I’m headed to Mission San Juan Capistrano today, to bear witness to an historic, if highly controversial, event. Pope Francis is officially declaring Father Junipera Serra a saint, and the canonization ceremony will be live-streamed in the Great Stone Church Ruins (pictured here).
I find sanctuary in these beautiful gardens, which is maybe hypocritical, given the gruesome events that once took place on the Mission grounds. True stories, oftentimes buried, in which Father Serra plays a key role.
At the heart of my own restlessness about today’s event is the mythology that surrounds Father Serra. The Catholic Church depicts him as a man of his time–a protector of Indians who displayed concern for the Juaneños’ physical and spiritual well-being. A father figure.
But descendants of those indigenous people suggest otherwise. They argue that Father Serra was, in fact, an anti-hero of sorts. These perspectives were whitewashed when I was a 4th grader, but the official California school curriculum now says: “The historical record of this era remains incomplete due to the relative absence of native testimony, but it is clear that while missionaries brought agriculture, the Spanish language and culture, and Christianity to the native population, American Indians suffered in many California missions.
“The death rate was extremely high. Contributing factors included the hardships of forced labor and, primarily, the introduction of diseases for which the native population did not have immunity. Moreover, the imposition of forced labor and highly structured living arrangements degraded individuals, constrained families, circumscribed native culture, and negatively impacted scores of communities.”
Given Pope Francis’s expressed desire to place a “New Evangelization” at the forefront of his papacy, I’m wondering how he’ll unite an otherwise friendly audience, who nevertheless view Father Serra’s canonization with no small degree of skepticism. Unambiguous anger, too, expressed on behalf of the indigenous peoples who suffered greatly during this period of colonialism.
In a written protest to the Vatican, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band chairman Lopez says: “The Catholic Church will someday realize that canonization of Serra has seriously damaged their right to claim moral authority on issue of poverty, social justice, and indigenous rights. The Church’s treatment of California Indians clearly sends the message that they believe that evangelizing is saintly behavior even if it means the destruction, domination and the stealing of land of indigenous people.”
Perhaps Pope Francis will begin with a confession. He might admit, on behalf of the Catholic Church, the atrocities Father Serra and his missionaries committed during the establishment of the California Missions. Maybe, too, he’ll issue a formal apology, similar to his plea for forgiveness of the church’s “many grave sins” against South America’s indigenous people. How else to bridge the gap between mythology and fact, and to enjoin members of the Church to lead by example?
I’m just one member of a vast audience, mind you, but I’ll report what I see and hear.
Update: I’m working on my follow-up entry & plan to post it soon. But my brother is very, very ill, so I trust you’ll understand & forgive the delay. –M