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.


St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of “Mother Cabrini,” St. Frances Xabier Cabrini. Since I remembered very little about this saint, I looked her up when I realized that today was her feast day.

I was struck, as I read a short description on one website, by Mother Cabrini’s openness to God’s plan. When she was eighteen, what she wanted was to become a nun. But she was rejected because of her health, so she helped her parents until they died and then worked on their farm with her siblings. When she was asked by a priest to teach in a girls’ school, she said yes, doing that for six years. When she was asked by a Bishop to do so, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Despite her own desire to evangelize in China, when she was asked by a Bishop and then Pope Leo XIII to emigrate to the United States to minister to Italian immigrants, she did so.

I don’t get the sense that this was simply blind obedience out of any fear of authority. Rather, the picture that emerges of this saint is of a woman of deep faith and trust in God who discerned prayerfully how to respond to what was being asked of her. A woman who was willing to consider not only her own desires, but the needs of God’s people. And a woman of incredible courage.

Ultimately, Mother Cabrini became a citizen of the United States and in 1946 became the first American citizen canonized as a saint.

Mother Cabrini, pray for us!

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Martyr

Today the Catholic church celebrates the memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was chosen as the second bishop of Antioch around the year 60 AD and led that diocese (by that time the most important in the Middle East) for forty years.

Ignatius, often called “Godbearer,” incurred the wrath of the Roman Emperor for failing to offer patriotic sacrifices to the Roman gods and was condemned to be thrown to wild beasts in the public arena in Rome. Although many Christian groups tried to get his death sentence commuted, that was not his desire. For Ignatius, martyrdom was a way of demonstrating total devotion to God. Father Robert McNamara writes:

“Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts,” [Ignatius] said, “through whom I may attain to God!”
His desire was not thwarted. Ground by the teeth of the animals, he became as he had hoped to be, the “pure bread of Christ!” “Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may prove to be pure bread.”

I’m always moved by the stories of the early martyrs. They displayed a courage that I’m not sure I have. Perhaps it is that their faith is stronger than mine. I suspect I’d have been quite relieved at people sending letters trying to stave off the emperor’s tossing me to wild beasts.

For me, saints like Ignatius are an inspiration. Like a kid saying, “When I grow up I want to be _____”, I aspire to Ignatius’ courage and faith.

St. Gregory on Abandoning Ourselves

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Gregory the Great, pope and Doctor of the Church. He was a prolific and influential writer as well as a good shephard to his people. He did much to help the poor and, even as pope, lived in monastic simplicity.

I find his comments on what it means to deny ourselves to be very helpful. I think when we hear word that speak of denying ourselves and taking up our cross, we hear them in a negative fashion, assuming they must mean suffering something very unpleasant. Gregory’s words explain Jesus’ words in a more positive and constructive way:

We abandon ourselves, we deny ourselves, when we escape what we were in our old state and strive toward what we are called to be in our new one. Let us consider how Paul, who said, “It is no longer I who live,” had denied himself. The cruel persecutor had been destroyed and the holy preacher had begun to live. If he had remained himself, he would not have been holy. But let the one who denied that he was alive tell us how it came about that he proclaimed holy words through the teaching of the truth. Immediately after saying, “It is no longer I who live,” he added “but Christ lives in me.” It is as if he were saying, “I have indeed been destroyed by myself since I no longer live unspiritually; but according to my essential being I am not dead since I am spiritually alive in Christ.

Denying ourselves, taking up our cross, means taking on Christ. Dying to all that is sinful – all that is not God in us – and allowing Christ more and more to live in us.

That doesn’t sound negative at all. It actually sounds rather attractive.

St. Thomas More

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Thomas More, who, among other patronages, is the patron saint of lawyers. More was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to sign an oath declaring the king to be the head of the Church in England.

More was a deeply prayerful person and in his writings he encourages others to take time in quiet prayer and meditation. Here is a prayer he wrote while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It contains some petitions we might all ask our God to grant to us:

Give me the grace, Good Lord
To set the world at naught. To set the mind firmly on You and not to hang upon the words of men’s mouths.
To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly pleasures. Little by little utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of all its business.
Not to long to hear of earthly things, but that the hearing of worldly fancies may be displeasing to me.
Gladly to be thinking of God, piteously to call for His help. To lean into the comfort of God. Busily to labor to love Him.
To know my own vileness and wretchedness. To humble myself under the mighty hand of God. To bewail my sins and, for the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity.
Gladly to bear my purgatory here. To be joyful in tribulations. To walk the narrow way that leads to life.
To have the last thing in remembrance. To have ever before my eyes my death that is ever at hand. To make death no stranger to me. To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell. To pray for pardon before the judge comes.
To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me. For His benefits unceasingly to give Him thanks.
To buy the time again that I have lost. To abstain from vain conversations. To shun foolish mirth and gladness. To cut off unnecessary recreations.
Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at naught, for the winning of Christ.
To think my worst enemies my best friends, for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.
These minds are more to be desired of every man than all the treasures of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all in one heap.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

Today the Catholic Chuch celebrates the memorial of the woman named by Pope Pius XII as the patroness of immigrants, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first United States citizen to be canonized.

Mother Cabrini, as she is often called, was an immigrant to the United States from Italy, although her actual desire was to bring the Gospel to China. She was urged by the bishop of Piacenza that she was more needed in the U.S. given the large number of poor Italian emigrants to the U.S. who had no one to tend to their welfare. She and her sisters settled first settled in New York in 1889, where they taught children and cared for the physical and spiritual needs of the Italian immigrant population. Over time, more of Mother Cabrini’s sisters came from Italy and their work spread across the United States. She herself traveled widely both in the U.S. and in Central and South America.

