As mentioned in my column last week, one of the statues making the news that people have been choosing to topple has been St. Junipero Serra. Why? Well, some claim that Junipero Serra represents oppressive colonialism and harsh and cruel treatment of native peoples; that he represents the destruction of their native culture by forcing Christianity on the native people; and even claims of accusing Junipero Serra of enslavement and genocide. Those are quite the accusations! So let’s look at who was St. Junipero Serra, and how might we as Catholics think about this.
St. Junipero Serra was a Spanish Franciscan Missionary in the 1700s, who was in charge of much of the Mission work on the West Coast of the United States and Mexico (namely, what is now California); founding many missionary communities which eventually grew into now major cities in California. (That’s why California has so many cities that have Catholic Saint names: “San Francisco” (St. Francis); “Santa Barbara (St. Barbara); Los Angeles (“Our Lady of the Angels); “Santa Cruz” (Holy Cross); etc.) But, while some, such as Junipero Serra, came as a person of the Church, driven by Christ’s great commission to make disciples of all nations – to bring the saving message of Christ and His Gospel to these native peoples who have never heard it – others came from Europe to take control of land and resources for political or economic gain (which sometimes resulted in harsh or often cruel treatment of native people, even manipulating or enslaving them). And as some of the cruel conquerors were members of the Church, some people conflated the cruel treatment by Spanish generals with the Church or Christianity.
Not to mention that foreign diseases came with settlers which often infected the native people who had not yet built up an immunity to the diseases brought with them, adding to the perception of colonial settlers and everything that came with them (including Christianity) as being bad.
We don’t always appreciate the complexities of this world that many missionaries, such as Junipero Serra, had to navigate. And while Junipero Serra perhaps did not always navigate things perfectly and probable made mistakes, he DID advocate for the basic human rights of the native people. He often was at odds with Spanish military generals in their treatment of native peoples, and at times traveled hundreds of miles by foot to visit people of power so to advocate for the basic human rights of the native people!
But was he himself harsh with the native people? Serra saw himself as a spiritual father to the native people, and thus saw that at times he had to be a stern father who disciplined his spiritual children, even by means of corporal punishment. While that may sound harsh to us today, we have to remember that not so long ago, (and certainly in Serra’s time) corporal punishment was a very acceptable form of discipline for children. And he was just as harsh, if not harsher, with himself in the various physical disciplines and penances he would do as prayer on behalf of the people, sometimes flogging himself and beating himself with rocks. Again, while this seems strange to our modern sensibilities, the point is, he never inflicted any physical punishment that he would not (or had not), at some point inflicted upon himself.
And while he had native people labor to help in building missions and churches, Serra himself would work right along with the people carrying stones and wood.
In summary, it is overly simplistic to conflate St. Junipero Serra’s missionary work (and Christian mission work throughout history in general) with conquering and colonialism. It’s also overly simplistic to think that native cultures and religions were perfect in their living before Christianity came to them. And while perhaps he was at times a bit too harsh, he was not malicious or cruel, and never asked anything of anyone he was not willing to do or inflict upon himself.
So should we be tearing down his statues? There are people of various Native American groups who are calling for it. But before we jump too quickly to conclusions, perhaps we should consider asking the Native Americans who advocated for Junipero Serra to be declared a Saint, because they saw his bringing of the Gospel to their ancestors not as a great act of oppression but as a great act of love, mercy, and liberation, that this man was willing to give up so much to bring their ancestors the message of Christ!