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

Map depicting the State of California and mission locations along the coast
Map 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.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.


  • Normandie Kent says:

    Making Father Serra a Saint is a Slap in the Face of all the ancestors and their descendant,. When you say that a person can’t judge Serra with today’s standards and that he was a man of his times. It is a contradiction, because he is being judge by in our times, and he was being judged for sainthood in our times too. My other concern is the supposed “Bill of rights” the was never one, that is a straight up lie, being propagated by the Catholic Church, It was in response to the feud between him and Don Francisco Fages., it was called the “Representation” it had 32 points. It was all for the Benefit of Serra, not the indians or Neofytes. The only thing it mentioned about the Indians was that Indian wives of the Spanish soldiers could receive some farm animals as incentive for marrying soldiers. When he travelled back to present it to the viceroy the conditions and rights were not changed, there was no “Bill of Rights” for the Indians . That is a lie. The padres did not care that their “Wards” were dying, all they cared about was saving souls. The Indians had their own Spirituality and Gods, the fathers stripped the of their ancestral lands, freedoms, Heath, spirituality, identities, sovereignty , and their lives and those of their children. They enslaved them so they could not leave the missions, forbid them to visit their families, and when the neophytes died, they would have their henchmen the sold asks steal more from the gentile villages. The missions were nothing but slave and concentration camps. And Serra was nothing but a glorified Slaver and Slave master. He should not of been canonized . He was not a saint but was I saintly. If pope Francis is so sorry for the way all Native Americans were treated, why does he not revoke the Papal Bulls, like the doctrine of discovery. The bull that is still being used to strip native people’s of their lands as of today? If he is so sorry why does he not give back the lands the Missions sit on to the homeless and landless coastal indians like the ones who were declared extinct because the were contaminated with the stain of being hispanics. To this day there are only a few thousand descendants of those long dead Mission Indians , when once there were millions of indigenous peoples like the Chumash, Esselen, Tongva, Tatavian, Yokut, Olhone, in the areas were the missions are still standing on the once lush and abundant lands the padres stole for themselves and Spain, they stole and obliterated the people’s who had lived on these lands for tens of thousands of years, their beautiful languages and customs and wealth and replaced them with Spanish ones and gave their wealth to their overlord the pope. The California Indians were so peaceful and friendly, they should of killed father Serra when they had the chance and all the soldiers with their Families. You say they were better off with the Spanish fathers converting them? I doubt it, the Russians were way better with their indigenously people, and they have thousands of different tribes in Siberia. If the English had come first at least we would of had a few Battles, and then the usual treaty signing, and reservations. Their are only two or three former Mission Indian reservations. Out of the 6,000 Chunash people left out of 30,000 or more precontact there is only one Chumash reservation of less than 100 acres with only about 120 members. The rest can’t get recognized by the government, due to what Serra did to the Chumash Coastal indians, and all the other tribes. You are not a descendant off Mission Indian. You a a apologist for Serra and the Catholic Church, you know nothing of the Struggles of being an Indian, who has had his whole world ripped out from under him, his Identity gone, his customs gone, his language gone, his ancestral homelands stolen, his people scattered to the winds, his ancestors and his descendants caught up in a never ending cycle of poverty and institutionalized racism. Your great grandmother and her Siblings stolen from their parents and extended families, and sent to the Sherman Institute Indian School, to be so called assimilated into the white race, but in reality to be trained into be the Servant Class, for rich white families. And for her very unhappy with her lot, to run away and marry the first man she met at 13 yrs old and have her first child that same year. I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. Father Serra was not Saint Material, a man worthy of Sainthood should transcend his times, and do better. And not have his behavior explains away as someone who was a man of his times. That is no justification for making the man a saint, because he did not do anything to earn his sainthood. He authorized slave raids against gentile villages, for converts and Slaves, he starved his neophytes and workers. His soldiers killed any an who tried to save the woman and children of the targeted village. His captives died in the filthy Barracks he stuck them in and locked the healthy in with the sick and dying. Don’t tell me they didn’t know about communicable diseases, of course the did, the Spanish and Europeans had been hurling diseased bodies contaminated with the plague and smallpox. They knew the risk alright.

    • Justin says:

      Your idiotic rambling post is why he had write this in the first place. Did they not teach you writing and critical thinking in school? Nowhere in your utterly incoherent response is there anything approaching a refutation of his points, just more talking points from the anti-Catholic playbook about evil whites hurting poor proto-hippy natives and some whining about papal bulls that will never be revoked. Seriously, do you even know what a bull is? If all you’re going to do throw a tantrum rather than address anything he actually wrote, and that means coming up with a logical response and not spewing talking points, your side really has no hope.

