A Patron Saint for Colonizers and Racists?

06/11/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

The first pope of the Americas...a fresh voice for liberation theology, social justice, and the environment...a pope whose Holy See delegation sternly advocated indigenous rights to the U.N... we who respect the Native American peoples have been eager to see who would be the first saints Pope Francis would canonize from this hemisphere.

Imagine the shock, grief and outrage, then, triggered by the Pope's plans to canonize Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784) during the papal visit to the United States in Fall, 2015. Today a Native American woman of a California tribe wrote me the following: "by virtue of this canonization of a conqueror, the pope has declared war on Native Peoples, globally."

Serra is the Franciscan missionary who oversaw the colonial system of missions in California. The news of his prospective canonization speaks volumes about Church ignorance--after all these hundreds of years--of Native American accomplishments, while reminding us of the tragic and brutal history of Christian missionizing.

It is sad that a reforming pope who has actively sought the perspectives of the faithful would be so blind to the history of indigenous peoples on two continents, and deaf to the protests of indigenous and non-indigenous Christians alike. And it is sad that, as many nations and peoples await Pope Francis' encyclical on Eco-theology and Climate Change, he would follow his predecessors' example in favoring the perpetrators of colonization and genocide over the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere and their living legacy of respect for nature...a legacy that is vital to the survival of the life on Earth as we know it today.

This is a severe blow to the hopes of people looking to a reformed papacy and a reforming pope. Granted, Pope Francis is only human like the rest of us and humans err--as he says, he himself is a sinner. And this decision is a grave sin indeed.

Serra's theology was retrograde even in his own day and by standards even of his own time--saying nothing of today. How remarkable it is that Pope Francis is on the cusp of canonizing Archbishop Romero of El Salvador who stood up to the extreme right-wing militias of his country to stand on the behalf of the poor, and is thereby choosing to rehabilitate liberation theology -- but the same Pope is tone deaf to the colonial and "enslavement" theology that motivated Serra.

What was Serra's theology? When Serra left Spain for the Americas while in his mid-thirties, he mused about his parents "preparing themselves for that happy death which of all the things of life is our principal concern."(1) Unfortunately that was his driving ideology as a missionary to the Indians as well. In January, 1780, thirty-two years after arriving in the Americas, Serra writes about how to treat two Indian leaders who had rebelled against the missions, and displays his already familiar theology:

"I would not feel sorry no matter what punishment they gave them, if they would commute it to prison for life, or in the stocks every day, since then it would be easier for them to die well. Do you think it possible that if they kept them prisoners for a time, and by means of interpreters explained to them about the life to come and its eternal duration, and if we prayed to God for them--might we not persuade them to repent and win them over to a better life? You could impress on them that the only reason they were still alive is because of our affection for them, and the trouble we took to save their lives." (2)

This is language of the oppressor writ large. Serra urged his friars to baptize the Indians in prison and give them crucifixes and rosaries and dress them in tunics of white cotton cloth "in which they would die and be buried," thus preparing them it seems for "eternal life."(3) Actually, their lives were saved not by Serra but by the military governor who commuted their death sentence to hard labor.

Never gaining an effective grasp of the native peoples' languages, Serra pursued a steady course of domination. According to Spanish law, every mission was to be temporary and within ten years of its founding each was to be handed over to Christian Indians who were also to take over as governors of the land and mission. Serra objected that the Indians were incompetent to govern themselves and needed to be supervised and punished by the friars...even though the native people had an ancient and well-established culture based on sharing and cooperation rather than power-over; they knew far more about raising crops indigenous to the land than did the Spaniards.

Serra also objected to being denied his practice of whipping the Indians. Wanting to continue this practice, he wrote to the military governor Felipe de Neve that there "may have been some inequalities and excesses on the part of some fathers and that we are all exposed to err in that regard."

Nevertheless, he wrote, the end justifies the means because "when we came there, we did not find even a single Christian, that we have engendered them all in Christ, that we, every one of us, came here for the single purpose of doing them good and for their eternal salvation, and I feel sure that everyone knows that we love them." (4)

Really? Whipping people; taking their land; forbidding their rituals; ending their languages; locking them up in colonial church properties from which they were forbidden to leave and visit relatives and friends; destroying their culture and subsistence by hunting and gathering; introducing diseases; and bringing in soldiers who frequently raped the native women; all in the name of the Spanish "king and lord" and for the sake of the Empire--this is loving them? This is "engendering them all in Christ?" This is not love. Nor is it justice. It is colonialism writ large. And with God and Jesus and Imperial Christianity legitimizing it.

