enslaved by the missionaries?

Coercion and force were part of the mission system, but I wouldn't say that they were enslaved. Slavery is a specific legal system. To use it in an American context equates with the way Africans were treated in the American South, and it was a very different kind of situation. Indians were definitely regarded as inferior. But they were regarded not as property, but as people.

What was Serra’s attitude and behavior toward the Indians?

His attitude and behavior were frankly and explicitly paternalistic. Along with probably 99 percent of the people in Europe at the time, he thought that non-Europeans were inferior to Europeans. There was a big debate in the early Spanish empire about whether or not the native peoples were fully rational beings or not.

By the time Serra got to the New World, many Spanish thinkers believed that the native peoples of the Americas were in a state of "natural infancy," that they were children. Serra shared that view and he basically had a paternalistic attitude towards them.

That paternalistic attitude could, at times, result in a behavior which anybody today would find very hard to justify. If people left the mission without permission, they were pursued and hunted by soldiers and other Indians. If they were brought back, the normal punishment was flogging. What the Spanish military and missionaries thought they were doing was punishing children to make them understand how they should behave.

Were Indians converted at the missions?

It's pretty clear that at the beginning the native peoples did what Europeans, the so-called "barbarians,"  had done a millennium earlier. They interpreted Christianity through their own traditional ways, through their own traditional deities and spirituality. So, what resulted in the missions was a mix, a syncretism, a new melding of traditional indigenous California spirituality and imported Spanish and Mexican Catholic spirituality. 

Over time, some missionaries understood this and accepted it. Others were very impatient with it. Serra was most likely somewhere in the middle.

Did Serra like the Indians?

As we were researching the book, we came to the conclusion that Serra himself was personally a much more complex individual than either his proponents or his detractors acknowledged. He could be very conflicted.

On the one hand, he really enjoyed being with native peoples who were not baptized because that was the reason  he had come to the New World .

For instance, he kept a diary of his journey from Loreto in Baja California up to San Diego in 1769. For him, one of the most emotional days of his life was in a place in Baja California where a group of native unbaptized people came out of the woods and presented themselves to the priest. This was the first time in his life that he had personally encountered a large group of unbaptized Indians. He was overwhelmed.

In his diary he said, "I kissed the ground and thanked God for giving me what I have longed for so many years." It was really a tremendously emotional experience for him. After 19 years in America, he was finally going to get to do what he came to do: preach to the unbaptized.

I think that some native peoples that he met could pick up that he really wanted to be there. He really enjoyed being with native peoples because he felt that his identity as a missionary was the most important thing for him. 

After all, he had been an extremely popular teacher and preacher. He probably could have become Franciscan provincial of Mallorca. He gave it all up because he found that the academic life wasn't giving him satisfaction. He wanted to do direct pastoral work. He was excited and happiest when he was doing that.

It is always extremely difficult to intuit the thoughts, motives and genuine behavior of native peoples through the writings of colonial officials, but I think it is reasonable to surmise that some native people, especially in the area around which he spent most of his time, Carmel, understood and appreciated him. He was a man who was happiest when he was out there directly engaged in pastoral work.

He was most unhappy when he had to deal with soldiers and governors. Serra never met a military governor that he liked. He dealt with three of them and disliked each one more than the previous one.

He also tended to be unhappy when he had to deal with his religious superiors back in Mexico City. He would sometimes think that they didn't understand what he was trying to do. His superiors often thought he was too impatient and too reckless in establishing so many missions so quickly. Maybe that criticism came with the territory. Indeed, the Jesuit missionary in Arizona, Eusebio Kino, experienced similar strictures from his own superiors.

At one point, Serra complained about all this: "I'm spending half of my life at a desk writing reports." He was clearly upset at all of the effort he had to put into such activity.    

What made him happiest was being a missionary among unbaptized people. What made him especially happy was when he could do that directly one-on-one with native peoples. When he described that  human interaction, he tended not to acknowledge the fact that he was part of a larger colonial system that could be, at times, very brutal and very bloody.

