You may have heard of the controversy surrounding this man, Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan missionary to California in the 18th century. In 2015, Pope Francis made him a saint during his first visit to the United States. A special Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. on September 23. This service marked the country’s first canonization. Pope Francis told the thousands who attended the Mass that Serra “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.” Not everyone was pleased with the pope’s decision to grant Serra sainthood, however. Some objected to the forceful methods Serra used in trying to convert the Native Americans to the Catholic faith. His decision to employ corporal punishment on those who committed offenses also broke with traditional Franciscan practices. According to USA Today, Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, expressed his outrage in a letter to California governor Jerry Brown, writing: “Canonizing Junipero Serra effectively condones and celebrates his use of imprisonment and torture to convert California Indians to Christianity.”
Serra founded 9 missions up the California coast, from San Diego to San Francisco. “For me, he is somebody who should be admired for his persistence, his dedication, his faith and his great love for people. On the other hand, he was a person of his time and place – he had his blind spots,” said Franciscan Daniel Dwyer, a historian from Siena College in Loudonville, New York. Serra was called the “founding father of California.” His picture is on the state seal of California and his statue is in the Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States. Today there are many who would want these artifacts removed and destroyed. “He has become a very convenient symbol of all the evils of colonization, imperial expansionism and the evils of racism,” said Franciscan Jack Robinson, provincial minister of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in Albuquerque, New Mexico. More and more we Franciscans want to be part of the healing of systemic racism. If the images of Serra offend Native Americans, indigenous people, people of color, indeed they should be removed. At the same time we are grateful for the love and sacrifice of people like Junipero Serra despite his flaws.