When Pope Francis canonizes Father Junipero Serra on Wednesday at an outdoor mass at Catholic University of America, at least some American Indians will be plenty sore.
Serra was a Spanish Franciscan priest who came to this land during the revolutionary ferment of the American founding. He is considered by many to be a founder not only of California but, according to Pope Francis, a founder of America. Indeed, so enthusiastic was Serra for the Revolutionary War, it is reported he took a collection of $137 and sent it to General George Washington.
Serra spent much of his life building a network of mission Churches up and down what is now the state of California, then known as Alta California. Serra founded nine of the 21 California missions, including San Juan Capistrano where the swallows used to return every year but largely stopped coming in the past thirty years. Along the way, many Indian tribesmen converted to Christianity, and Serra helped put the stamp of Christianity on what would eventually become a part of the United States.
Various Indian pressure groups charge Serra with inspiring a kind of genocide of Indian culture and widely mistreating the Indians who came under his care in the mission churches. Ron Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, compared Serra to Hitler. He told The Guardian that Serra “decimated 90% of the Indian Population.” However, Dr. Steven Hackel of the University of California, and one of Serra’s biographers, says, “It was a very difficult time for California Indians” because of the Spanish colonization, and the missions were “a place for them to rebuild their communities.”
Like Columbus and other explorers before him, Serra was motivated by the desire to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the pagan tribes, an effort that was remarkably successful from California down through Mexico and throughout Latin America.
The Indians revered him at the time of his death; they called him “Padre Santo” and 300 Indians crowded near him as he lay dying. During his life he learned many of the Indian languages and was known to defend their rights.
In subsequent years, he has been charged with beating Indians in his care and being at least the precursor of a more aggressive campaign to wipe out Indian culture. He is considered by some present-day Indians to be nothing more than a colonizer, a religious aid to the Spanish conquest of that part of the United States.
You can see the influence of Spanish Catholics everywhere in California, including in the name of tony Carmel, which is named for one of the mission churches, along with more recognizable names such as Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and even Sacramento, which is a reference to the Blessed Sacrament or the consecrated host that Catholics believe is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Dozens of streets and parks throughout California are named for him.
The cause for his canonization began at mid-century and picked up steam when St. John Paul II beatified him in 1988. John Paul II said, “He sowed the seeds of Christian faith amid the momentous changes wrought by the arrival of European settlers in the New World. It was a field of missionary endeavor that required patience, perseverance, and humility, as well as vision and courage.”
The Catholic Church claims the ability to discern who is in Heaven though not in Hell. The process does not place someone in Heaven, but what is generally a decades or even centuries-long process leads the Church to conclude that someone has lived a heroic life of piety and therefore can be venerated as a Saint in Heaven.
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