“Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, a saying he lived his life by: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized.”
So spoke Pope Francis last Wednesday when he canonized the first American Hispanic saint and the first saint on American soil, Junipero Serra. Serra’s canonization at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. may have been minor in the grand scheme of the Pope’s first visit to the United States, but it mattered deeply to many Catholics as well as Native Americans. And it was controversial.
Pope Francis’ motive was two-fold. I suspect he wanted to educate us in a little bit of America history. The origins of the United States do not simply lie with the thirteen colonies whose Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence from England on July 4, 1776. Hispanics were also here from the very beginning, settling in Florida, Texas and California. The first nonindigenous language spoken in America was Spanish, not English. In addition, with Congress and presidential candidates stuck in massive gridlock over immigration, and with Latinos now the largest U.S. minority, one-sixth of them without documentation, I believe Pope Francis sought to move Americans toward a more compassionate and just immigration policy.
In the first address that a Pope has ever given to a joint session of Congress, Francis was direct, “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”
Serra’s canonization was a landmark moment for many Latinos and reflects on our legacy as a nation of immigrants. Yet who was Junipero Serra, and why has there been dissension around his sainthood?
A Spanish missionary in the eighteenth century who was credited with converting thousands of Native Americans to Christianity, Serra was the child of poor farmers on the Spanish island of Mallorca. According to University of California, Riverside history professor Steven Hackel’s 2013 biography, Junipero Serra; California’s Founding Father, Serra was educated by Franciscans and became a theology professor by the age of 24. However, he gave it all up to travel to Mexico to become a missionary. Arriving in Veracruz in December 1769, Serra walked two hundred miles to what we know as California to fulfill a life-long dream to convert the Native Americans.
His charge from the Catholic Church was to “Christianize” and “Hispanicize” the Native American population on behalf of the Spanish crown. Serra founded nine of the twenty-one missions in California. These missions were self-contained compounds where Native Americans would live, work and worship under the authority of the Spanish soldiers and priests.
How did Native Americans end up in these missions? Some were simply looking for food. When Spanish colonists arrived, they brought animals that ate native plants and berries that were crucial to the ecosystem, thus starving the native people. Others were lured by the priests with gifts, especially young men who were conscripted for construction and agricultural work.
Many of the native people who came to the missions were forced to stay and give up native ways, culture and language. They were known as “mission Indians.” Unfortunately, the Spanish colonization of California and the southwest, of which Father Serra was a crucial part, included corporal punishment, rape, prohibiting natives from leaving the missions, destruction of native culture and thousands of deaths from diseases brought from Europe.
Fifty different tribes in California opposed the sainthood conferred on Serra, said Deborah Miranda, a literature professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and a member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation of California. She wrote Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, a book about her ancestors’ experiences in the Spanish missions.
She said about the canonization of Father Serra, “My objection and the objection of many California Indians is that he is being honored for in fact dishonoring many of our California ancestors. The missions ended up killing about 90% of the California Indians present at the time of missionization, creating all kinds of cultural and emotional baggage that we still carry to this day. It’s not a question of attacking the Catholic Church or attacking Pope Francis. It’s about making sure that the truth is heard and that injustices are not continued on into the 21st century.”
Abuse and atrocities committed by Christian missionaries against Native Americans were not confined to the Hispanic colonization of California. On July 23, 2012, the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan, unveiled a statue of Bishop Frederic Baraga, a nineteenth-century Catholic priest that others were pushing for sainthood. Like Serra, Bishop Baraga, who was originally from Slovenia, has been perceived as a holy man in the church and media. Born in 1797, Baraga became known as the snowshoe priest, traveling all over the Great Lakes region to missionize the Odawa and Ojibwa tribes.
Unfortunately, the theology of missionary work in Michigan was also to denounce the spiritual traditions of those they attempted to convert. This resulted in stealing native lands, forced relocation, taking native children from their families and putting them in boarding schools. In these schools native children were not able to speak their language, wear native dress or participate in native cultural traditions. Native American theologian and scholar George Tinker, author of Missionary Conquest: The Gospels and Native American Genocide, refers to Christian missionaries to native nations as “partners in genocide.”
Is Junipero Serra a saint? Should Pope Francis have canonized him? Certainly, many have defended Serra, including some Native Americans, saying he was a man of his time and expressing gratitude that he introduced the Christian faith to Native Americans. They also point out that Serra did advocate for more humane treatment of Native Americans.
It is possible to understand Serra as a priest who was following the colonial and imperialistic ideology of his day. Yet Serra’s story also reminds us that the formal history of our country has often been rewritten in textbooks and oral history. How does the dominant culture take responsibility for institutional racism: for the myths that the Native Americans voluntarily came to the missions in search of God and that the missionaries were always kind and gentle? How do we understand the abuse suffered by Native Americans, the effects of which have persisted through generations?
My hope was that when Pope Francis canonized Father Serra he might have also acknowledged the atrocities committed against Native Americans at the time, as he did in Bolivia this past summer. He expressed regret for the “grave sins” of colonialism against the native people of America and said, “I humbly ask for forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
By formally apologizing to the Native Americans in our country, Pope Francis, a man who is deeply committed to the poor and the oppressed, would have gone a long way in fostering the healing process for Native Americans. It would have also served as a reminder that we are called to treat all people in this world with dignity and respect, no matter who they are.
Nevertheless, siempre adelante. We keep humbly moving forward, always learning from the past and living as vessels of God’ grace. For in the end, God never forces the heart. No one can “make” another person become a Christian, and when we try to impose our beliefs on others, it always takes a toll. Our call is to share the love of Jesus in this world by our words and actions so that all people, especially those who have been disenfranchised by Christianity, will see in us a faith, hope and love for which they yearn.
Siempre adelante. Keep moving forward!