Junipero Serra: A Controversial Canonization

As many or most of you know, Pope Francis will canonize the Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra during his upcoming trip to the United States.  (Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.)

The decision to canonize Serra is not without controversy.  Some claim that Serra was responsible for the torture and death of large numbers of indigenous people.  He is accused of having set up forced labor camps.  Others argue more generally that the missions in California “created a legacy of poverty and invisibility” and that “tribal people still suffer the impact of missionaries.” There seems to be no denial that, at a minimum, Serra’s missionary activity (in the words of Father Michael Perry, minister general of the Order of Friars Minor), “may have had ‘unintended consequences’ and may have used methods contrary to the ‘sensibilities of people today.'”

In an article in the current issue of America Magazine, Jeffrey Burns talks about the best and worst of Serra.  he then relays an encounter recorded in a biography of Serra in which Serra and his companions were struggling in the rain and sinking into the ground as they walked.  They came upon a group of Chumash Indians, their previous encounters with had not gone well.  Although Serra and friends feared the worst, “the Chumash approached, took the 63-year-Serra by the arms, lifted him up and carried him some distance to solid ground.”  The encounter deepened Serra compassion for the Chumash.

Burns writes

What we celebrate with the canonization of Junipero Serra is not a failed missionary policy nor the imperial colonization and subjugation of a land and people – and certainly not the death of so many indigenous people.  What we celebrate is a man burning with missionary zeal who loved and engaged the native people of California.  We celebrate the contemporary native Californian Catholic community, who bear witness to this complex history and are, perhaps, Serra’s greatest legacy.

At the same time, let us celebrate the heroic efforts of California’s native peoples, who were not merely docile victims but a strong, proud people who were forced to negotiate a complex and at times bewildering new environment.  Let us celebrate that moment on the beach where two people met to share that most basic of human gifts – kindness.

I’m guessing that will not be enough to satisfy many upset by the canonization.  But it may remind us that saints are not, and never have been, perfect.