Did the Indians like him?

Some of them certainly did. The California native culture was not a written culture. It was an oral culture. So scholars try to infer how the native peoples are reacting through obviously biased reports of Spanish writers. Even with that, I think that some of them really did like him, and they were fond of him. They kept calling him Padre Viejo, the old priest.

He kind of liked that. He was considerably older than most of the other Spaniards or Mexican the natives were encountering. He was also shorter and more frail than most of them. I think some of them sort of adopted him almost as a mascot.

In December 1776, for instance, he was traveling through the Santa Barbara area, and there was a huge rainstorm. So the small party that he was with had to leave the beach where they were traveling and go up to the foothills because the waves were coming in. They got bogged down in the mud.

Suddenly, and out of nowhere, a group of Chumash Indians appeared. They picked Serra up and carried him through the mud so that he could continue his journey. They stayed with him for a couple of days, and he tried to teach them to sing some songs. That was the kind of thing that he just loved.

Other native peoples, for instance the Kumeyaay  who in 1775 led a rebellion in San Diego that destroyed the mission and killed one of the priests, clearly didn't like the mission system at all. In fact, after that episode, Serra wrote to the viceroy and asked that, if he were to be killed by an Indian, that Indian ought not be executed but forgiven.

So, some did like him, and some thought that he was somebody who was destroying their way of life. The native response to the Spanish occupation of California was similar to the native response to many other incursions of European colonialism in the Americas. Definitely more negative than accepting, and complex and mixed.

Were Indians exploited to support the mission system?

Yes. As the mission system developed over time it became a different kind of place after Serra's death in 1784 as a result of a couple of circumstances.

In 1810, the independence insurgency in Mexico under Miguel Hidalgo and Juan María Morelos broke out. If you were the viceroy at the time, you were going to do everything that you could to defeat this insurgency. So the supply ship, which every year had come up from Mexico to California, stopped coming because all resources were being diverted to fighting Hidalgo and Morelos.

All of the sudden, California was not getting its regular replenishment of supplies. The institutions in California that were best equipped to deal with this situation were the missions because by that time, they were pretty skilled at growing food.

They also had  blacksmiths, carpenters and other skilled personnel. Some of these skilled laborers were Indians, who had learned from Mexican craftsmen at the missions, and who would pass on those skills to their own children. So the missions became the economic engines of California from about 1810 increasingly onward.

The result was the missions began to reach farther and farther away from the coast to get more native people to keep up production levels. By the early 1820s, the missionaries were almost ranchers as much as they were missionaries. They were selling their hides and tallow to American and British merchants who were trading up and down the coast.

The missionaries would have definitely not described themselves as ranchers, but I think that’s what happened. And ranching concerns and missionary activity did not always coexist well together.

For instance, peoples' freedom of movement within the mission compound became more restricted. An example was that young girls and women were locked up at night because the missionaries thought, not without reason, that some soldiers would rape them if they were unprotected.

But putting so many individuals together in an enclosed and often cramped space created a very unhealthy environment. Young girls and women were especially vulnerable to imported diseases to which they had not developed any immunities. For this and other reasons, such as heavy workload, the death rate in the missions was very high and it increased over time.

Obviously, the missionaries didn't know about germ theory, or anything like that. But, they knew people were dying in great numbers because they were doing the funerals, and they kept very full records of all sacramental matters. Some were extremely upset, while others appear to have contented themselves with the assurance that this simply meant that more souls were going to heaven. It is very jarring and infuriating to read those words today.

Did the Franciscans or the church get rich through the missions? Did any of the profits from the missions go back to Mexico or Spain?

In the quarter century after 1810, the missions generated considerable income. But close study of the financial system and of the mission account books indicates pretty clearly that the overwhelming amount of this income, more than 90 percent, went directly back into mission enterprises, especially clothing for the native peoples and liturgical, catechetical and sacramental supplies. Very little was retained in Mexico City or went back to Spain.

