The question of whether to canonize or not to canonize Father Junipero Serra has raged now that Pope Francis has decided to nominate Serra for sainthood. The dichotomy among Californians triggered by Serra’s nomination springs from significantly different viewpoints.
Those in favor of Serra’s nomination point to his efforts building missions and spreading Catholicism among the indigenous Native American tribes. Archbishop Jose Gomez, head of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times that Serra was one of his “spiritual heroes… It’s wonderful to think that this new saint once walked the road that is now the Hollywood Freeway and called it El Camino Real, ‘The King’s Highway.'”
Opponents of Serra’s canonization have inculcated their views in California schoolchildren in official textbooks. The current state-endorsed fourth grade state history version of Serra’s efforts reportedly states, “Before the Spanish arrived, the growth of the missions was tragic. Thousands of Indians died, and by the end of the 1800s much of the Indian way of life had died also.”
Chief Anthony Morales of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, upset with the news of Serra’s prospective canonization, told KNBC Los Angeles, “There’s nothing saintly about the atrocities on our culture and our people. Our people were enslaved. They were beaten.”
Pope John Paul II said in 1987 that the Catholic Church had committed “mistakes and wrongs” against American Indians, but also defended Serra to native Americans, saying, “He had frequent clashes with the civil authorities over the treatment of Indians. In 1773 he presented to the Viceroy in Mexico City a Representación, which is sometimes termed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Indians. The Church had long been convinced of the need to protect them from exploitation.”
in 1988, when Serra was beatified by the Church, the third of four steps toward canonization, Pope John Paul II called Serra a “shining example of Christian Virtue and the Missionary Spirit.”