What should disqualify someone from being a saint?
That might seem a funny question. How about sin? But over the course of the last month, people in California and elsewhere have been asking it a lot. In January, Pope Francis announced that in September he will canonize Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan priest whose network of missions formed the basis both for Christian evangelization and Spanish colonization of the region.
Pope Francis described Serra as “the evangelizer of the west of the United States,” and by all accounts Serra was a man of extraordinary zeal. Over 15 years he walked many hundreds of miles up and down the state to start the missions, though an ulcerated leg kept him in almost constant pain. He fought tirelessly for the work, disputing or even ignoring the orders of the Spanish governors if he thought he was right. (Like most saints, he usually did.)
But Serra was also a missionary of his time. The diary of his first trip north is rich with affection for Native peoples. But fundamentally he was not interested in Native cultures; he was not there to “go in their door” but to help them leave all that behind.
“To become a Christian was to become a European,” explains Robert Senkewicz, a professor of history at Santa Clara University and the author of the new book Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. Once baptized, Native peoples were forced to live on the mission property—building, farming and learning to live as Spaniards.
Few Native Americans understood going in that baptism was an “irrevocable commitment,” says Senkewicz. Many came to the missions not out of any religious motivation but because the livestock brought by the Spanish had destroyed the plants the tribes relied on for food. The missions were their only means of survival.
Today, “Rarely do you find a California Native person with a [Native] name like Eagle,” says Ron Andrade, a member of the La Jolla Tribe, who is executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission. Their names, like their cultures, were largely erased.
Even for modern Native people who support Serra’s canonization, like Andrew Galvan of the Ohlone Tribe, who is the curator of Mission Dolores in San Francisco, the current relationship between Native peoples and the church leaves much to be desired. “Most Native peoples have stories where we’ve been blocked out of the missions,” forced to pay to get into the missions their ancestors built and then not consulted on how their history is represented by mission curators.
To measure Serra’s actions by 21st-century standards would be unfair. And his motives were the best: that the people might know Jesus. Yet shouldn’t the facts to which Andrade, Senkewicz, Galvan and others point also give us pause? What does it say to canonize today someone whose life’s work ended up extinguishing whole communities (with the advent of European disease) and even cultures?
Perhaps the bigger question today is, what is canonization for? Is it meant to make a statement about a past life, a kind of Catholic gold star awarded posthumously? As Professor Senkewicz points out, being a saint clearly does not require a sinless life: “If that were the case, St. Peter wouldn’t be one.”
Philip Chmielewski, S.J., of Loyola Marymount University, who has spent most of his life working on issues of inculturation, wonders if the choice is not about the past, but the future. “Maybe making someone a saint is to pose a question to people from the time the canonization occurs. Maybe Serra is there to ask us, what kind of faith do we want to carry to others?”
Instead of a declaration, he suggests it could be “an invitation, even one to correct the question [that it’s asking].”
Along highways 101, 82 and 1, small replicas of mission bells hang from poles shaped like shepherd’s crooks, marking the 600 miles the Franciscans traveled to build and support Serra’s network of 21 missions. In the end, perhaps Serra’s canonization is meant to be for us like the ringing of those bells, a reminder, yes, but also important for the sorts of things it causes to resonate within.