Pope Francis’ newsworthy visit to the United States has also coincided with another historic decision from the Pope. On September 23, Pope Francis also decided to canonize Junipero Serra, founder of nine of the California Missions. This means Junipero Serra’s canonization is the first to happen in the United States. The Pope is recognizing Serra for his Missionary work in California and Mexico, and how his influence changed the social, cultural, and physical landscape of the area. The Missions established along the west coast were built to spread the values of Catholicism to the Americas and to the indigenous people living there at the time. There is controversy about the canonization of Junipero Serra because although he established Catholicism on the west coast, his treatment of indigenous people raises some issues that the Foghorn staff would like to address.
First and foremost, historical context of the era must be taken into account. Junipero Serra arrived in the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1749, during the height of colonialism in the Americas. At the time, a variety of European countries were establishing colonies and scrambling to take their claim in the “New World.” However, North America was not completely new, at least not to indigenous people who have been living there for thousands of years. The mistreatment of Native Americans is pervasive across American history, starting from the day Columbus landed in Hispaniola. Many different groups of people are responsible for atrocities committed against indigenous people in North America and how Spanish missionaries interacted with indigenous people in California is only a small part of the picture.
What set Junipero Serra’s native Spain apart from the explorations of other European nations was their ardent mission to spread Catholicism. As students at a Catholic institution, we more than understand how great Catholic values are and appreciate what they bring into our lives, regardless of our religious followings (or lack thereof). However, when these values are forced upon an entire group of people, and they are enslaved by the people who are introducing these values to them, there seems to be an ethical disconnect between these values and the actions of the people behind the values. A variety of historical narratives have depicted Junipero Serra as a complex and kind hearted man, who loved the indigenous people he met but also faced deep inner turmoil and was known for inflicting physical self-punishment. In a situation like this, we end up comparing intentions versus actions. We definitely believe that the intentions of Junipero Serra were nothing but pure but the drastic drop in Native American populations in California and the horrific treatment of indigenous people from the time may not excuse the actions that were carried out by Catholic missionaries.
Pope Francis has definitely garnered a reputation as a very progressive and knowledgeable pope, and we assume that he must be aware of the plight of Native Americans in Spanish California. We assume that the judgment call was made that Junipero Serra brought far more good into that world than anything negative. But considering the erasure of Native American history and how widely the suffering of Native Americans is ignored, even to this day, we’re just not sure we quite agree with this judgment.