Franciscan Brother Junipero is depicted in a painting by Spanish Baroque master Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

The Disputed Canonization of Junipero Serra

The announcement that Pope Francis would canonize Blessed Junipero Serra during his visit to the United States in September took American Catholics by complete surprise. Since John Paul II beatified Serra in 1988, his cause for full sainthood had remained a modest effort led by the Santa Barbara Province of Friars Minor, the Franciscan Order that continues Serra’s heritage throughout California. With the news of Serra’s elevation by the Vatican, all interested parties, including supporters and opponents, have had to consider how best to respond.

There is a widely shared sentiment among many, indigenous voices as well as others, that Serra in certain ways contributed to the tremendous suffering that fell upon the California tribes and the First Nation people in general throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. And there is no question that the history of the native peoples of California ended in one of the greatest human tragedies imaginable.

There is also a romanticized view of Father Serra that portrays him without blemish and neglects the profound impact European empire was certain to have on the function and psyche of a premodern culture. Awareness of such impact is part of a global awakening that has been critically embraced only over the past century. To a great extent, myth about Serra, both positive and critical, defines his legacy. The truth of the matter lies somewhere in the middle and still struggles to find a hearing. For some he is a symbol of lasting injury. Supporters of Serra’s cause argue that it is unfair to judge him for events beyond his influence and historical reach.

Indeed, Serra died in Carmel, Calif., in 1784, only 15 years after founding the first California mission in San Diego. With the secularization of the missions in 1833 by a newly independent Mexico, the Franciscan era effectively came to an end. It was a short-lived experiment. Serra may rightly take some measure both of credit and of blame for the vision of a humane Catholic settlement that inspired his missionary work together with the harsh measures he sometimes employed in practice. But he cannot justly be held accountable for a future war waged by the United States against native tribes living between the Allegheny Mountains and the Sierras.

The uncomfortable truth is that those who settled the Eastern Seaboard as early as the 16th century considered the original residents of the Americas to be savages at best, enemies and impediments more often, and by some accounts even diabolical. With few exceptions, the North American tribes were treated according to such beliefs from the earliest colonies in New England to the catastrophe at Wounded Knee some three centuries later. Even the extermination campaigns against the remaining California tribes following the Gold Rush of 1848 came at the hand of those arriving from the east, and were in no way associated with the declining mission culture to the south.

The Onset of Empire

In terms of raw mortality it is undisputed that all indigenous people suffered deeply from European diseases to which they had no immunity. Given the lack of knowledge of epidemiology in the early 18th century, it is fair to assign historical responsibility for these pandemics, but more difficult to attach moral blame. Universally, contagion accompanies contact. The lasting consequences of exploration and their long-term effects could neither have been imagined nor averted, given the drive for acquisition that characterized these decades of world expansion. How empire was carried out, however, could be influenced.

For many overlapping reasons it fell to the Catholic Church, and the mendicant orders in particular, to influence for the better how future lands would be settled by Spain. The brutal history of the conquest in Mexico and Peru more than 200 years earlier shamed even the opportunists who occupied the Spanish throne. It is well documented that as early as the 16th century the church began to publicly defend the cause of the people living in the Americas. Bartolomé de las Casas, O.P., (1484-1566) authored a well-reasoned and impassioned argument, Defense of the Indians, to challenge the right of one people to subjugate another.

Shaped by his experience as a military chaplain and witness to multiple atrocities in Cuba, las Casas expounded the moral limits of power, the nature of racism and the injury of colonialism in a treatise centuries ahead of society as a whole. In particular, as first bishop of Chiapas, he maintained the fundamental humanity of the people inhabiting the Americas. In debate in 1550 at Valladolid, Spain, las Casas argued persuasively before a royal commission that all indigenous people must be viewed and respected as fellow human beings with intrinsic rights. Although the very premise of this argument may be understood as condescending from a postmodern perspective, the insistence upon universal humanity was revolutionary and became the norm for Catholic evangelization.

Belief in the common humanity of every race and culture as a principle of Catholic doctrine, together with the example of St. Francis of Assisi to preach the Gospel to all creation, was the starting point for Serra’s work as a missionary. His Catholic faith informed by a Franciscan charism sums up his missionary identity, attaching kindness to an interior spiritual rigor with which he disciplined himself and sometimes others. He cannot be understood apart from these apparent contradictions, and his critics make use of this penchant to mortify his own flesh as an acceptable spiritual practice.

Evangelization and Attraction

Through modern eyes simply the desire, or presumption, to evangelize, convert and instruct indigenous cultures may be called into question. None other than Pope Benedict XVI declared that the church no longer engages in raw proselytism but rather grows by the power of attraction. This was Serra’s method. In fact, failure to witness the Gospel to nonbelievers would have been the crime and injury against them in the mind of both Serra and St. Francis. They would have understood it to be their duty, at risk of their own soul, to extend the knowledge of faith to every region on earth, as the Jesuits had recently done in Asia. The premise of all Catholic missionaries was that every person they encountered possessed the spark of humanity necessary to embrace the Christian message of redemption and to merit inclusion as children of God. Therefore, from the beginning, the Spanish occupation of California was engaged as a mission undertaking before all else. The cross would lead, the sword follow. That Serra’s foundations are to this day known as missions, and rarely as presidios, speaks clearly to their principal purpose, the expansion of God’s kingdom.