The accusation, made by some opponents of the missions at the time and occasionally repeated since, that the church in general or the missionaries in particular enriched themselves, appears to be unfounded.

What happened to the Indians and the mission land when the Mexican government ended the mission system in the 1830s?

The padres always said, "The land belongs to the Indians, and we hold it in trust for the Indians." According to various laws, that was the technical reality. But the land was actually divided among the leading California families by the Mexican government.

So, Indians became ranch hands on the ranchos. On the ranchos, many Indians became valued laborers, because of the skills they had learned at the missions. However, their lives were sometimes quite similar to what they had known at the missions. The major difference was that they could leave if they wanted to.

Given all of this, what about the issue of Serra’s canonization?

I’m an historian, not a theologian. But I have tried to follow the debate and I do know a number of native Californians who are very opposed to the canonization of Fr. Serra. Many of their arguments are deeply reasoned, well articulated, passionate and personal.

I think that many of the arguments rest upon two concerns. First, the concern that canonizing Serra is by implication approving the entire mission system, including all of the punishments, diseases and deaths that were a part of that system. The second concern is that to canonize Serra is to justify and whitewash the church's role in colonial expansion -- as it were, to bless the European expansion into the Americas and the horrible loss of native lives and land that was part and parcel of that process.

On the first point, we have a section in our book about how, under the influence of the Spanish revival movement in southern California in the late 19th century, Serra became a virtual symbol for everything that happened in pre-US California. Serra was made into such a symbol by a group of Anglo boosters to further their own aims.

I personally don't think it is legitimate to make Serra a stand-in for the entire 65 years of mission experience in California. The system developed after his death in ways he did not plot or intend. So I do not personally believe that in canonizing him the church intends to say that it is blessing everything that happened in the missions from the time they were started until the time they ended. I don't think that canonization means that the person is perfect or that everything that happened after his death, even some perhaps unforeseen or unintended consequences, were necessarily good and beneficial. If those were the criteria, probably no one would ever be canonized!

On the second issue, the notion that the church should not have been involved in colonial expansion, I think that veers too easily into a simplistic way of looking at history. The study of the past is always a dialogue between past and present, and I fear that this notion is too exclusively focused on the present to the neglect of the past.

As I said before, the missionaries generally thought that they were representing the "softer" side of colonialism, that they were protecting the native peoples from the more oppressive parts of the system. The Catholic Church and Serra were definitely part of the colonial process. While I can understand 21st century people saying that religion should stay out of colonial land grabs and refuse to justify them, we can’t simply export that view back to the 18th century. The cold hard fact was that some European power was going to come into California, and the only question for the church was whether it wanted to try to influence that process from the inside or whether it wanted to remain outside that process and give up any influence at all.

Indeed, we do know what did happen when religious groups were not present to try to protect native peoples and were not involved in colonial expansion into native territories. The example of Indian removal from many regions in the 19th century U.S. is a grim instance. In fact, if there was genocide against native peoples in California, it happened during the gold rush, in the 1850s, when Americans offered bounties for Indian scalps and the native peoples of Northern California were brutally decimated and oppressed.

Whatever their faults, no Spanish or Mexican missionary in California ever came close to uttering the refrain that was heard among 19th-century North Americans, that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." And nothing on the scale of Sand Creek or Wounded Knee ever occurred in connection with the California missions.

I don’t know what Pope Francis intended by announcing the canonization of Serra. But I can  understand that, in Junípero Serra’s willingness to sacrifice the comforts of a very successful career, to forego climbing the academic and ecclesiastical ladders, to travel halfway around the world in order to live the rest of his life among people he had never seen but whom he deeply and genuinely loved, and to go without many advantages he could easily have gained, one sees qualities that are very consistent with what the church has long held up as indications of sanctity.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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