Massive crowds. Throngs of devotees. Ringing church bells. These were the festive hallmarks of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, the first full day of his much-anticipated trip to the United States.
But to many Native Americans in California and other parts of the country, the pontiff’s first mass on American soil at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was a cause of frustration, not celebration.
Several Native American groups and protestors are condemning the pope’s decision to canonize — or make a saint — Junípero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan friar who established missions across California and converted thousands of Native Americans to Christianity. Although the Vatican and many Catholics celebrate him as an accomplished Catholic evangelist, the protestors and other Native Americans say his brand of evangelism was simply a front for Spanish colonialism, and that he effectively enslaved his Christian converts all along the West Coast.
Junípero Serra … played a pivotal role in the enslavement, torture, and other violent tactics perpetrated against Native peoples.
“[Pope Francis] has chosen to proceed with the canonization of Franciscan Missionary Junípero Serra — a man who played a pivotal role in the enslavement, torture, and other violent tactics perpetrated against Native peoples though the mission system in California,” the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) told ThinkProgress in a statement on Wednesday. “This canonization is strongly opposed by California tribes because it validates the monstrous history of the Catholic church during that time.”
“We urge the Church to enter into a process of reform, of reconciliation and of authentic dialogue with indigenous peoples about this history, and the need to take action to prevent the abuses that continue into the present.”
Discord around Serra’s canonization has been brewing since January, when Francis announced his intention to make the man a saint. The pontiff appeared to preempt the controversy in July, when he offered an official apology for the Catholic Church’s role in colonialism during a visit to Bolivia. He lamented the “grave sins” and “crimes” he said were “committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” and noted that he was reiterating the call of Pope John Paul II, who apologized in 2000 for the Church’s historic ”contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.”
Francis, whom U.S. bishops gave a painting of Serra on Wednesday, is expected to repeat his apology for the Church’s role in colonialism while officiating the canonization mass at the Basilica in Washington.
Yet many Native Americans say the pope’s mea culpa rings hollow, since he is still lifting up Serra — who reportedly housed women and unmarried girls in cramped mission quarters until he chose spouses for them — as a paragon of the Church. The NCAI said Francis’ choice to go ahead with making Serra a saint “sends a very different message” than his apology, and in August, the California Association of Tribal Governments published a letter addressed to the Diocese of Monterey challenging the canonization.
“His Holiness Pope Francis’ intent to canonize Friar Serra does not acknowledge the abuse perpetrated upon our people by Friar Serra and the Catholic Missions,” the letter reads. “The atrocities perpetrated upon our families at the Friar Serra mission continues to burden our Tribal citizens with the cumulative psychological and physical impacts of historic trauma.”
The atrocities perpetrated upon our families at the Friar Serra mission continues to burden our Tribal citizens with the cumulative psychological and physical impacts of historic trauma.
Several Native American groups in California have also staged formal protests outside of missions to condemn the sites as monuments to colonialism, an online petition asking the pope to abandon the canonization has accrued more than 10,000 signatures, and in September a mother and son walked and biked to all 21 missions in California to raise awareness about the issue. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the pair took umbrage with Catholics “celebrating the destruction of our culture and ancestors.”
But as the New York Times and Crux pointed out earlier this year, the situation is somewhat complex for the roughly 25 percent of Native Americans who are themselves Catholic. Some argue, like the Vatican, that Serra should be understood as someone who was better than most missionaries, and thus should be lauded for breaking the mold: A booklet provided by the USCCB for the canonization service praised Serra’s missionary career, touting him as a champion for Native American rights.
“Serra was zealous in his attention to the native population,” the booklet read. “On several occasions he confronted the government on their behalf.”
Francis made similar claims during a homily celebrating Serra’s life in May, saying he defended “indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers.” The pope also praised the missionary’s “generosity and courage,” which he said helped “usher in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California.”
Most historians agree that Serra did, in fact, advocate on behalf of Native populations at different points in his career — but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t part of Spain’s brutal colonial machine. Native Americans were often forced by missionaries and the Spanish military to convert to Christianity for their own survival, and subsequently coerced into living on mission compounds. Those who were insubordinate or fled their quarters were often rounded up and punished: Historians within Serra’s own Franciscan order of priests have confirmed that he “upheld the custom of whipping” those who challenged his authority.
Robert M. Senkewicz, history professor at Santa Clara University and co-author of Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, told ThinkProgress in May that while Serra represented “the softer side of colonialism,” he still actively participated in a system in which “violence and coercion were an integral part.”
The pope’s endorsement of Serra is also peculiar for his personal involvement in the process. Saints typically require two vetted miracles before they can be declared a saint, but Francis appears to have ignored this tradition, scheduling Serra’s canonization before the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints assigned a second miracle to the Franciscan.
During his homily, Francis did not repeat his apology for the Church’s role in colonialism, but instead heaped praise upon Serra, claiming he defended Native Americans from mistreatment.
His remarks are below:
“Today we remember one of those witnesses who testified to the joy of the Gospel in these lands, Father Junípero Serra. He was the embodiment of ‘a Church which goes forth’, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God. Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life. He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people. “Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, a saying he lived his life by: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”