Note: this is an updated version of an earlier post written at the time of Serra’s canonization.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike seem to be interested in whether Junipero Serra should be declared a saint. In the previous post I gave an outline of the long process that Junipero Serra — or any other would-be saint — must undergo in order to be officially recognized by the Catholic Church. Given the controversy surrounding Serra’s case, some have asked why bother declaring him a saint? Can’t everyone agree to disagree without raising him up as an example to a billion Catholics? Was it an ill-considered or rush decision by successor of the fisherman?
I for one don’t think so. Papa Bergoglio has already gained a reputation for surprising people with seemingly spontaneous but well-planned gestures, and I believe Serra’s canonization is one of these.
Below are five reasons that convince me that Pope Francis had very clear motives for going forward with sainthood for Junipero Serra, despite opposition from Catholics and non-Catholics concerned about the negative effects of European colonialism and Serra’s association with it.
1. Serra’s life is well-known. “Fortunately, the friar’s life is an open book,” according to Msgr. Francis Weber, in his book, Blessed Fray Junipero Serra: An Outstanding California Hero. The official proposal of Serra’s canonization was sent to Rome in 1934, followed by fourteen years of gathering of documents regarding his life, together with interviews with descendants of those who knew him, both Indian and Hispanic. Weber’s book offers some more insight into the process:
Formal court proceedings began on December 12, 1948 at Fresno, presided over by Bishop Aloysius J. Willinger. Oaths of fidelity and secrecy were taken by all attached to the cause. Specially chosen judges were empowered to interrogate witnesses with questions submitted by the Promoter of the Faith, or the “Devil’s Advocate.” At this hearing the 2,420 documents (7,500 pages) of Serra’s writings were carefully examined for doctrinal content.
In short, Serra’s life has been thoroughly documented, studied and scrutinized, with plenty of time to draw educated conclusions about him.
2. Serra was considered a saint by his contemporaries. The thousands of pages of documents and testimonies revealed that the people who knew Serra considered him to be a saint — both Spanish and Indians alike — including some of those who had been his adversaries. Even officials who had opposed his policies, especially in holding the military accountable in its dealings with indigenous people, could not deny that Serra did what he did out of love for God and for his fellow human beings, and not for personal gain.
Again, quoting Weber, the case was strong:
The monumental testimony presented to the Sacred Congregation for Saints in the 620 page Summarium and its lengthy supplementary volume indicates that in life, at death and ever since there has been an unending chorus of encomiums concerning Fray Junípero Serra’s worthiness for beatification.
3. Those who know Serra’s life best are in favor of his canonization. Scholars who have made an in-depth study of Serra’s life and historical context have not opposed his canonization, and in some cases they have vocally supported it. Archaeologist Dr. Ruben Mendoza, an expert in Latin American indigenous cultures, has spent years working on mission sites all over California. He is considered one of the world experts on Serra and the California missions:
He was a man ahead of his time. He went to lengths to advocate for Native Americans,” Mendoza said in a recent interview.
Drs. Robert Senkewicz and Rose Marie Beebe, a team of historian/translators who have written extensively on the California mission frontier, compiled an authoritative 500-page biography of Serra released in 2015. For Senkewicz, there is no contradiction in canonizing Serra, even though he had flaws,
My sense is that people are not canonized because they are perfect — otherwise, presumably, St. Peter would never have been canonized.
4. Serra had virtues that Pope Francis wants people to imitate. Serra’s canonization takes place on the eve of an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” aimed at encouraging Christians to both practice and seek mercy and forgiveness. One of the most noted episodes of Serra’s life speaks directly to his concern for mercy and forgiveness. In 1775, when several hundred Indian warriors attacked the San Diego mission and killed the resident missionary, Fr. Luis Jayme, Serra immediately wrote to the Viceroy (Spanish king’s representative in Mexico) to remind him that he had earlier asked,
In case the Indians, whether pagans or Christians would kill me, they should be pardoned.”
The friar asked for a formal decree of the Viceroy extending the policy to all missionaries, present and future, including the recently murdered Fr. Jayme. “It will give me special consolation to have it in my hands during the years that God may deign to add to my life.”
5. Serra was a missionary. In a recent homily, Pope Francis outlined why he had chosen to finalize the sainthood process for Serra. The main reason? “He was a tireless missionary.” Francis is not a fan of colonialism, as he has made clear in other speeches, but he has made it clear that he still believes in “mission.” For Francis, a Church that doesn’t go out into the world to announce the Gospel, especially to the poor and marginalized, has become closed and irrelevant. And mission is something the pope wants to especially emphasize in his own home hemisphere, “Friar Junípero’s witness calls upon us to get involved, personally, in the mission to the whole continent.” He also cautions that we need not whitewash figures like Serra, but rather “thoughtfully examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and their shortcomings.” As Serra biographer Gregory Orfalea has suggested, “Francis identifies Serra’s faith with the heart,” a kind of heart Francis believes is needed today, full of the “generosity and courage.”
Many thoughtful people disagree on whether Junipero Serra is a suitable model of generosity and courage for today’s world. Francis is certainly aware of this disagreement. For better or for worse, though, he made his decision, and he thinks the rewards outweigh the risks.