Also, Serra himself was big on beating his body with whips and piercings. Maybe his masochism rendered his sadism less of an issue: "Love others as you love yourself" as someone said. But why endorse such a person's theology and spirituality at this time? Why, Why, Why canonize someone in 2015 who stands for such bad theology and bad intercultural values , utterly lacking the respect and humility that lie at the foundation of interfaith?

This canonization is a scandal. People should be flooding the Vatican with letters of objection. It is not Pope Francis at his best. It is not Christianity at its best; it conjures up the worst shadows (of which there are so many) in the history of the Imperial Church, a church many hoped we had left behind. With the teachings of Vatican II and the powerful teachings and witness of Archbishop Romero in the 1980s, surely we have come farther than this!

In fact, a Holy See delegation bore a stern message on indigenous rights to the U.N. just last October:

Fostering indigenous specificity and cultures does not necessarily mean going back to the past....Indeed, it entails the right of indigenous peoples to go forward, guided by their time-honored collective values, such as respect for human life and dignity, representative decision-making processes and preservation of community rituals.(5)

This disastrous decision puts wind in the sails of those who have learned nothing from the dark days of colonialism in the name of God and Empire, at a time when indigenous peoples around the world are facing the destruction of their lands and cultures at the hands of corporate and government militia. The system Serra set up was paternalism at its worst: it treated native peoples as helpless children, and reinforced an other-worldly religion.

One Franciscan historian comments on Serra and the epidemics that the Europeans introduced to the indigenous peoples: "Death might wreak havoc among his hard-won neophytes, but he found consolation in his sorrow, for he had prepared them for a future life which, his religious convictions assured him, was worth infinitely more than the life they were leaving and the pain of parting."(6) At a mission in Santa Clara there was a great epidemic in May 1777 but Serra's companion friar Palou writes of how "the fathers were able to perform a great many baptisms by simply going through the villages. In this way they succeeded in sending a great many children (who died almost as soon as they were baptized) to heaven." (7)

It seems that Serra and his companion friars never wavered in their compulsion to reduce Christianity to a promise of life-after-death. Too bad that they missed their Master's teaching of love and life fully lived here and now, the promise of the kingdom/queendom of God on earth. One critical commentator summarizes Serra's mission this way: "Clearly, if sainthood means self sacrificing devotion to harvesting pagan souls for the kingdom of god in heaven, then Junipero Serra deserves to become a saint." (8)

If not, one asks anew: WHY is the pope making so profound a mistake? Why create a patron saint for colonizers and racists in the year 2015? Why not instead take the occasion of his visit to the United States to do an about-face and canonize those thousands of native peoples who died at the hands of misguided, badly theologically trained, servants of the Empire?

Indeed, why not get on one's knees in humble confession and ask the Native Peoples for forgiveness?

If you share these feelings of grief and outrage at the upcoming canonization of Junipero Serra, let your voice be heard! Please sign this petition...and spread the word so others can do so also. Thank you.


1) Junipero Serra, letter to Francesch Serra, Cadiz, 20 August 1749, Antonine Tibesar, O.F.M., ed, Writings of Junipero Serra (Washington, DC: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955) vol. 1, p. 5.
2) Serra, letter to Fermin de Lasuen, Monterey, 12 January 1780, Ibid., vol 3, p. 424f.
3) Francis Florian Guest, O.F.M., "Cultural Perspectives on California Mission Life, " Southern California Quarterly, Historical Society of Southern California, Spring 1983, p. 31.
4) Serra, letter to governor Neve, Monterey, 7 January 1780, Writings of Juniperro Serra, vol. 3, pp. 413-15.
5) "Holy See to UN: No discrimination against indigenous peoples." Radio Vaticana.
6) Finbar Kenneally, O.F.M. and Mathias Kiemen, O.F.M., Introduction to Writings of Junipero Serra, op. cit., vol. 4, p. xvi.
7) Francisco Palou, Life of Junipero Serra, C. S. Williams, transl. (Pasadena: G. W. James, 1913), p. 213.
8) Daniel Fogel, Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology (San Francisco: ISM Press, 1988), p. 81. The author does an excellent job of presenting the facts and realities of the Serra story from primary sources and I am indebted to him for the citations presented in this article.