    • Patrick Laurence says:

      Normandie Kent,

      I would recommend that you read some of the older histories of Spanish America and the California missions. Your narrative did not exist until the anti-colonial revisionist history of recent decades. Do you have any evidence that the natives who actually lived and worked with Serra had the same animus towards him as you, removed by several hundred years, seem to have?

      The suggestion that I am disqualified from rendering an opinion because I do not have the experience of being a native is nonsense. The historical record is available to all. My son is a member of the Ottawa Chippewa Band. I was involved in litigation to enforce his tribe’s treaty rights to hunt and fish in the Great Lakes region. Does that mean I qualify now?

      Yours may be the very first claim I have seen that the California Indians would have been better off in the hands of the Russians or the English rather than the Spanish. Have you read what happened to the Aleuts in Alaska when the Russians began trapping fur there before moving down the coast towards California? The English record is similarly dismal.

      The full historical record – not just the politicized accounts of certain corners of recent decades – shows that missionary activity in California cannot be dismissed with polemics and over-simplified rhetoric. Charles Lummis, a well-known defender of Indian rights in California and harsh critic of the Indian Bureau, argued nonetheless that the Spanish treatment of the natives was exemplary. In 1905 he stated:

      “That Indian system which the Catholic Church and the Spanish Government administered over two-thirds of America for three and a half centuries — the root of that system was the consideration that the Indian was a human being, born of woman and loved by his mother; that he had a father and tended to love him. I would like to be Czar for one week — just long enough to compel every American AND EVERY BIGOT to read the Spanish laws formulated for the treatment of the Indians — “las Leyes de Indias.” NO OTHER NATION IN THE WORLD—AND I AM WILLING TO STAKE MY REPUTATION ON THE STATMENT—HAS EVER PUT INTO FORCE LAWS SO NOBLE, SO FAR-SIGHTED, SO HUMANE, AS THOSE FORMULATED BY THE CROWN OF SPAIN, WITH CHURCH ASSISTANCE, AND CARRIED OUT BY THE OFFICIAL AND CLERICAL ADMINISTRATORS…. Where are our millions of Indians? There are but 250,000 left now in the United States, and the great majority of those are left because they happen to be in the areas that the Spanish Government and the Catholic Church controlled until 1848.”

      • Alex Rangel says:

        this comment relies heavily on the idea of imperialism as a necessity. I don’t truly see any situation in which it is necessary for one nation to entirely swallow and recondition the citizens of an indigenous population. The legislation surrounding it is not noble, for the premise was to essentially conquer these people thru a variety of means. True respect would have been to allow the indigenous people to sustain their way of living and practice their own religions. I didn’t realize how pervasive imperialism was in these such niche places in society

  • Normandie Kent says:

    Sorry for all the typos, my iPod keyboard is extremely small.

  • Alex Rangel says:

    This article is written from the point of view of a practicing Catholic (who is also caucasian and lives in orange county) So we can’t expect him to truly sympathize with the struggles of the natives. The cult of Catholicism conditions these savages to view anyone who doesn’t share their moral universe / narrative as ultimately alien and subhuman until conversion. They may deny it consciously, but it is rife in every word written here. The idea that the presence of christ in california overrules the absolute horrors (and yes, genocide, which was more than circumstantial or biological warfare) of colonization and conversion is a fever dream of the progressive yet casually racist californian catholic church. Shame upon this author, and Junipero Serra who is far from heaven. There is no justification for invasion and forced labor (which is enslavement).

  • Guitarmom says:

    There was a time when people thought that religion mattered a great deal. These same people felt that converting others to the religion that they knew would get these other people to heaven was a good thing, a wonderful thing. Today, in contrast, we believe that everyone has a right to believe whatever makes them feel good. It is considered rude to try to tell others that there is a better way.

    Please take a moment to put yourself into missionaries’ shoes. You believe strongly that you can help other people both in this world and the next. You believe this so strongly that you are willing to risk your earthly life to teach other people about your faith. If you felt that those other people were “sub-human,” why would you risk your life to save them? Answer: You wouldn’t.

    So please give the missionaries credit: they cared about the souls of the native Californians. That was their motivation. They weren’t after riches—they’d taken vows of poverty. They weren’t after power—they’d taken vows of obedience to their own superiors. They weren’t after wives—they’d taken vows of celibacy. What are you left with? They wanted to help.

    You may disagree with their methods. You may disagree with whether or not they actually helped. But please see that their desire was to bring something wonderful to people who had not heard the good news about God’s plan of salvation. No missionary ever tried to bring that good news to a dog, a cow, or a horse. In other words, the missionaries only brought their message to humans, not “sub-humans.”

    P.S. Before you accuse me based on my race, please know that my roots come from South America.

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