The Legacy of Junípero Serra
by Guest Author, Patrick Laurence
“A happy death, of all the things of life is our principal concern. For if we attain that, it matters little if we lose all the rest. But if we do not attain that, nothing else will be of any value.” – Junípero Serra, 1749
When Fray Junípero Serra was canonized by Pope Francis on September 23rd, 2015, the Church confirmed that the diminutive founder of California’s missions obtained the principal aim of all his labors: eternal union with God in heaven. A native of Mallorca, Serra left behind family, friends, and prestige as a professor of philosophy to become a missionary ad gentes in North America during the latter half of the 18th century. In this role, the Spanish intellectual distinguished himself by his single-minded zeal in spreading the faith and through his dizzying acts of asceticism.
The Controversial Saint
The pope’s decision to recognize Serra’s place among the elect has been, as expected, dogged by controversy. According to some critics, Serra was the architect of a program of colonization which resulted in the enslavement of unwilling neophytes, fostered the eradication of native culture and traditions, caused the decimation of the local native populations through the spread of European diseases, and facilitated a host of other evils which are still felt even to the present day.
Real Harm Was Done…
Catholics should be cautious about taking a pugilistic attitude towards these charges. Although not speaking of the California missions in particular, Pope Francis recently acknowledged that “Many grave sins were committed against the Native people of America in the name of God.” Similarly, during his Meeting with Native Peoples of the Americas in 1987, Pope Saint John Paul II conceded that ‘”[t]he early encounter between your traditional cultures and the European way of life … was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged.”
…But not what some say was done.
Some of the criticism leveled against Serra and the California missions, however, can hardly be described as objective or historical. At times the rhetoric—with references to the missions as “death camps” and the unintended epidemics as “genocide”—has crested beyond mere hyperbole and approached the defamatory. Archbishop José Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has recently called for “a new conversation about Father Serra and the missionary era.” In Gomez’ view, the negative reaction surrounding Father Serra’s canonization demonstrates just how distorted his legacy has become over the years. “Unfortunately,” he says, “a lot of the arguments out there resort to old stereotypes that can be traced back to the anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda of the ‘black legend.’ Even in the best scholarly writing, we can detect strong prejudice against Catholic beliefs and deep skepticism about the Church’s missionary project.”
The Man, not “the System”
Notably, the critique of Serra is often focused primarily on the colonial system of which he was a part rather than on the moral character of the missionary himself. In his personal life, Serra was clearly driven by an intense desire to share his love of Christ with those who did not yet know Him. Although he, like the other missionaries of his time, spoke in paternalistic tones about the natives, his letters demonstrate that he loved and cared for them. Also, Serra’s penitential practices are acts to admire if not necessarily imitate. For example, he slept only a few hours per night on a board while clutching a one-foot crucifix. After rising with his confreres at midnight to say the office, he routinely eschewed returning to bed and would instead pray and read until dawn. In short, Serra reportedly exhibited heroic virtue and the other trappings of sanctity, even though the Spanish colonial system in which he operated was far from perfect. The Church has canonized a man, not a system.
The Mixed Legacy of the California Missions
The purposes of the missions in Alta California were twofold: to convert the natives from paganism to Christianity, and to settle New Spain’s upper frontier to stave off Russian fur-trading enterprises encroaching from the north. It is undeniable that the arrival of the Spanish inadvertently facilitated the spread of disease which, over the course of half a century, resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indians. But the sober reality for the native tribes of California was that outsiders—and their foreign diseases—were coming no matter what. If not the Spanish from the south or the Russians from the north, eventually they would have been visited by the English or the Americans from the east. Some might (and do) say that the natives would have been better off had the outsiders never come at all. While that idyllic view of history is certainly understandable, it is nonetheless unrealistic given the ways of the world. And it is a view with which neither Serra nor the Catholic Church could ever agree given the divine mandate to spread the Gospel “to the ends of the earth.”
Even from a secular perspective, it would be difficult to deny that the natives of California were better off with the presence of the missionaries to soften the blows of the colonial enterprise. Serra and the Franciscan missionaries constantly interceded on the natives’ behalf to protect against the violation of their civil and natural rights by secular authorities. They protested bitterly, for example, about the rape of indigenous women by Spanish soldiers and successfully obtained their punishment and expulsion. The missionaries also advocated against infringements of the natives’ property rights in the mission territories, which, by law, were supposed to be held in trust for the natives’ benefit and eventually restored to them. When the Kuumeyaay killed a friar and two others at Mission San Diego de Alcalá, Serra not only enforced the Indians’ right to claim sanctuary in the mission church, he successfully intervened to spare them from execution.
