The pope is about to make a HUGE mistake.
It concerns Father Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish priest who launched the famed system of Catholic missions in what is today California. He played such an influential role in the region’s European colonization that he gained the nicknames “Father of California” and “Apostle of California.” The State of California officially recognized his importance in the 1930s, when it commissioned a nine-foot tall statue in his likeness to represent the state in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. Today, he remains a popular figure among the state’s large number of Latino Catholics. Perhaps recognizing this, after the state senate voted this past spring to replace the statue with one of native Californian Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Gov. Jerry Brown insisted that Serra’s statue would remain in the Capitol “until the end of time.”
The impression of Serra’s preeminence actually begins for Californians at a young age; all children that grow up here know his name. That’s because as fourth graders, they experience an entire unit of social studies on the Spanish missions. Along the way, in a rite of passage that’s been repeated for generations, they construct their own cardboard mini-missions for display at school.
Now for decades, teachers and textbooks painted the missions as communities of pastoral bliss, where wild, naked, unable-to-fend-for-themselves Indians found benevolent Spanish priests and soldiers who fed and clothed them, taught them more effective ways of farming, and brought spiritual enlightenment to their souls. The portrayal is less idyllic these days, often including mention that some California Indians did suffer under the mission system, particularly from disease. But the traditional narrative remains the popular one. Serra is still a hero, the priest and scholar who self-sacrificially left the comforts of home in Spain to bring civilization and hope to the people of California.
But this coming Wednesday, September 23, while visiting the United States, Pope Francis will elevate him to sainthood. That would be a massive mistake.
Why? Well, the first reason is that canonizing Serra essentially declares the mission period to be a really good thing. His legacy and status as a saint, after all, are based on his direction and oversight of the mission system. So to approve of Serra is to approve of that system; to make him a saint is to give the highest possible praise to his life-defining project.
Yet with all the evidence in view, it seems impossible to sustain a belief that the missions were great for Native peoples. On the contrary, the mission period was horribly destructive to them.
Let’s be honest, the entire mission endeavor was based on theft in the first place. The Spanish invaded Native lands, claimed them, and dared anyone who disagreed to tell them so while staring into the barrel of their muskets.
It’s like the parody of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” that I learned as a kid:
This land is my land
It isn’t your land
I got a shotgun
And you don’t got one
I’ll blow your head off
If you don’t get off
This land was made for only me
(The parody’s lyrics don’t precisely describe the Spanish-Native situation, but you get the point.)
Let’s be clear about the nature of Serra’s missions, too. These were not 18th-century community centers where Native folks could go and learn some skills to better their lives. Many Indian men, women, and children were forced to relocate to the missions. Sometimes, Indian children were abducted and taken to the missions in order to coerce their parents to move there. And by Serra’s own directive, those who tried to escape the missions were caught and flogged – for their own good, in the friar’s mind.
The missions’ core purpose, really, was to re-order Indians’ lives to make them into two things: loyal Spanish subjects whom they could easily control and a labor force the Spanish could harness to reap the rewards of conquest. Serra’s own writings reflect an understanding that his system was meant to accomplish these aims.
That system also crowded Natives into cramped living quarters, where the diseases against which they had no natural immunity spread easily and killed so many of them. Those who tried to flee the squalid conditions were, as Serra directed, whipped.
That system put the Natives to work as slaves. Having been forcibly relocated to the missions, Indians who didn’t want to continue building mission facilities or learning European ways of farming were trapped. Again, those who escaped were rounded up, flogged, and sent right back to the missions.
That system left Native women and children vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse by Spanish soldiers. Many women contracted syphilis and became unable to have children. The soldiers, despite some efforts by Serra to rein them in, were known to shoot Native husbands who tried to protect their wives.
That system forced Indians to convert to Christianity. Some may have truly believed in the new message of salvation that Serra and his colleagues taught. But no Native would have been under any delusion that she or he had much choice. The Spanish philosophy was encoded in a document called El Requerimiento (The Requirement) that was issued by King Ferdinand, the same king who commissioned Columbus’ voyages. It was addressed to indigenous peoples wherever Spanish soldiers might land, and said:
We ask and require you … that you acknowledge the Church as the ruler and superior of the whole world. But if you do not do this … with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses [the Spanish monarchs]; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him: and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.
