On Saturday, Pope Francis, doubling down on the Vatican’s decision to canonize controversial Father Junipero Serra next September. Francis delivered a homily to an audience at Rome’s American seminary, the Pontifical North American College, in which he said that Serra was “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”
Celebrating Mass as part of a conference discussing Serra’s life and legacy, Francis lauded Serra for leaving his more comfortable existence in Spain and traveling to the more primitive New World in order to spread Christianity, saying, “I wonder if today we are able to respond with the same generosity and courage to the call of God,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
With Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez joining a group of priests and scholars from California in the audience, Francis praised Serra, asserting, “ . . . his work of evangelization reminds us of the first ‘12 Franciscan apostles’ who were pioneers of the Christian faith in Mexico. He ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California, which, in the previous two hundred years, had been reached by missionaries from Spain.”
Serra will be the first saint canonized on American soil when Francis visits Washington, D.C. Serra’s detractors point out that his treatment of native Americans was often brutal, including whippings and forcibly converting natives to Catholicism. Francis, conversely, said, Serra was among those “who brought the Gospel to the New World and, at the same time, defended the indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers.” He addressed critics of Serra and other missionaries by stating, “Sometimes we stop and thoughtfully examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and shortcomings.”
Gomez told the conference “a new conversation” should be held about the mission era, claiming Serra had “a burning love” for native Americans, adding, “All of his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways,” he said, according to a statement provided by the archdiocese. Professor Robert Senkewicz of Santa Clara University echoed that Serra was not perfect, but his canonization should not require perfection, noting that saints “are canonized because they made a commitment which, on balance, had more good than nongood associated with it,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.
Steven Hackel, a UC Riverside professor who published a 2013 book about Serra, told the Times, “What they are trying to say is that Serra protected indigenous people from soldiers and settlers and things would have been a lot worse without him. There’s very much truth in that … but the other side of the equation was what did those missions … mean for tens of thousands of Indians.”