In Blessed Among All Women, Robert Ellsberg describes Mother Cabrini as never having mastered the English language and being small and unimposing in stature. But, he says, “her indomitable will, her inexhaustible energy, and her willingness to face any challenge made her an irresistible force.”

In the Opening Prayer for today’s Mass, we pray,

God our Father,
you called Frances Xavier Cabrini from Italy
to serve the immigrants of America.
By her example teach us concern for the stranger,
the sick, and the frustrated.
By her prayers help us to see Christ
in all the men and women we meet.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.


Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a saint who is very close to my heart. On this day last year, I wrote about St. Francis’ role in my life both during the time I was a Buddhist and during the period when I was struggling with my return to Catholicism. (That post is here.)

I’ve visited some of the central places in Francis’ life. I’ve stood in the chapel that sits on the spot where he received the stigmata. I’ve knelt by the big wooden cross under the overhanging rock at La Verna, where Francis prayed during his winter retreats. I’ve touched the places in Eremi, outside of Assisi, where he slept. I’ve walked around his tomb in the lower level of the Basilica in Assisi (the same spot where my daughter’s high school choir sang a beautiful Ave Maria during a spring break trip to Italy this past year, which you can listen to here).

In each of those places I’ve felt a sense of awe and a sense of closeness to this saint who, over the years, has provided me with so much support and so much love.

We sometimes have the misconception that those we have come to call “saints” were models of holiness from their earliest days. Francis illustrates the error of such a view. According to one of his biographers, Francis “wasted his time miserably, encouraging wickedness until he was nearly twenty-four years old.” Another biographer, writing of hie early years, called him a spendthrift, all of whose money went on “eating and carousing with his friends.”

Francis’ enlistment in a civil war, which resulted in his imprisonment for a year, began a process of change in young Francis. Ultimately, he found himself heeding God’s call to “rebuild my church, which as you can see has fallen into ruins.”

There are many things I admire about Francis, but I think what I most admire is his absolute confidence that the Lord would provide for him. He committed himself to a life of absolute poverty, eating only what people gave him, having no money and now idea how he would provide for himself from one day to the next. Yet, for Francis, this was not a source of anxiety and concern. He trusted in God and God was enough for him.

On this day, let us pray for Francis’ absolute trust and confidence in God.

Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist.  I’ve written about John before, as he is one of the figures that occupies a central spot when I visualize the Communion of Saints; he is one of my great insipirations and models.  In this month’s issue of Magnificat, Father Peter John Cameron, OP, gives a number of explanations for why we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.  Among the ones that most resonate with me are these two:

The nativity of Saint John the Baptist is a sacred reminder of the fact that I need born in my life every day:
* someone who leaps with joy before the presence of the Lord making me want to live my own relationship with Jesus with greater ardor and fervor;…
* someone who models for me that there is no greater joy in my life than for Jesus to increase and for me to decrease, especially as regards my self-reliance, my self-assertion, my self-importance.

John understood and embraced that it was about Christ, not about him. He understood that Christ was central – Christ is the light – and that our job is to point the way to, and reflect, the light. Not to try to be the light, but to point the way to the light. And he modeled that this is not a task we perform out of obligation, but rather, out of an incredible joy at Jesus’ presence with us. It is with that joy that we celebrate John’s birth.

St. Thomas More

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas More, patron of lawyers. Many of us of a certain age obtained our first knowledge of Thomas More by reading or watching the film version of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play that deals with More’s refusal to endorse Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (which divorce split England permanently from the Catholic Church).

Thus, when we think of More, what we see is a model of a person of principle, someone courageous enough to stand up to the king, even at the cost of his death. And that is a worthy model.  But in how he dealt with others,  More is also a man worthy of imitation. Erasmus wrote this about More in a letter written in 1519:

It is said that none are so free of vice. His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity or dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery. …He seems born and framed for friendship, and is a most faithful and enduring friend . . .When he finds any sincere and according to his heart, he so delights in their society and conversation as to place in it the principal charm of life . . .In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More . . .In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent, if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity…. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. …No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense.

A worthy model, not only for lawyers, but for all of us.

St. Thomas More, pray for us.

St. Joseph

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the solemnity of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and human father to Jesus. We rightfully put a lot of focus on Mary and the Annunciation when we think of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. But today invites us to look at Joseph’s part in the story.

Joseph was a young carpenter with his whole life in front of him. He was happily engaged to a young woman named Mary, whose virtue was beyond reproach. Joseph doubtless imagined the life he would live with Mary and with the many children they assuredly would have. He worked at his trade, developing his skills as a carpenter, and dreaming of all that life had in store for him.

But then Mary became pregnant, and Joseph knew it was not his doing. He must have been heartbroken, thinking that Mary had betrayed him.

Joseph also knew that the penalty for adultery was death by stoning, but he was too compassionate and loving a man to inflict that on Mary. So, perhaps at some potential cost to his own standing in the community, he decides to quietly divorce her and to pick up the pieces of his life. But before he can do so, an angel appears to him in a dream, telling him that Mary’s pregnancy is the result not of another man, but of the power of God. Thus, says the angel, take your wife into your home and raise her son with her.

How many people, hearing such a tale, would have had the reaction of Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, thinking the vision to be the result of imagination or a badly digested dinner? How many would have believed that Mary’s pregnancy was not the result of sin? And how many would have been willing to endure the snickers of the other young men in town at taking Mary into his home?

But Joseph was a man of strong faith, tremendous faith. He believed in God’s plan and so cooperates in it. He takes Mary in, and not unwillingly, but with love. He trusted God and worked to see God’s plan fulfilled. And Joseph cares for and protects Mary and Jesus, who he raises in love as his own son.

Joseph is an inspiration. And so on this day on which we remember him in a special way, I pray for his faith and his courage and for the ability to cooperate in God’s plan even when the potential cost is high.