Let’s be honest: sounds like ISIS to me.
All told, the mission period in what became California saw the Native population cut in half, from around 300,000 to about 150,000. Half of all California Indians died during the mission years.
That does not make Serra’s system sound like a really good thing to me. Again, making him a saint would be a huge mistake.
Now many supporters of Serra’s elevation acknowledge that neither the man, his treatment of the Native population, nor his mission system were without flaws. Like all other saints, they say, he wasn’t perfect. Further, we shouldn’t judge him according to the standards of our time. Instead, they suggest, we should keep in mind that he treated the indigenous peoples of California with much more dignity than his contemporaries would have.
That may be true. And if Serra had been canonized a century ago, there wouldn’t have been much protest. But if the standard for sainthood is lowered that far – “well, the guy wasn’t as bad as other guys back then” – then there seems little reason to recognize someone as a saint.
Many Serra supporters also say that he shouldn’t be blamed for Spanish atrocities; he himself didn’t do most of the terrible things the Natives experienced. And it’s true, he didn’t rape or kill with his own hands, and he was at times even known to intercede for the lives of indigenous folks, even when they were guilty of killing a fellow priest. Yet as I said earlier, if his pending sainthood is to be based on his work in California, it must also take into account the horrible things Native people experienced on his watch. It was his system; he ran it, and it destroyed hundreds of thousands of Indian lives.
The mission period wasn’t even close to being a really good thing. It was so much the opposite that elevating Serra to sainthood is a massive error.
There’s a second reason why I believe canonizing Serra would be a terrible move. It would render meaningless Pope Francis’ apology to indigenous peoples for the Church’s colonial-era human rights abuses. The request for forgiveness was just given this past July on his visit to South America.
There’s a history here, of course. Aboriginal folks throughout North and South America have been told countless times by people in power to expect one thing, only to be given another. In U.S. history alone, governing authorities have broken over 500 treaties with Native Americans.
In many of these instances, Christian leaders were the ones giving, and then breaking, their promises. This history goes back to Columbus and los conquistadores, all of whom acted like they came in the peaceful name of Jesus, but who then used the cross – and the missions – to steal lands and enslave Native people. It includes the infamous boarding schools, mostly run by Christian denominations, which were pitched to Native parents as a means to improve the lot of their children, but which left generations of Indians – the ones who survived the schools – physically, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually wounded.
And now the pope confesses the sins of the Catholic Church’s colonial abuses, only to give the Church’s highest possible honor to a man who played an enabling role in colonial-era crimes against humanity. It’s just the latest in a long line of offenses against Native Americans by people in power, particularly by those who carry religious authority. And for Pope Francis, it empties of all power his apology for the Church’s colonial abuses. Again, sainthood for Serra is a bad idea.
It should be noted that there are Native Californians who support Serra’s elevation to sainthood. But the vast majority appear to oppose it. The leadership of several Native tribes in the state have either issued statements or otherwise spoken out strongly against the act.
And despite the many headlines that only mention Native American opposition to Serra’s sainthood, I want to declare that my American Indian brothers and sisters are not alone. This is much more than just an issue for Native folks. This is universal. There are many non-Natives like me who oppose canonization as well.
One such non-Native is my budding young activist daughter, whom I’ve talked about in previous columns. When I explained to her what I was writing about this week, she grew visibly upset. A little later, I saw her write in her journal in huge letters the word “MAD.” To emphasize her anger, she highlighted the word in three different colors.
Did I mention that she’s in the fourth grade? I can’t wait to see her missions project.
A feminist dad, Eugene Hung writes the Raising Asian American Daughters blog here at Asiance Magazine. He serves as the lead organizer for Man Up Campaign in the greater Los Angeles area, as well as its social media manager. Interact with him on Twitter via @eughung.