Serra’s Representación Established Rights for Native Americans
In 1773, Serra, gravely ill and seemingly near death, traveled thousands of miles to visit the viceroy in Mexico City to discuss certain conflicts which had arisen between the missionaries of Alta California and the Spanish military relating to the governance of the missions. During this visit, Serra presented his famous legal brief, the Representación, which many now consider to be a landmark “Bill of Rights” for Native Americans. The brief was largely adopted and promulgated by the viceroy, becoming the first significant legislation to be enacted in California.
By way of contrast, we know how secular authorities handled the Native Americans in the absence of the religious influence of the Spanish missionaries. In the 1850s, less than twenty years after the mission territories were secularized and liquidated, state and local authorities in California were paying bounties in exchange for Indian scalps. During the 65-or-so years the California missions were in operation, there was never a Wounded Knee or other similar massacre, even though the missionaries were attended by Spanish troops who established presidios near the missions. By 1850, however, hundreds of California Indians were slaughtered in the Clear Lake Massacre and, later, in other locales.
There were no forced conversions to Catholicism
During the mission period, the natives were not “forced” to convert to Catholicism. Undoubtedly there were some who did not fully understand the new responsibilities they were undertaking as Christians. Adults were not baptized until they were sufficiently catechized, and children were not baptized without the consent of their parents. When Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776, for example, only four baptisms were recorded. The following year, only forty baptisms were recorded. These numbers hardly suggest that the indigenous peoples were being rounded up en masse and forcibly conscripted into the Catholic religion.
There is some truth to the contention that, once baptized, the natives were often compelled to stay at the mission and live life “under the bell”. While Serra was alive, neophytes lived in villages adjacent to the missions; only decades later would they live in any adobe structure. At times, Spanish troops, at the behest of the missionaries, used whips and imposed corporal punishment on the natives who committed various transgressions. There is no evidence that Serra himself ever used such punishment, though as a man of his era, he did not oppose it. Corporal punishment was also used on Spanish troops and non-natives. But the natives were not “slaves” as that term is commonly understood in America. They were regarded as descendants of Adam—persons with rational souls, not property. Far from being plantations, the lands on which the natives labored were held in trust for them and, by law, were destined to be returned to them.
All for Nothing?
According to Archbishop Gomez, the critique of Serra is often rooted in a “deep skepticism about the Church’s missionary project”. Some mistakenly believe that, after Vatican II, the missions are no longer necessary, as if the heroic sacrifices of Serra and other missionaries are ultimately moot. It is of course true that, in paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that certain individuals can attain to salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel yet sincerely seek God and strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. But in an oft-neglected portion of the same paragraph—what I refer to as the “Keeping It Real” Clause—the Council Fathers also issued a stern warning:
But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
There is very little reason to believe that the native peoples of California had somehow escaped the common tendency of men to serve the creature rather than the Creator. The missionaries reported that “there are very few who have the faintest idea of Eternity, Hell, and Heaven. In their pagan state, they appear to be materialists.” The missionaries also reported that some of the natives worshipped birds and other animals. One missionary advised that “the father of lies has dominated over them for so many centuries, he has imbued them with the habit of lying to such a degree they cannot say the truth without first lying; for almost always they say the opposite of what they have in mind.”
Father James McDermott, S.J., writing for America magazine, claims that “no matter what good Serra and other missionaries to North America did, it is without question that native people would have been far better off had Europeans never shown up in the first place.”
While there is a kind of earthly sense in which this statement might ring true, it is difficult to fathom how it could be true in the only sense that really matters. The bottom line is that, due to the apostolic efforts of Father Serra and the other Franciscan missionaries, the Gospel was preached to the natives of California. It is virtually certain that many of them, especially the baptized who died in infancy and childhood, were spared eternal separation from God. This does not justify the evils that were ushered in by the missionary project nor does it bring back what was lost. But the tremendous good which was accomplished through Serra’s efforts is the ultimate trump card.
As Serra himself once wrote, “Should we lose heaven, all the rest will be of no profit.”
About the Author
Patrick Laurence, an attorney, writes frequently on legal, cultural, and philosophical issues from Orange County, California. He and his wife, Kristen, are the proud parents of three children.
This article, The Legacy of Junípero Serra is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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