Pope Francis will canonize the Mallorca-born missionary priest when he visits the United States in September this year. There has been some controversy about this because some people accuse Blessed Junipero Serra of abusing the natives in California while establishing the missions. The first thing to establish is that critics are chronologically confused, according to Professor Ruben Mendoza of California State University, Monterey Bay, in this National Catholic Reporter article:
The professor has been involved in research and conservation projects at several California missions founded by Serra. He said many of the Spanish missionary's critics are confusing the impact of Spanish colonizing and missionary activity on the native communities with what happened after California became a U.S. territory in 1848.
"A decimation of the Native American population," Mendoza said, occurred "in the period after 1850; Serra had no connection to that phenomenon. Those who criticize Serra the most tend to conflate the American period with that of the missionaries."
Another major objection to Serra's canonization involves reports that Native American adults at his mission were beaten.
"There is no documentation that Serra himself abused any Native American," Mendoza said. "The system under which he operated did use corporal punishment, but that was also used for transgressors from all walks of life, including soldiers."
Mendoza supports the canonization and said he believes it "has much to offer the peoples of Latin America, especially those of us of Mexican-Indian heritage who currently live under a shadow of doubt and denigration."
Just as with St. Thomas More during the Wolf Hall controveries, I've seen some articles with the headline or comment: "Saint or sinner?" and the answer, just as with St. Thomas More, is: both! Sainthood does not mean that the canonized confessor or martyr was perfect or never sinned; it means that the Church has determined that the confessor practiced the theological virtues heroically and that, by evidence of both devotion and miracles through the intercession of the saint, the Church is certain that the confessor is in heaven. Everyone in heaven is a saint, canonized and recognized by the Church or not; that's one reason we have the glorious feast of All Saints Day.
As the head of the Knights of Columbus noted, these attacks on Father Serra are part of the "Black Legend":
We all know, for example, the story of the Spanish Armada trying to invade England. It has come down through history as a prejudice against Spaniards as being unusually cruel, unusually greed, unusually untrustworthy. . . .
The presumption of the black legend is that the Indians — the native peoples — were treated cruelly, maybe were tortured, were exploited. When the fact of the matter is, what drove and motivated Junípero Serra and the other missionaries was the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, that these people have dignity. When she appeared to Juan Diego, she said: “Am I not your Mother?” Did she not come with their appearance, as one of them. She also said: “I have the honor to be your mother.”
Disciples of Our Lady of Guadalupe understand that she is coming out of respect. And therefore, evangelization does not mean domination; it doesn’t mean exploitation. It means bringing the Gospel to people and cultures that you respect.
And Carl Anderson notes that it was the State of California, in the days of the 49ers, that abused the natives:
You even have the governor of the time saying the Indians must be exterminated. There was no thought of treating the native people with the kind of respect and multiculturalism that Junípero Serra wanted. The governor stated this quite clearly and used the word ‘extermination’, so it’s very clear what was going on.
The Black Legend is one of those sloppy, easy ways to think (or not think) about history, using some simplistic, generalized framework to sort out the heroes and the villains. We know that history is more complex than that but this propaganda device is hard to dislodge from popular culture.
A final aspect of this issue is the statue of Blessed Junipero Serra in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection (pictured above/public domain)--there was a move to have it replaced with one of Sally Ride, but that has been put on hold, at least until after Pope Francis' visit. St. Damien of Molokai, the Leper priest, is the other Catholic saint depicted in the hall. Do you know which historic figures represent your state? Perhaps I'll quiz Matt on who represents Ohio!