One of the more “Catholic” things that Pope Francis did during his visit to the United States was to canonize 18th-century Spanish missionary Junipero Serra. In my post last week on Serra, I referenced Steven Hackel’s biography, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father.
I was hoping Hackel, an early American history professor at the University of California-Riverside, would offer some commentary on Serra’s canonization. And he did.
Hackel sees the canonization of Serra as having to do more with Francis’s views on immigration than on anything having to do with the missionary’s views on Indians. Here is a taste of his post at Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians:
This national amnesia about the ways in which immigrant Catholic missionaries shaped much of what is now the United States has had deleterious effects on our nation’s character. The ill effects are evident today in the words of bigots, racists, and political opportunists who seek to safeguard an imaginary Anglo-Protestant America from an exaggerated Latino immigrant threat. Yes, those who criticize Serra’s treatment of Indians are right to do so. But debates about Serra’s Indian policy miss a fundamental message that the Pope intends to deliver through Serra’s canonization: our nation’s current wave of anti-immigration rhetoric flies in the face of America’s deep Hispanic and Catholic roots, and sadly it draws on a rich vein of anti-Catholicism in American history. Serra’s life tells us that American history from its beginnings was diverse and multiethnic and that our national creation story is not just one of thirteen English colonies united in 1776 but that it extends far deeper into our past and includes Spanish missionaries and the Native Americans they encountered. Clearly the Pope believes that if Americans can embrace what is Spanish and Catholic in America’s past, they can become more accepting of our nation’s growing Latino and Catholic populations, irrespective of their origins. Time will tell.
Those who wonder about this canonization and the proper place of founding fathers like Junípero Serra in American history should know that Serra rarely lost a fight, even when he faced enormous challenges. Against all odds—when he was old and in poor health from fatigue and a chronically ulcerous leg, with the Spanish military in California turned against him—Serra persevered to found more missions. Just this year he survived an attempt by some California legislators to remove his statue from the U.S. Capitol. In Serra’s defense, Governor Jerry Brown stated that “The Pope is right in recognizing his sanctity.”
The Catholic Church says that Serra worked miracles. Perhaps he will soon work another. This man who is soon to be a saint might just be the symbol that Americans have long needed to more fully recognize another aspect of the complexity of our nation’s origins. As told by the Pope, Archbishop Gomez, and Dr. Carriquiri, Serra’s story—sailing across the Atlantic, venturing deep into Mexico on foot, journeying far north to California—is not just a life of Catholic heroism. It is also a reminder to our nation’s Nativists that Catholics and Hispanics have a long claim to American soil and its history. America is a land of immigrants, and among the first and most important were missionaries like Serra. Many came overland from the south, spoke Spanish, and practiced Catholicism. They left a lasting mark on American history and they will continue to shape its future. It is in honor of them, and future generations of Latinos, that the Pope is canonizing Serra against the wishes of those who rightly claim that Serra’s missions adversely affected California’s indigenous peoples.
Read the entire post here