VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Despite growing resistance from some Native Americans and U.S. Catholics, the Vatican on on May 2 hosted an event to celebrate the life of Junípero Serra, the Spanish missionary priest whom Pope Francis plans to canonize during his upcoming American tour.
The Pontifical North American College, the American bishops’ elite seminary in Rome, has joined with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America to host the “Day of Reflection,” which includes an appearance by the pope.
The event has the highest backing within the Roman Catholic Church, with organizers announcing the pontiff will celebrate a mass for supporters of Serra, an evangelizer who helped establish the mission system in 18th-century California.
The pope’s appearance has been eagerly anticipated by Monsignor James Checchio, rector of the college, who described Francis’ participation as “the highlight of the day.” It’s also a very public sign that Francis does not seem bothered by the controversy that Serra’s sainthood has sparked.
Checchio drew on the importance of Serra to the Catholic Church ahead of the planned canonization on Sept. 23 in Washington. “He obviously showed great heroic (valour) and sacrificed himself in the name of evangelization and Jesus Christ,” Checchio told Vatican Radio recently.
But the seminary’s view — and that of the Vatican — stands in stark contrast to the opinions of some Californians.
In his role as a Franciscan friar, Serra is seen by the Holy See as playing a key role in bringing Christianity to the colony known as “New Spain,” which included California. But his detractors argue that Serra oversaw a brutal mission system, which ultimately led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans.
Steven W. Hackel, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and author of Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father, said Serra led an “aggressive” campaign to secure mission territory for his fellow Franciscans.
Missionary rivalry aside, it’s the high death rate among the mission inhabitants for which Serra is most controversial. Serra died in 1784 at age 70, and the system he helped create saw around 80,000 Native Americans baptized in the missions between 1769 and the mid-1830s. By the latter period, around 60,000 of those had died, Hackel said.
“Even though he never killed anyone and would never have promoted that, there’s no question that the system that Serra creates is culturally and biologically lethal to native peoples,” he added.
Some California lawmakers have proposed removing Serra’s statue in the U.S. Capitol — one of two representing state heroes — and replacing it with one of the late astronaut Sally Ride.
Many ancestors of Native Americans who survived the missions share an entirely negative view of the soon-to-be saint. Ronald Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, said there is “nothing positive in the history of Serra.”
The upcoming canonization is a “strictly political” move, Andrade said. “You will see how far modern tribes are away from the church. The (Native American) culture is reviving; that proves to me that they are moving away from what Serra had wanted.”
Andrade accused Francis of orchestrating the canonization “to get some publicity” and revive Catholicism in California. His view was echoed by Elias Castillo, who wrote the book: A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions.
“This is nothing more than a PR move by the Catholic Church to entice more people to become Catholic,” he said, calling Serra’s reign a “devastating period” and the pope’s plans to canonize the Franciscan “disgraceful.”
“Either he doesn’t know of what happened in California in the mission period or he doesn’t care,” he said, calling for the Catholic Church to apologize to Native Americans.
But the narrative of Native Americans as passive victims has been challenged by Tracy Neal Leavelle, associate professor of history at the Jesuit-run Creighton University and author of The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America.
“There certainly was oppression and coercion — the missions didn’t work without native labour — but native peoples and communities also figured out how to make the missions work for them,” he said.
Native Americans were able to use the missions as “backup” when facing the pressures of seasonal cycles of subsistence, Leavelle said. Their communities were nonetheless decimated by disease due to the missions, with Serra becoming “a symbol of that traumatic period.”
Arguing that the Spaniard’s role was not different from other missionaries, Leavelle said he was surprised the pontiff had chosen to canonize Serra.
But for Hackel, the way Serra approached his work gives a vital clue to understanding his path to sainthood.
“From a very young age he had studied narratives and chronicles written by or about missionaries that had come to the new world, some of which had been canonized, and takes their lives as a blueprint for his own,” he said.