Mission San Juan Capistrano located in present-day San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, southern California (Photo from

Mission San Juan Capistrano located in present-day San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, southern California (Photo from

Faithful to the example of their founder, Francis of Assisi, the missionaries to California arrived to preach and to teach in a place the friars would have considered something near to Eden. The otherness between the Spanish and the native California cultures cannot be overstated. Contact naturally occurred tentatively, cautiously, but with some real sense of wonder and possibility on both sides. It did not happen without preparation by Serra. Far from the cultural imperialist sometimes suggested, Serra spent years in Mexico learning native dialects and absorbing cultures that would allow him to engage the population of California. To acquire a new language is necessarily to gain insight into the thinking of those who speak it and therefore to understand something of their worldview.

For a Christian mission to succeed it must communicate clearly those sacred ideas that it represents. Every missionary looks for shared concepts as a place to begin dialogue. If most of the indigenous Californians lived in a deeply spiritualized world, so did the Franciscans who left their world behind to rely only on providence. Their preaching clearly resonated with something pre-existing in the hearer, or the missions would have failed quickly. The settlements were never designed to operate through coercion or impressment. That is not to say that there was not an expectation of commitment for the newly baptized to join the greater mission effort and contribute to its growth and success. Many of the lingering critiques of the mission enterprise concern how religious vows were to be honored, and how rules and law generally were enforced. Culturally determined assumptions around the new competing loyalties to both Church and tribe could easily be misconstrued. Many grievances based on expectations and misunderstandings were real, and that legacy remains open to dialogue and interpretation.

Concepts concerning property rights and the idea of ownership were also at odds when European civilization encountered more communally grounded cultures. Records of punishment indicate that theft was considered at least a recurring problem by the mission authorities. The identical act often did not carry the same moral or legal stigma in the mind of native Californians or was seen, from a different point of view, as justifiable. Individual cases are almost impossible to adjudicate from a distance of more than two centuries. But there is no doubt that punishments were carried out. Again, with time, the number and severity is difficult to know with certainty. There are clearly reports of native Californians being placed in restraints, as are citizens in our own time. Morally, there is acceptable and unacceptable use of restraint and detention. Not every instance meets the standard of a crime against humanity, but neither is every instance justified, then or now. The legitimate questioning of corporeal sanctions, how and for what reason they were applied in the California missions, cannot simply be dismissed. It is part of the record and an unresolved grievance. It would, however, be unfair to suggest that all punishments were signs of wider oppression or a policy of raw coercion. It would also be misleading to take a given instance for the rule.

Serra’s Mission

The criteria for discipline and the expectation of obedience placed upon native catechumens and neophytes in California would most logically have been adapted from the conduct codes handed down within Spanish religious institutes of the 18th century guiding the formation of Franciscan postulants and novices. Hierarchy was deeply ingrained and ready obedience assumed. To this day the trait of docility is asked and expected of Catholic seminarians. Whether the application of these disciplinary concepts and methods to the missions was either wise or fruitful is doubtful. But neither can the mere presence of coercion or sanction, in itself, be construed as a sign of particular brutality on the part of Serra. The missions simply could not have been built, and were not built, under a regime of terror or cultural enmity. They were never exactly Eden, but, however briefly, we find signs of a sufficient merging of faith, vision and energy that only something like God’s pentecostal spirit can explain. Without that, the California missions would not exist.

Statue of Junípero Serra at Mission Santa Barbara (Photo from

Statue of Junípero Serra at Mission Santa Barbara (Photo from

As a candidate for sainthood Serra can be judged legitimately only for his personal actions and intentions, and not as an icon of events beyond his control or foreknowledge. There remain many questions surrounding the mission of Serra that will never be answered adequately; others must continue to be addressed truly and fairly. Ultimately, canonization is a process guided by the Holy Spirit. It is a distinction offered by the Catholic Church to those who have done their best to share the faith through word and example. Many if not most saints are justly canonized despite themselves and their inevitable failings. That is the true and only reason they may serve as worthwhile examples. In trust we are all called to offer what is best in us at the risk of exposing what is worst. Historically, in imitation of the first apostles, the distinction of sainthood is often accorded those who have accepted the challenge to evangelize where the Christian faith is little known. Today the Catholic Church is well established along the California coast, and Serra’s missions continue to thrive as places of pilgrimage and as foundations for community.

By objective standards Serra accomplished his life’s work. Even by a more subjective measure, it is well attested that those who actually knew him, both European and Californian, genuinely loved him. Those who understand the Catholic faith know that not all saints in heaven were always saints on earth. They grew in holiness, even as they confessed their sinfulness, as a witness to those they evangelized and inspired. If all voices could be heard fully and fairly, the one who would object most deeply to Serra’s canonization would be that of Junipero Serra himself. He would reject the status of sainthood as unmerited and point to the testimony of his harshest critics as clear evidence against him.

If prior to his death he had foreseen the suffering of the native peoples of America, he would have assigned to himself an unwarranted measure of responsibility and taken on a grave penance in accord with his character and spirituality. Just like the promise of salvation, no one can be said to earn sainthood. It is awarded to those who have fully dedicated their lives to witnessing their faith in the face of hardship and who leave behind an example of service built upon both success and error. In this way, Father Serra deserves to be remembered by his church for the saint he became.

The Rev. Russell Brown is the pastor of Mission San Luis Obispo.