Why I Opposed a Commemoration of Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra

Painting of Bartolome de las Casa and a Native American as he writes of their destruction.
Painting of Bartolome de las Casas and a Native American as he writes of their destruction.

As Pope Francis prepares to canonize the Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra, some are protesting and some are celebrating the “first Hispanic saint” of the U.S. As a graduate of Junipero Serra Elementary School, and now a member of a Franciscan order myself, I lobbied my religious order not to include Junipero Serra in our order’s calendar of commemorations–and they agreed.

I grew up in a Franciscan-flavored family. My father’s Catholic spirituality was clearly Franciscan in nature, siding with the marginalized, the poor, the homeless. This Franciscan spirituality influenced the rest of our family. He was a deeply prayerful man who taught us to turn to prayer at all times. We had a statue of St. Francis on our front porch, and I walked past that statue several times a day.

My father’s love of all things Franciscan extended to the California missions and Junipero Serra’s role in building them. Fra Junipero was held up as a hero and spiritual role model on our many family visits to California missions, some of which include Junipero Serra memorials.

But in fourth grade at Junipero Serra Elementary School, the year in which schoolchildren learn California history and every fourth grader builds a model of a California mission, my school got brand new textbooks. These books told a very different, revised story of the missionary movement in California, with depictions of Native Americans being beaten, locked into barracks, forced to work, forced to convert to Christianity, prevented from marrying, and so on. In other words, they were enslaved. The missions thrived economically as agricultural centers. Meanwhile, much of Native American culture was wiped out, and many Native Americans died of diseases imported from Europe.

And Junipero Serra (Spanish born and part of the Spanish conquest of Mexico) was a major leader of that colonizing system. Some historians, usually ones at Christian colleges, depict him as a great spiritual leader, but others point out that he clearly was involved in and informed about the enslavement, etc. in the missions. His letters prove it. (Two California historians who differ are quoted in this article in the Washington Post).

Many who want Junipero Serra canonized say that it is not fair to judge someone through the moral lens of our times; it has to be done through the moral lens of the time in which they lived. But in 1542, a Dominican friar named Bartolomé de las Casas wrote to the Spanish court about the appalling treatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish forces in the Americas and also criticized the Church’s involvement in it (including his own). (Read “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” but prepare to be horrified; it is worse than “Twelve Years a Slave”.) It led to the New Laws of 1542 which abolished slavery in colonies–supposedly. Junipero Serra was at work two hundred years after this excoriation of enslavement and this supposed improvement in Spanish-American relations. There already was a moral imperative to stop the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples.

What morality spurred Serra? He was driven by a spirit of conversion, a desire to claim land and lives for Jesus and the Gospel.

Had Serra examined his Franciscan roots, he might have questioned the Spanish lust for land and wealth and remembered that Francis refused to own anything, including land, even to house his own friars. As far as Francis was concerned, his Order of Friars Minor went to pot when they started accepting gifts of houses and land.

Had Serra examined his Franciscan roots, he might have questioned his means of evangelization as well. What drew people to Francis was his refusal to claim any power over others, his full-hearted love of God, his embrace of poverty, and his willingness to accept anyone who knocked at his door.

As a child, when I learned at school about the Franciscan friars’ treatment of Native Americans, I was saddened and troubled. I asked my father about it at dinner, and as he gazed sadly back at me, I saw that he had no answer for me. We want our heroes to remain our heroes, and we don’t want to hear challenges to their saintliness. No saint is perfect, people say. And that is true.

Nevertheless, bringing truth to light and light to darkness is the means and end of the Gospel. We should consider the moral compass of our own times and recognize the postcolonial awareness dawning upon us. If Pope Francis wishes to commemorate more Latino American saints, he has many, many people to choose from, including Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. Or commemorate Bartolomé de las Casas for bringing to light what really happened in the Americas and admitting his own role in it. That Dominican was a true Franciscan.

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