St. Junipero Serra

posted 6/30/20

Tomorrow, July 1, is the feast day of St. Junipero Serra.  In recent weeks, we’ve seen statues pulled down by activists decrying what they understand to be crimes committed by historical figures.  Even prior to his canonization by Pope Francis in September 2015, St. Junipero Serra had been the subject of harsh criticism and the defacement of his image, especially in California, the place where he worked as a missionary.  As I was looking for information about Serra, I came across an interesting 2018 essay entitled “Padre Mestizo” by the writer Richard Rodriguez.  Rodriguez was born in San Francisco as the son of Mexican immigrants to the United States and has become well-known by his regular contribution of video essays to the PBS News Hour program. 

Serra was born in 1713 on the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea.  He became a Franciscan priest and was on track to spend his life in Spain as a scholar, but he found himself dissatisfied with his easy life.  He told his superiors that he desired to go to the New World and work in the missions, “to be with the Indians who did not yet know Christ.”  Eventually, his petitions were granted, and he was sent to the missions of New Spain.  According to Rodriguez, “the remarkable achievement of Roman Catholicism was its proclamation – in an encyclical of Pope Paul II in 1537, Sublimis Deus – that the indigenous people of the Americas were rational beings with souls.  Therefore, Indians deserved conversion.  Indians were not to be enslaved by Spanish colonists.  Indians were spiritual equals to the king of Spain.”  Of course, this does not mean that the native populations were not poorly treated by the colonial powers.  It does mean that no one could seriously deny the evil of such abuses.  Christ died for these native peoples, just as He had died for the people of Spain and all peoples of the world.  Thus, Our Lord’s great commission to His Apostles to share the gospel with the nations applied to the people of the New World.  They had a right to know what God had done and what He desired for them.   

Rodriguez calls Serra “the postlapsarian prophet of a coming age.”  The world the native peoples knew was coming to an end.  “Serra understood the Indians would be decimated if they were unprepared for the settlers’ ways.  He was not protecting the indigenous people from Spanish civilization so much as preparing the Indians to live in communion with the Spaniards.”  This “communion” is something that those who pull down statues of Serra resent, especially those who accept the myth (Rodriguez doesn’t) that California, prior to the arrival of the colonial powers, was a paradise, untouched by Original Sin, in which the indigenous tribes had lived in perfect harmony with each other and with nature.  Rodriguez refers to the historian Carey McWilliams who wrote in the 1930s and 40s about the history of California, and who is largely responsible for the negative depictions of Serra that proliferate today.  He described the California missions as “picturesque charnel houses.”  Rodriguez says that “when McWilliams regarded the California missions, he could only make out a story of the victimization of the Indians,” in which the native peoples were unwilling converts who were forced to adopt new ways and who were punished harshly if they resisted or ran away. 

Rodriguez does not spend time denying or justifying the harsh treatment of natives by colonials, by missionaries, or even of St. Junipero Serra.  Indeed, he writes: “The most popular saints are those whose humanity clings to them.  The process of canonization requires a devil’s advocate to seek out the reasons – and there are sure to be reasons – why the candidate should not be venerated.  To my mind, Mother Teresa is a saint of greater allure precisely because her faith was disturbed by the silence of God.”  Acknowledging the imperfections of Serra, he nonetheless seems to think that the legacy of Serra is much greater than his critics understand, and that his motivations were more noble than they can comprehend.  “As a mestizo, like most Mexicans alive today, like my ancestors,” writes Rodriguez, “I was made by the missions.”  As for Serra, “his great ambition, his deep desire, was to join his soul to the souls of Indians, many of whom fled his presence.”   

Rodriguez’s essay is, I think, an invitation to consider Serra’s role in the emergence of the mestizo people – the ethnic communion of native and European peoples – and the influence that Mexican culture has had on California and beyond, including in the Church.  The ethnic communion is ultimately surpassed, however, by the supernatural communion that is enjoyed by the baptized who are bound together not by blood but by grace.  This is the communion that St. Junipero Serra cared about most.  The goodness of both of these communions, ethnic and spiritual, is embodied by the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared as a mestiza and spoke in the Aztec language to St. Juan Diego and sent him to the local archbishop, “thus reversing the dynamic of Spanish Catholicism by making a sincerely bewildered Indian the ambassador of the Mother of God.”  Through the intercession of St. Junipero Serra, may this time of division and the pulling down of monuments become instead a time of communion and the building up of peoples, all under the watchful eye of Our Blessed Mother.

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