In July, Pope Francis “apologized for the ‘grave sins’ of colonialism against the native people of the Americas.” The pope said, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” So why then is Pope Francis canonizing Junípero Serra, the embodiment of crimes committed against native peoples in California?
Pope Francis is conferring sainthood on a man whose actions led to the destruction of native peoples in California. Serra founded missions where native peoples were imprisoned and tortured, and where thousands died.
Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar who is seen as one of the founders of California, set in motion the establishment of a string of missions in the region starting in 1769 with the founding of one in Baja California. As San Francisco magazine’s Gary Kamiya recently pointed out, “Every schoolchild knows that California Indians at Serra’s missions were taught the Gospel, fed and clothed; few know that many were also whipped, imprisoned, and put in stocks.” Serra’s mission, “to convert pagan Indians into Catholic Spaniards resulted not only in the physical punishment of countless Indians, but in the death of tens of thousands of them – and, ultimately, in the eradication of their culture."
The missions were also designed to bring native peoples a new way of life “centered around farming and ranching,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carl Nolte recently wrote. Nolte pointed out that “By the end of Spanish and Mexican rule in 1846, [60-+ years after Serra’s death] the native population was half what it had been when Serra first saw California.”
Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and whose ancestors were at Mission San Juan Batista, says that “the missions were hellholes,” and “They brought suffering, destruction, death and rape,” to the natives.
“I felt betrayed,” Louise Miranda Ramirez, tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, whose people occupied much of northern California before Serra’s arrival,explained. “The missions that Serra founded put our ancestors through things that none of us want to remember. I think that the children being locked into the missions, the whippings. … That pain hasn’t gone away.”
Steven Hackel, history professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of a 2013 biography of Serra, said “There's no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native. He really did want to eliminate many aspects of Native culture.”
Serra arrived in Spanish-held Mexico in 1749 and quickly set about working for the Inquisition, citing by name several natives who refused to convert to Christianity; they were guilty, he wrote, of “the most detestable and horrible crimes of sorcery, witchcraft and devil worship.” Serra soon gained control of the missions of Baja California, but he found that the native population had already been nearly extinguished by contact with the Spanish. Looking for fresh converts, he led expeditions up the coast into the present-day state of California, where he settled at Monterey and set up ten new missions to spread the gospel through the new land. The California missions formed a network of forced-labor camps where the once-vibrant native peoples of California were systematically reduced to mere shadows of their former selves: Under the mission system, the overall indigenous population of Southern California declined by nearly 1,000 every single year.
If they were lucky enough not to be killed by European diseases spread largely through sexual violence on the part of the Spanish, many natives at the missions sought to run away. According to Carey McWilliams in his 1945 book ‘Southern California: An Island on the Land’, the missionaries didn’t even much mind runaways, because that gave them a reason to go on fugitive-hunting expeditions to distant villages from which they could round up more natives and bring them back to the missions. “With the best theological intentions in the world,” McWilliams wrote, “the Franciscan padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps.” Serra wrote to one governor of the territory, “That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms,” In the early 1780s, according to McWilliams, another governor actually filed a complaint against Serra for sanctioning the harsh treatment of native converts.
Papal supporters of Serra’s sainthood tell a different story and see him as a man who gave up everything to dedicate his life to saving souls, regardless, it should be added, of whether or not they wanted to be saved. Some defenders point to evidence that Serra was not the most sadistic Spanish colonial overlord in California at the time. Another argument in favor of Serra’s canonization is that we shouldn’t judge the misdeeds of the past according to the standards of the present. Anyone who makes this argument in regard to opposing the renaming of schools and other public sites to rescind tributes to slaveholders and white supremacists is properly labeled a racist and an apologist for the worst that humans have ever done to other humans. Should Pope Francis get a free pass to canonize a man directly responsible for the brutalization and ultimately the near-extinction of an entire people simply because it is, in some warped public-relations sense, a tribute to Hispanic Americans, a growing constituency in the Catholic Church? How absurd it would be to congratulate ourselves on the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state capitols and Walmart shelves and to permit the pope to sanctify a man complicit in, and responsible for, the eradication of entire cultures and civilizations.
In order for candidates to be considered for sainthood, they are normally required to perform two miracles. The record shows that Serra “healed” a St. Louis nun of lupus, but with no evidence of a second recorded miracle, Pope Francis decided to waive that requirement.