July 31, 2015


Canonizing Junipero Serra

You wouldn’t think that Pope Francis’ planned canonization of Franciscan Father Junipero Serra while he is in the United States in September would be the cause of controversy. But it has brought out some anti-Catholicism that still exists in this country.

Because of Father Junipero’s successes in converting so many Native Americans in California, he and his successors have been accused of destroying their culture in that state.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has weighed in on a controversy calling for the removal of a statue of Father Junipero from the U.S. Capitol in Washington. He recently said the image should “stay until the end of time,” and called the Franciscan priest “a very courageous man and one of the innovators and pioneers of California.”

The accusations against Father Junipero have also reached the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. A special exhibit there, which is running until Aug. 9, is called “Gold! Riches and Ruin.” It tells the story of the impact of the various gold rushes in the United States, especially in California.

A painting in the exhibit, by Harry Fonseca, is titled “Gold and Souls #21.” It consists of a smear of gold, a bold black cross and a red handprint. With it is this message:

“The gold rush and the Catholic Church-sponsored mission system had a devastating impact on California natives. … The gold leaf references the gold rush, whereas the black cross represents Catholicism and the introduction of the mission system. The red handprint … symbolizing blood and death, stands in for the vast numbers of California Natives who lost their lives after the discovery of gold and the introduction of Catholicism.”

Pure anti-Catholic propaganda. As most reputable historians will tell you, the mission system established by Father Junipero brought unprecedented prosperity to most of the 250,000 Native Americans, from more than 25 linguistic groups, who lived in California when he arrived in 1769.

Tying the missions to the Gold Rush of 1849 is also a bit of a stretch since the Gold Rush began 65 years after Father Junipero’s death.

Father Junipero established nine missions up the coast of California, and 12 more were founded by his successors after his death. The missionaries taught the Native Americans European-style agriculture and other trades, such as blacksmithing and carpentry, while converting them to Catholicism.

The Franciscan missionaries actually protected the Native Americans from some of the atrocities of the Spanish military forces that occupied California. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles recently said, in response to criticism of Junipero, that the missionary “spoke out daily against the cruelties of soldiers and administrators. He complained bitterly that they were men ‘without any fear of God whatever in their heart.’ He decried the systematic rape of indigenous women, and fought for the removal of military officers who did nothing to stop it.”

Father Junipero’s disagreement with Spanish civil authorities became so great that, in 1772, he traveled 2,000 miles back to Mexico City to clear up the matter of jurisdiction, nearly dying during the three-month journey. He returned to the missions with a sort of “Bill of Rights” for the natives that became the basis for the first legislation in California.

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, in the May 15 issue of National Catholic Reporter, interviewed Robert Senkewicz, professor of history at Santa Clara University, an expert on early California history and author of a new book about Father Junipero. Senkewicz said that Father Junipero “and other missionaries thought that an important part of their role was to protect native peoples from the worst tendencies of the empire.”

Senkewicz told Father Reese that the Indians liked Father Junipero. They “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.”

However, Senkewicz continued, “As the mission system developed over time, it became a different kind of place after Serra’s death.” Peoples’ freedom of movement within the mission compound became more restricted, he said, with young girls and women locked up at night for their protection from some soldiers.

He also said, “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.”

Father Junipero will be canonized because of his sanctity, not for any mistakes that his successors might have made.

—John F. Fink


Related story: The life of Blessed Junipero Serra

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