On Wednesday, a Vatican panel approved the scheduled canonization of Father Junipero Serra when Pope Francis visits Washington D.C. in September. Widely disparate reactions followed the announcement, with some Californians thrilled and others bitter about conferring sainthood on the 18th century churchman largely responsible for the mission system in California.
Andrew Galan, a native Ohlone who runs the Mission Dolores Museum and has been pushing since 1988 to have Serra canonized, gushed, “Somebody pinch me. I never thought I’d live to see it. I’m the happiest Indian in California.” He acknowledged that the colonial powers of the 18th century committed abuses, but that Catholics could use Serra’s sainthood as a “golden opportunity” to connect with American Indians.
On the other hand, Olin Tezcatlipoca, the director of the Mexica Movement, a Native American group, snapped to The San Francisco Chronicle, “My blood pressure is going up right now, just hearing about it. This is a canonization of colonization, white supremacy and genocide. Does that sound saintly to you?” He called Mission Dolores and the other 20 California missions “nothing less than concentration camps. There may not have been any barbed wire or watchtowers, but if you tried to escape you would be punished or killed, and those are the facts. The Catholic Church isn’t even addressing this.”
Los Angeles archbishop Jose Gomez defended Serra’s canonization, asserting that the priest “came to this New World with a burning love for the land and its people, (with) genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways” and claiming that critics of Serra had “distorted” his record. He added that although the canonization “has opened old wounds and revived bitter memories about the treatment of Native Americans,” the charges leveled at Serra “can be traced back to the anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda (that) prevents us from making an honest appraisal of Father Serra and America’s religious beginnings.” Gomez allowed that the “world of (Serra’s) times still considered native peoples, along with African Americans, to be less than full human,” but he had “come to the conclusion that Father Serra should be remembered as one of the great pioneers of human rights in the Americas.”
In order to be canonized, a candidate must have performed two “miracles.” The first ascribed to Serra was his healing of a lupus patient who had prayed to him. Galvan said the pope aided Serra’s cause by declaring Serra’s life’s work to be the second miracle.
Last weekend, Francis celebrated a Mass in Serra’s honor at the main U.S. seminary in Rome. That followed two days of academic conferences organized by the Vatican and the archdiocese of Los Angeles to counter claims against Serra and to present him as a defender of Native Americans.